5 Minutes With Norval Foundation’s Elana Brundyn
Art meets nature meets knowledge at Cape Town's Norval Foundation. We talk to chief executive Elana Brundyn about the new institution's aims.
Officially launched in late April 2018, Norval Foundation in Cape Town’s Steenberg is a significant cultural centre dedicated to the exhibition of art in a spectacular natural setting.
To learn more about an institution that’s already got the world watching, we caught up with executive director Elana Brundyn, founder of Brundyn Gallery and an important member of the inaugural team that launched the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) in 2017.
You took up your role at Norval Foundation straight off the back of three and a half years at Zeitz MOCAA. How did the opportunity arise and what convinced you to take on the challenge?
Louis Norval, the founder and initial funder, approached me about it but to be honest, I wasn’t really interested at first. I was intrigued by the Norval family’s amazing modernist collection, but I’d just finished up at Zeitz MOCAA, and I was eager to take a break. Then Louis asked me to come and look at the site. When I entered the building, there was just something about the lay of the land, the sensitivity of the structure and the consideration of nature that struck me. I fell in love, and I thought, ‘This is so incredible, I have to do it.’
How would you describe the foundation’s key objectives?
The Norval family have long had this dream to make art more accessible to the general public, so that’s where the drive came from. It’s important to us that guests feel very welcome and involved. Every single person who comes here is a patron, not just a visitor. We’re also focusing quite intently on art and nature conservation awareness and education among young kids, and we’ve published a beautiful children’s book for this purpose.
There have been a number of significant cultural developments in South Africa in recent years. Did this climate impact the establishment of the foundation at all?
Louis Norval actually started with the initial plans many, many years ago. But that said, you start to see connections when you look back. Establishing a world-class art museum is obviously something people have wanted to do for this continent, and maybe they fed off one another without even knowing. I do think it’s significant that for over 100 years, since the Museum of Cairo was established in 1902, the continent hasn’t seen any new large institutions. Then, within seven months, we have both Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation. I think we’re developing momentum and establishing a critical mass that’s making the world look to Africa and take note.
What separates Norval Foundation from other major institutions, like Zeitz MOCAA?
Our unique exhibition strategy sets us apart. Norval Foundation doesn't have a permanent collection. Rather, we’ll be doing two major exhibitions and four to six focus shows every year, and this will constantly evolve. We’re also focusing on 20th-century and 21st-century art, and while the majority is from Africa, we’re looking beyond the continent too and showing international work that relates in one way or another to the local context. With our public programme, we’ll be engaging people with lectures, talks and other events, and there’s a very strong focus on music and live concerts. Then there are also all the different facets – the restaurant, the shop, the library.
Speaking of, could you tell us a bit more about the institution’s impressive range of facilities?
We’ve got nine world-class galleries, all purpose-built with the function of exhibiting art in mind, and a 10m-high atrium, where we’ll host a special commission once a year. There’s also The Skotnes Restaurant and Bar, a gift shop where we sell artist- and foundation-related products, and a research library. Then outside, you’ll find a four-hectare sculpture garden, an amphitheatre for concerts that can seat between 220 and 250 people, and a children’s playground.
What was the thinking behind combining these various facets into one destination?
We benchmarked the foundation against successful art institutions all over the world – such as the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland – and we noted that all of them are proper destinations with a combination of offerings. We also wanted to create the kind of place that people will keep coming back to because there’s so much to do – alongside looking at art, they can also take a walk through the garden, have a picnic, browse the shop or enjoy a lovely meal at the restaurant.
When establishing a major institution like this, meant to house and protect significant artworks, what has to be considered from a design and architectural point of view?
The brief to the architects was to create a world-class museum with advanced facilities on the level of those at major international institutions. That means A-grade climate control, sturdy walls, state-of-the-art lighting, and data cables for video, for example. The architect on the project was also very sensitive to the fact that the foundation is a platform for art first and foremost, so that had to remain the focus. That was the thinking behind the straightforward structure and simple lines. And then it was also important to us that the building should have as light a footprint on the environment as possible – that’s why the roof is lined with solar panels.
Which artworks in the opening exhibitions are your favourites?
It’s so hard to say – it’s like choosing between my children! I’m crazy about the work of Serge Alain Nitegeka, who’s built up a huge immersive installation in the atrium. Edoardo Villa’s ‘Africa’ sculpture from 1958 is just exquisite, and Wim Botha has installed a beautiful sculpture in the garden. All of them are amazing – every single artwork that’s come through our doors.
Admission to the foundation costs R140 per person, except on Mondays, when entrance is free (other than on public holidays). An annual membership is priced at R200. For more information visit norvalfoundation.org.