Supervisor Profile: Andrea Lewis
Where did you go to college?
I started off my studies at the Courtould University in London where I did my BA in art history and then I did my masters at the Courtould Institute of Art.
Why did you want to go study art history?
When I was in school some of my favorite subjects were history and literature. I just love history. I like looking back and art history seemed like a visual way of bringing together so many different things. It’s anthropology, it’s literature, it’s history, it’s theory and it’s kind of like it can make up stories as well. And also I have a very visual way of relating to the world around me so it was just a natural progression.
Did you always want to work in museums?
No, it was actually quite an unexpected journey. I never set out to actually work in museums and such. I chose art history out of love in the beginning and then I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that degree because it is so specialized. So after I was done with school I came back to South Africa to get a bit of a break from living in London. It was then that I got a job at the Jewish Museum and they were doing quite a bit of art exhibitions at that time. So I got involved with the exhibitions and museums and that’s when I started to become interested in museology and the museum environment, everything behind the scenes. It was from there that I came across a couple of colleagues here (South Africa National Gallery) who were working on an exhibition, borrowing collections from the Jewish Museum and they told me about a junior position here (SANG) so I applied for it and the next thing you know I’m working at the gallery. So overall the museum practices and the museum knowledge came with the job as opposed to actually studying it at a university.
What would you say are the biggest challenges of working in a museum?
I think one of the biggest challenges is trying to keep up with technology. I think the world has changed so much. People don’t want to go into such a sterile environment, they like dynamic environments, they like to have a choice. Everything has become so productive with phones and Facebook, acquiring knowledge quickly. So I think museums really have to compete with that. I know museums can come up with strategies to make their exhibitions more dynamic and interactive but competition with real time can be quite a challenge. I also feel that museums are regarded as old fashion and not very stimulating. In South Africa I think the biggest problem is that very few people actually go to museums, which is definitely not the case in other places like Europe and America. There it seems like going to museums on the weekends or in your free time is something that you are supposed to do but here in South Africa we are an exception to that rule. So getting an audience is definitely our biggest challenge. And unfortunately we charge an entrance fee which means that a majority of the population can’t afford to come to the museum and that causes a big problem. It really should be free! We have such educational potential. We could have families coming in to learn about art, to learn about natural history and such but the charging of a fee just stops so many people from coming here. The other challenge is the budget. It’s very underfunded and I know that’s a challenge for museums worldwide but here specifically it is incredibly underfunded. We don’t even have a budget to acquire works anymore and that’s supposed to be the mandate for our collections. So for the time being we just cannot acquire new works. It also seems that a lot of the big corporations are interested in other things. They are not interested in arts and culture so it is quite difficult to have partnerships the way other museums are able to do so overseas. So overall the main challenges with museums in South Africa is gaining an audience, making it accessible and the funding.
What do you think would be the best way to start fixing those problems?
Well it would be great to just get some more support from our government so that we would no longer have to charge an entrance fee. Then we could also have more exhibitions and expand our collections that would appeal to a diverse number of people. We just need lots and lots of support because at the moment we are very understaffed as well. And also I think in this institute it is particularly difficult because the gallery is part of the Iziko Museums, so we don’t get specific attention. The money that we do get is dispersed throughout all the different museums. So when we need help with fund raising and marketing and such there is already such a bottleneck. So I think becoming a bit more independent would make a big difference in getting more funding and expanding our staff.
What would you consider the greatest successes in your career thus far?
I think it would definitely have to be exhibitions, you know when it finally all comes together. Because you sometimes with the deadlines and working with different teams with all the preparations it can feel like it’s just never going to happen. But then you have these exhibitions when everything finally comes together and your there on opening night. Finishing a great exhibition is definitely the most rewarding part of the job.
What goals do you have for your career?
Well first I need to finish organizing the collections because I think people forget that the collections is the whole point and to have everything well organized and documented makes for a good museum environment. And also by doing that we will be able to have more exhibitions, which is something I definitely want to do.
What is some advice you would give to someone looking to work in a museum?
I think you have to be very passionate with what you’re doing because you have to keep in mind that the collections and the research and the knowledge are the whole point with museums. I’m not sure what it is like overseas, but here I think people can get very caught up in the administration and the usual daily grind of the job so they forget sometimes that the collection is there, which is unfortunate because it’s the reason we’re here. So just always try to remember what you love so much about the collections.
What did I learn from this assignment:
After talking to Andrea I realized that a lot of the challenges she is facing at the National Gallery are very similar to what I have learned about and experienced in the United States, however it is much more dramatic here. She expressed to me some great ideas about how to make the gallery more tech-savvy, including some techniques we already use in the states. Unfortunately though, the audience here that actually cares about art and culture is significantly smaller than in other parts of the world making it even more difficult to get funding and donations to make her ideas become a reality. I really do agree with her that the most important thing is to create a broader audience and that the best way to do that would be through free admission, but with the budget issues they have it’s necessary for them to keep charging people. It’s a very unfair balancing act that they are forced to struggle with. Aside from all the negatives that come with the job, Andrea is an incredibly smart and interesting woman with a lot of great ideas and I really do think I’m going to learn so much from her.