More Than a Museum

Words by Crystal Bruce

 

Sitting inside a small but colorful café in the SCAD Museum of Art, sits its Head Curator of Exhibits, Storm Janse van Rensburg.

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The South African native has worked in various environments internationally, ranging from the non-profit gallery world, arts activism, the commercial realm, independent work, and academia. Yet, he’s happy to sit, a cup of coffee in his hand, and talk about his current muse—the museum. 

“You see how the entrance is shaped?” Storm asks. “It’s shaped like a bell tower. The architects did that on purpose. They wanted it to reflect Savannah’s style.”

That sentence sets the tone for the tour. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art is a canvas that honors not only Savannah’s beauty and style, but also the history of the South.

The building is a national landmark with a long history dating back to before the Civil War. It was once the headquarters for the Central of Georgia Railway, but it fell into disarray. In true Savannah fashion, the building found a new life blending the old with the new.

Storm shares the architects’ and SCAD’s vision to maintain the history, while revitalizing and repurposing the building. Elements of the past are still on full display, including priceless artifacts, such as Savannah Grey brick.

“That’s handmade brick made by slaves in plantations around the city before the Civil War. It’s a huge part of history that would have been lost or swept away for new development,” Storm says, “but, due to the diligence of the architects and the vision shared by SCAD President Paula Wallace, it’s now a work of art in itself.”

The brick archways, once used for loading and unloading goods onto railcars, are now large glass window displays featuring works of art.

“In a recent exhibition, they featured elements that would have come off those railcars. Things like cotton, rice, and other valuable 18th-century items,” Storm says. “It’s almost like a continuous circle. When we invite an artist to do a specific work or new commission, we like to think about the history of the building, Savannah, and the South.”

A perfect example of blending art with history is an installation called “Unyukelo,” located in a narrow corridor inside the museum. Storm steps through the space, emphasizing how the artist, Nicholas Hlobo, utilizes the area to create beautiful brass sculptures that represent tumbleweeds, such as you’d see on the plains of the African savannah. The artist uses them as a metaphor for escape.

“Contemporary art is meant to evoke conversation. It’s bringing the issues of the world into a world of visual representation,” Storm explains.

“We are a teaching museum. A primary objective of ours is to talk to our students, merge creative minds, and prepare them for successful careers,” Storm says. “I truly think contemporary art is a reflection of our society, and that is important to have as a mirror.”

That connection between the museum and the students is one of the primary reasons Storm decided to become head curator.

“It is a privilege to see how our students, our primary target group, develop over time, and how their engagement deepens, not only in relation to their own practice, but also with the exhibitions and programming we present.”

Students attend classes on the second floor of the museum and work directly with the artists as apprentices. As you walk around the museum, future artists are on hand to help you. 

After they graduate, the connection isn’t lost. Alumni are often invited back to display their work.

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Storm steps into a room filled with sculptures that are a blend of recognizable objects melding together in a scene you might see in a shipwreck, full of items lost to time and recaptured by nature at the bottom of the sea. This exhibit, called “Liquid Vessels,” is a creation of SCAD Alumna Monica Cook, a 1996 graduate.

“We support new work by alumni for these exhibitions, and in many cases it would be their first museum exhibition,” Storm says. “This is also an opportunity for their work to be considered in dialogue with emerging and established artists, and to place their work in the context of international contemporary art.”

Merging talented alumni artists, such as Cook, with artists from all over the globe is a big source of pride for the museum.

New York City artist Azikiwe Mohammed creates pieces in a variety of forms: paintings, photography, installations, sculpture, and performance. His exhibition, New Davonhaime, is his first museum show. Azikiwe worked closely with Storm to map out his idea for the exhibit. It’s a collection of experiences, stories, unique items, and photographs that showcase life in the South.

“The name New Davonhaime is a combination of five American cities with a majority of African American population: Detroit, Savannah, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Jackson, Mississippi,” Storm points out. “He traveled throughout the United States by Greyhound bus and he documented his trips, his stories, his encounters with people,” Storm says before stopping in front of a large, bright display full of items such as dolls, photo albums, and other collectibles. It is a “thrift store,” he explains. These items once held meaning to someone, a testament to the hardships faced by many, in which their sole solution for survival is to sell beloved treasures.

These exhibits are intended to broaden minds. As Storm explains, “We consider ourselves part of an international conversation, but through lenses of our own place and history. We celebrate the art of our time as it offers a reflection and commentary on the complexity of our present.”

Which is why having a museum like the SCAD Museum of Art is a rare but invaluable presence in growing communities such as Savannah.

“It is important to not only bring contemporary art to the South,” Storm says, “but to also celebrate the South through contemporary art.”