Meet the curator: How to get from Vryheid to freedom
Storm Janse van Rensburg tells how he become curator at one of North America’s top art museums
Storm Janse van Rensburg, sitting long-legged in his signature dark suit, sipped on a gin and tonic and surveyed the crowd at a venue famous for drag shows. As a Southern belle lip-synched to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, Janse van Rensburg and I discussed his 9 to 5s since we first met at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2012, when he was manning the Goodman Gallery booth.
Since then, Janse van Rensburg has lived in Berlin, Germany, where he was a fellow at the Academy for Advanced African Studies. While in Berlin, he independently curated Abrie Fourie’s exhibition, which travelled from Berlin to Johannesburg, and then on to Savannah College of Art and Design (Scad) in Georgia, US. Storm joined the Scad Museum of Art in 2014 and fell in love with the historic town. He has since worked with leading international artists, sometimes on new commissions.
You grew up in KwaZulu-Natal. Now you’re head curator of exhibitions at Scad. How did you get here?
I grew up on a farm with a playful curiosity for the world, which was encouraged through road trips, ferocious reading and participation in the arts. But I have also done hard work, and there have been some incredible individuals who’ve supported and believed in me. A major shift was moving to Berlin in 2012. It forced me to start over, to learn a new language, and to re-orientate myself at age 40. I remain deeply committed to SA with a deep longing for its people. I did not emigrate when I left for the US, and remain on temporary visas. The “return”, however, is not immediate, but further in the future.
Tell us about your involvement with the Visual Arts Network of SA (Vansa)?
Vansa was established to support visual artists and their interests nationally by creating opportunities, and as a body to lobby the public and private sector. I am proud of my involvement with Vansa: it is going strong, and being run by an enthusiastic and committed group of young people.
How would you advise those looking to get into curating?
The art world is a small place, and networking is one of the most essential components of my work. It is about relationships and friendships and finding those people that share your interests intellectually. Intuition, diplomacy, and the willingness to collaborate are crucial. Putting on any exhibition involves a complex network of individuals and viewpoints that need to be navigated.
Part of what makes the art world appealing to some people is that it is unregulated. Curating, on the other hand, is very structured. Your thoughts?
The art market is unregulated, but our museum and institutional contexts are regulated and structured. You need to understand both sides to navigate the contemporary art world, as all aspects of it are intrinsically linked to the market.
How does your Scad partnership work with your fellow curators?
Humberto Moro and Ben Tollefson curate from a perspective that we have not had before. Our programme at the Scad Museum of Art is international, with strong links to Latin America, Asia, Europe and the African continent. We are a small curatorial team, each with our idiosyncratic perspectives, but with deep respect and appreciation for each other’s interests.
What secret spots have you found in Savannah?
The nature is incredible here in the low country, the barrier islands of Georgia and the Carolinas. Many of the marshes and islands are protected, and easily accessible by kayak or boats.
You have such a strong look. Do you think looking the part is important for curators?
A well-fitting suit is essential, and stick to pretty classic items: a dark suit, light shirts. I have been wearing the same frames for the last eight years, and it seems to have stuck.
How do curators decide on titles and content for exhibitions?
I prefer to keep them descriptive and simple. Often artists come up with their titles, and that is often linked to the content of the work.
How do you actively engage the need to be more inclusive?
The vision of the Scad Museum of Art has always pivoted around diversity. I think that as South Africans we had a head start on many debates currently been worked through in the US. I am incredibly aware of what an extraordinary, and historically significant time I started out as a curator, and the contexts and issues we as South Africans navigated and worked through in terms of art, and thinking through exhibition practices.