Wits Art Museum
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History

The Collection

Wits Art Museum is a leading university art museum, in Johannesburg, dedicated to African art. The collection includes over 13 000 African artworks and the museum has an active exhibition and education programme. WAM’s collection grew out of a small departmental teaching collection initiated in the early 1950s by Professor Heather Martienssen, Professor of Fine Arts and History of Art and Professor John Fassler, both of the Architecture Department, at Wits. In the late 1960s Norman Herber donated substantial funds for the acquisition of artworks, enabling the historical and contemporary collections to grow substantially.

In 1978, the first classical African artworks were donated by Vittorio Meneghelli and the collection of African art was founded. A momentous partnership between the Standard Bank and the Gallery was also established and the following year, the Standard Bank African Art Collection was initiated. Also in 1979, a large collection of over 100 works was donated by John Schlesinger.

Other substantial additions to the collections include the Wits Museum of Ethnology Collection (2001), the Neil Goedhals Archive (1993), the Robert Hodgins Print Archive (2007), the Sekoto Collection (2010), the Walter Battiss (2017) and Judith Mason (2017) archives.

The Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts houses over 3 000 artist’s books, 400 of which are South African. The Centre also contains a unique archive of 3 000 additional items on the history and development of the book art genre plus an extensive library of monographs on South African art.

The Building

WAM conforms to internationally accepted museum standards for storage and climate control. The collections are housed in extensive state of the art storage systems.

The site was selected because of its prominent position in Braamfontein near the Nelson Mandela bridge, its accessibility from the city and its location within the University’s Cultural Precinct.

A national competition was held to solicit proposals. Architects Nina Cohen, Fiona Garson and William Martinson were awarded the project, however the latter relocated shortly thereafter and so was not part of the implementation team for the project. The architects were awarded the 2012 Visi Magazine Architecture Award for their work on WAM. They also received recognition for their achievement in the Italian architectural magazine Domus.

The Museum knits together parts of 3 buildings on the corner of Bertha and Jorissen Streets in Braamfontein: Lawson’s Building where Lawson’s Motors was previously located; University Corner; and Dental House.

The Gertrude Posel Core Gallery at WAM is named in perpetuation of the memory of her contribution to the establishment of the Gallery in the 1970s.

The collection was originally housed in the Department of Art and Architecture at Wits. In the early 1970s, a space was allocated to the collection in the basement of the newly built Wartenweiler Library and, in 1977, the Gertrude Posel Gallery was established in Senate House (now Solomon Mahlangu House). The Gallery was named in recognition of Posel’s contribution to the establishment of the Gallery. 

The Mission

WAM’s mission is to

  • Collect, preserve, exhibit and educate about African art
  • Stimulate and facilitate compelling encounters and engagement by academics, students and the broader community with WAM and its collections
  • To be an advocate for the value of the arts in society through the museum’s example

Thereby amplifying the value of this unique African art treasure and resource.

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