Bibliomaniacs of SA, where art thou? More than likely at Wits

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Bibliomaniacs of SA, where art thou? More than likely at Wits

Joburg art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg opens the Centre for Book Arts at Wits Art Museum

Graham Wood


“They call me a bibliomaniac,” says Jack Ginsberg, who is well known as an art collector and philanthropist in SA art circles. “The polite term is bibliophile.”
Regardless of whether it was love or mania (or both) that drove him, over the course of almost 50 years, Ginsberg has collected about 3,500 artists’ books. Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books. Although his collection might not be the biggest in the world, it is significant.
“As soon as I became interested in artists’ books, I started picking up books about artists’ books,” he says. “I continued doing that while I was collecting artists’ books. When I started collecting, I could only find about 30 books published about artists’ books.” Now, the archive also numbers about 3,500 books, articles, catalogues, and the like.
The two collections are now housed in a dedicated centre upstairs at the Wits Art Museum. “This centre is unique in Africa and probably the southern hemisphere; and, as far as the archive is concerned, in the world,” Ginsberg says. “So we hope it will become a centre of excellence where people will come to study.”
Students, academics and members of the public (by appointment) will be able to visit the centre and access its resources. The centre plans to hold about four exhibitions a year, too.
THE COLLECTION
The collection covers everything from the “democratic multiples” of polemical student zines to rare and beautiful unique items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s even one in the shape of a real horse skeleton by SA artist Pippa Skotnes, with an entire book inscribed onto its bones and then fully reassembled.
In a cabinet in the reading room, there’s an artists’ book by Miro – an entire book made up of limited-edition prints – displayed along with an original woodblock used to print it. Next to it is a monograph, which happens to feature the work created with the woodblock on its cover.
There are books made of glass, metal, cork and wood. There are pop-up and pop-down books, miniature books, flag books, a 10m-long folding book, even digital books. About 400 of the works in the collection are by SA artists.
Why would Ginsberg give away something so rare, and which he has spent the better part of half a century lovingly assembling? “People who collect things are in a dilemma,” he says. Their collections tend to outlast them. “To keep the collection together is really important, because it is much more than the sum of its parts.”
By donating it to the Wits Art Museum and establishing the centre, Ginsberg has found a way to preserve it in perpetuity. “It’s a win-win situation,” he says.
• The Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts opening exhibition runs until July 6, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm.

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