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Fortune favours the museums which attract the young

Friday April 22 2016

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Kenya’s art, culture and heritage sector is hard to define. Is it predominantly government funded and controlled, or is it privately run and grown?

Heritage, for reasons that were best articulated during the French Revolution, is government based.

During the French Revolution, treasures were confiscated from royalty and the church and used to create the Louvre.

The thinking was that they were too precious to remain in private hands, and a museum would put them on neutral ground where they could be enjoyed by "all".

In Kenya many of our national treasures, excluding art, are natural sites and monuments of public interest and ownership, which are publicly accessible.

Private museums will remain mostly a pipe dream in Africa, for two main reasons: the intellectual discourse many people are willing or able to make, and the financial investment to pay for museum services from the broad range of professionals who provide them.


The millions we are told go missing from public coffers this year are obviously not diverted to this purpose.

Art galleries are a completely different story. Whereas the National Museums of Kenya has always had a gallery of contemporary art that showcases local art talent, the majority of art in Kenya has always been in private hands and artist-led development centres.

In the West, art held in private hands continues to be a socio-cultural force to reckon with. Many countries also have national art collections housed in museums and public galleries.

The Tate Modern in Britain is one of the most prestigious national art collections ever developed, while the Netherlands Rijks Museum is considered to be the national art gallery of the Netherlands.

Individuals in Kenya have made great contributions to art, including Elimo Njau Njau of the Paa Ya Paa Art Centre, and Gallery Watatu, in which art giants like Jack Katarikawe thrived.

However, Kenya does not have a national art collection in spite of several attempts to create one, and it might be time to redouble our efforts.


I recently had an opportunity to visit the most talked-about and recently-installed art museum in Los Angeles, The Broad. Built by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, this art museum opened her doors to the public in September 2015.

The museum claims to hold one of the most prominent collections of post-war and contemporary art worldwide, and there are many delightful things about it.

The highly creative architecture is part of its charm. They call it 'the Veil and the Vault', which represent gallery space and the collection inside, in this case made up entirely of art pieces.

The museum holds over 2,000 artworks, mostly collected by the Broads over a span of five decades, and is said to add one artwork a week to its growing collection. Lending artworks to other museums and art galleries is a large part of this museum’s public programme.

From the staircase, visitors can look into the collection rooms; how cool is that? I fall short as an art critic, especially of contemporary art, but I still formed an opinion on the art work in this impressive museum.

First, the exhibition is extensive, ultra-modern and appealing to young people, which in life, is a great measure of success. If your product appeals to the youth you are already in the future.

Apparently, about 300,000 people walk through the doors of the Broad any given week. That is an extremely successful museum in one of the basic measures of success, footprint.


The exhibition however lacks a certain intellectual and seclusion appeal, an aura that haunts and pervades traditional art museums. Actually, the artworks remind me of our very own Kenyan artist, the late Antonio Trzebinski.

What I remember most of his art is that it had dead animals on it. Extremely contemporary, gory and misunderstood by those of us who lack the flair for art.

Many other artworks also are in the genre of Kenyans like Michael Soi, of unfolding social issues as they occur through the eyes of artists, which have the capacity to look, well, continuously stare at, things that would shy the rest of us.

There was, however, a number of outstanding abstract pieces with general appeal besides the numerous selfies the visitors obviously take.

In the traditional museum setting where audiences vary from explorers and experience-seekers to rechargers, it is hard to imagine how young people can enjoy such buzz.

A critical look at them however, shows the future of art and art museums.

Ms Thangwa works in the heritage sector, specialising in culture and enterprise. Twitter: @muthonithangwa