The Head of South Africa’s New Contemporary Art Museum Resigns Amid Investigation Into ‘Professional Conduct’

When the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art opened in Cape Town last September, it was hailed as “Africa’s answer to the Tate Modern.” Now, its executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee has resigned from his post amid an investigation into his “professional conduct,” according to the institution’s trustees.

News of Coetzee’s departure was broken by South African contemporary visual arts publication ArtThrob, which cited “questionable institutional and curatorial practices” at the institution, as well as “unconfirmed rumors for some months that abuses of power were taking place, the nature of which are not known.”

In an email to artnet News, a museum representative confirmed that Coetzee was suspended from his duties on May 16. “An inquiry into Mr. Coetzee’s professional conduct has been initiated by the trustees—Mr. Coetzee has since tendered his resignation,” the spokesperson wrote.

The Zeitz Museum, the world’s largest dedicated to contemporary African art, was founded by German entrepreneur and former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz. Its founding collection, featuring work by artists including Nandipha Mntambo‚ Mohau Modisakeng‚ Athi-Patra Ruga‚ and Jody Paulsen‚ is on lifetime loan from the museum’s namesake.

Mark Coetzee. Photo courtesy of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

Mark Coetzee. Photo courtesy of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

The institution’s Thomas Heatherwick-designed building opened last year to largely positive reviews from critics—but also some controversy surrounding the museum’s link to local real estate corporations and concerns about its white leadership in the former land of Apartheid.

Back in 2015, ArtThrob’s Matthew Blackman published an open letter to the museum’s director and founder expressing concern about donations from the Scheryn Art Fund—a private collection of African art founded by two South Africa-based entrepreneurs—to the Zeitz endowment.

“The close relationship of some of the people managing this fund, with the ZMOCAA itself and Mr. Coetzee is setting up clear and disturbing opportunities for what in other industries might be seen as ‘front running’ or a form of ‘insider trading,’” Blackman wrote. “Having personally been in meetings with the Scheryn Fund and having acted on one occasion as an advisor to the Fund, I am extremely worried about the closeness of the relationship of the Fund to the ZMOCAA and Mr. Coetzee and what this will mean for the industry.”

In an email to artnet News, Brett Scott, collection manager of the Scheryn Art Collection, said: “We can categorically state that there is no alliance, nor has there ever been one, between Scheryn and Zeitz MOCAA.” Because Scheryn was one of the earliest donors to the museum in 2015, one of its performance spaces carries the Scheryn name. “However,” Scott wrote, “that is where relationship between Scheryn and Zeitz ends, we have no influence or say in the running of the museum and none of our directors sit on any of the museums boards.”

It is not clear whether the museum’s links to Scheryn influenced the inquiry into Coetzee’s professional conduct and his ultimate resignation.

Azu Nwagbogu. Photo courtesy of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

Azu Nwagbogu. Photo courtesy of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

Coetzee was tapped to lead the Zeitz Museum in 2013, after having worked as program director of PumaVision and chief curator of Puma.Creative. Before leading the athletic brand’s art initiatives, Coetzee had been director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and an adjunct curator of Palm Springs Art Museum.

Coetzee declined to answer specific inquiries about his conduct from ArtThrob, but told the publication in an email that its questions “seemed quite far removed from the reality of how the museum functions.” He did not respond to artnet News’s request for further comment.

Following Coetzee’s departure, Azu Nwagbogu, the curator-at-large for the museum’s Roger Ballen Foundation Centre for Photography, will serve as executive director and chief curator. A native of Lagos, Nigeria, where he is currently based, Nwagbogu also serves as director of the African Artists’ Foundation in Lagos; the director of the international photo festival LagosPhoto, which he founded in 2010; and director of the online art journal Art Base Africa.

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