Creating space for art

2013-09-16 00:00

“‘I’LL give you six months’, someone said to me at our opening exhibition,” recalls Karen Bradtke, director of the gallery artSPACE durban. That was on a September evening 10 years ago. Today artSpace is a well-established fixture of the Durban art scene.

Established but definitely not establishment. Situated in Millar Road, just off the busy jangle of Umgeni Road, artSPACE has an exciting, slightly edgy feel; the sort of inner city gallery you might stumble across in, say, London, Rome or Buenos Aires. Perhaps the global tone comes courtesy of artSPACE being owned and run by a multi-national pair: Karen’s U.S. mid-West twang duets with the clipped German accent of her husband, Claus.

The couple came to South Africa 17 years ago and after doing duty as a “Musgrave mother” Karen morphed into a mature student at the Durban University of Technology obtaining a B.Tech. degree in Fine Art, majoring in sculpture. “I then looked to start working as an artist,” she says. “A lecturer advised me to first go local and then global.”

The Bradtkes’ home in Windermere Road proved impractical. “We wanted to cut wood and steel and this was a residential area.”

So Karen began looking for studio and exhibition space. “One day I was shopping in the Waste Centre in Umgeni Road and I saw a ‘for sale’ sign on what had been a surfboard factory that had closed due to a fire four years previously.”

The Bradtkes sold the house in Windermere Road and bought the three-storey building. “We rented out the lower floor, took the middle one for a gallery and the top for studios,” says Karen. “Suddenly I found myself running a business — I had never run a business before — I learnt by doing.”

Karen’s husband Claus, a grain trader, set up a temporary office “and he has never left”, though Karen’s use of “we” indicates Claus also plays quite an active role in the running of the gallery.

The Bradtkes’ German links led to an artSPACE berlin starting up in 2007. “We wanted to take South African artists, primarily KZN artists, and promote them in Germany,” says Karen.

She moved between Berlin and Durban for three years. She acknowledges it was tiring, but at the time of the Soccer World Cup in 2010 total exhaustion saw her seek medical advice. She was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Though she continued working, the treatment took its toll. “At times I was so weak I couldn’t hold my Blackberry.”

Karen has since had a bone marrow transplant with her sister as donor, and is currently in remission. “It will be another two years before I can say it’s cured. It can always come back.”

Ten years on, Karen is proud that artSPACE has remained loyal to its original vision. “Our vision from the get-go was to provide a venue for artists — emerging as well as established artists — to exhibit their work. We saw artists, customers, and visitors, as all being part of it. It was a team thing.

“I’m a director not a curator,” says Karen. “I like the artist to take their vision a step further into the gallery space. It’s a good learning experience and part of the experience of being an artist.”

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