The Interview – Mark Read: We are the blue chip

2013-09-15 14:01

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The Everard Read Gallery marks it centenary this year. Percy Mabandu speaks to the Joburg Art house’s owner, Mark Read about this milestone and his work with WWF.

Awalk through the Everard Read gallery’s main passage is like a march through a pantheon of sorts.

As you proceed through the narrow lane that cuts from the gallery’s western entrance through to the eastern edge, where the offices are located, you find yourself watched by a colourful sea of faces.

These are part of the portraits and other art forms by the many creatives represented in the gallery’s collection of painters and sculptors.

Their names stretch from young masters such as Lionel Smit, Stephen Conroy and George Pemba to Cecil Skotnes.

These artists have now been clubbed together in an art auction and exhibition fundraiser for the WWF.

It’s the reason I’ve come to chat with Mark Read, the director and owner of the gallery. Plus, there’s a milestone to discuss.

The gallery is celebrating 100 years of existence.

Naturally, there’s a scurry of activity, with artworks being hung in preparation for the big event.

Read emerges from the hurly-burly to meet me and lead the way into his office.

As soon as he slumps into one of the three French armchairs, we are offered refreshments by one of his aides.

The 56-year-old art dealer complains of a terrible hangover. So it’s coke on the rocks in a beer glass for Mark.

He wears a pair of blue denim trousers with a blue-striped white shirt and charcoal blazer, which jumps off the olive-green leather-lined chair.

He tells me he just returned from Kenya where he is involved with the Turkana Basin Institute.

It’s an organisation that researches early human development along the Lake Turkana Basin.

This revelation explains how a man known mainly for his art salesmanship can be so involved with the WWF.

Apparently Read has a long-standing interest in natural heritage too. He was chairman of the WWF in South Africa for 10 years.

He left the post in 2011. He was replaced by Valli Moosa, the former minister of environmental affairs and tourism.

Sitting with a slight sprawl and crossed legs, and visibly self-aware, Read says he took over the directorship of the gallery around 1988 from his father, Everard, having joined the family business around 1978. Hence this year marks his 35th year of involvement with the family business.

In the past 20 years, he has transformed the gallery from what it was during his father’s reign. Everard Read ran it from around the end of World War 2 in the 1940s. He had taken it over from his father, Fredrick, who steered it from 1914 and had taken it over from his brother Albert, the original head who launched the gallery in 1913.

Gazing into the middle distance, Read remembers: “I realised around the time when Madiba was released from jail that if I was a young South African, I wouldn’t come to my gallery.”

He says this is because, in

the beginning, Everard Read

was very much a gallery that reflected the tastes of the major corporate entities in South Africa at the time. It featured old masters of realism, mostly collected by organs like Anglo American and Sanlam.

In the 1960s, galleries started to show works by European, Australian and American artists, but many of the collectors who came into the country were looking for works they could take with them in case they left. This predicated a need to be relevant. It is something that came with a decision to focus more on some of the up-and-coming local artists. It has proven to be a successful move.

As the world’s interest in South African art grew, so did business. “We export most of our products. About 60% of our clients are offshore. We are a significant-size gallery, so that’s a lot of art,” he says.

As an institution, the Everard Read gallery has also been the crucible for training high-flying art entrepreneurs. A few notable gallerists who have since become part of the mainstay of the South African art scene cut their teeth at Everard Read.

Monna Mokoena, the proprietor of Gallery Momo, and Jacques Michau of In Toto Gallery, for example, matured their art-dealing careers while working at Mark Read’s gallery.

This is part of the confidence that informs how Read speaks of the establishment.

“Yes, we are the blue chip,” he declares. “I don’t think we are as edgy as Gallery Momo, the Goodman or the Stevenson. We are probably more about paint and bronze than conceptual work,” he says.

Read argues that though he gets criticised often for the gallery’s curatorial approach or what he calls “the unrelenting optimism that pervades the gallery?.?.?.?you don’t see too many pictures of decrepit, awful views of South Africa”.

He acknowledges there are other galleries that are much more incisive intellectually. However, he says: “My particular space is about celebrating our country.”

His blue chip edge is celebrated by Circa on Jellicoe, the adjacent exhibition space that has since become a prominent landmark in Joburg. It has won numerous architectural awards internationally.

“We have some of the best artists in our country showing here and I’m proud of it,” says the man who once told a journalist he was passionate about plants, women and art.

He may be taking after his father, who famously collected light-yellow clivias, a flower species still grown in the gallery’s atrium.

His daughter, Frances, who is studying zoology and works as a fundraiser at the WWF, might not be falling too far from the tree.

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