The Johannesburg Art Gallery was first commissioned to be built in 1910, and was initially housed on the campus of Witwatersrand. The gallery was overlooked by blocks of flats on three sides. To the east was one of the main thoroughfares to the wealthy northern suburbs of the city; to the south was a deep railway cutting, abutting another open space (formerly known as the Union Grounds), and was called the Central Business District. 

The Johannesburg Art Gallery was constructed in 1911 as a request by Lady Philips, the wife of a diamond and gold magnate who had made a fortune in the mining camps of Kimberly and the Witwatersrand. She was of English-speaking South African descent and her husband, like many others among the ‘Randlords’, was a Jewish Londoner who had originally come to South Africa to work as a clerk in the diamond fields.  

Architecture and Design

The building was designed with a South-facing entrance, not in accordance with Edward Lutyens’ specifications. This meant that there was no part of the museum which let in natural light. In 1915, without a ceremony, it opened to the public Joubert Park, Johannesburg’s city centre. Further extensions made to the gallery began in 1940 when East-West wings were added along to the South galleries in accordance with Luytens’ design. Other extensions such as the North façade and galleries were built during1986-1987. 

In 1986 an extension more than doubled the size of the gallery. Built to a plan intended to acknowledge, but not imitate, the original structure, the extension makes room for two open-air sculpture courts by creating two floors which rise no higher than the single floor of the Lutyens building, although an unforeseen result of this is that the copper-sheathed, barrel-like vaults above the entrance to the extension's lower floor have proved themselves vulnerable to theft, and the copper sheets have been prised off for sale to scrap-metal merchants.

The most substantial part of the 'new' space is given over to the permanent collection of South African art - to which, well before Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president. This building consists of 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens. It also houses various collections, among them being the 17th century Dutch paintings, 18th  and 19th century British and European art, 19th century South African works. The collection also consists of a large 20th contemporary collection of local and international art and print works.  With the largest art collection in Africa, the Johannesburg Art Gallery's 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens display only about 10% of its entire collection at any one time. The gallery is funded by a trust, as well as through generous sponsorship from both Anglo-American and the City of Johannesburg.

Major exhibitions

The first major exhibition at the JAG was called Art and Ambiguity, hosted from December 1991 to March 1992. This was the first exhibition internationally showcasing the traditional art of the southern Africa sub-continent. The majority of the works were from the Brenthurst Collection, as well as from the Jacques Collections. Works from other collections included loans from the Standard Bank Foundation Collection of African Art at Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg; the Junod Collection at the Univerisity of South Africa in Pretoria; and works from the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg.  In the Sunday Times (8 December 1991) Barry Ronge reviewed the exhibition, writing that the exhibition was “an examination of a tradition of South African art that was pillaged, removed, negated and marginalised… Now it is like people of South Africa, it is being gathered back from exile…offering a sense of identity and tradition that has been missing for decades.”

In August 1996, two separate but linked exhibitions, entitled 'Secular' and 'Spiritual' opened at JAG.  The exhibitions included 'Objects of Meditation' and 'Views from Within,' both curated by Nessa Leibhammer. A resource book accompanied these exhibitions and provided explanations not only about the exhibitions, but also about the way that traditional African art is curated and displayed in Western institutions.  In addition to conventional art, the Johannesburg Art Gallery features many traditional African pieces, such as jewellery in the form of necklaces and bracelets made of beads. It also features works in rock, wood, tyre, wire, cement, clay and ceramic as well as bronze and metal. The gallery's collection also includes some of the most highly valued antiques and lacework in the country.

In 1998, Liebhammer and Nel Erasmus curated another traditional southern African art exhibition called Evocations of a Child. This exhibition was considered to be the grounding-breaking feature at JAG, and challenged the boundaries of Art and Ambiguity. Child figures, more commonly known as fertility figures or ‘dolls’, was one of the main features of the exhibition. Liebhammer and Nel brought together a representative sample of these small, anthromorphic objects, including 13 important pieces from JAG. From 1998 to 1999 the exhibition travelled to many major South African art galleries.

In 2007, Liebhammer curated another major exhibition called 'Dungamanzi/Sitting Waters: Tsonga and Shangaan Art from Southern Africa'. The exhibition consisted of carved pieces from the Brenthurst and Horstmann collections. Other loaned bead pieces from Knight, Nel, the Wits Art Museum and private collector, Peter Rich, were also displayed. Furthermore, this exhibition investigated complex issues around identity and identity constructions in both its publication as well as its two video interviews.

In JAG’s centenary publication (2010), Carman writes that “apart from these major shows, objects from the collections have been part of other in-house exhibitions”. These exhibitions are namely 'Images of Wood' (1989), 'A decade of Collecting': The Anglo American Johannesburg Centenary Trust 1986-1996, 1997, (JAG 1997), Present Continuous (May 2005), and a small educational exhibition that opened in November 2005. International loans from the collection include artworks on loan to Africa such as 'The Art of a Continent' from the Royal Academy of London in 1995, and a small exhibition curated by Nel and Gwinsta entitled 'Glimpses from the South,' which accompanied a show of contemporary South African Art at the Museum of African Art in New York in 2001. The traditional collections continue to be displayed in the gallery. 

Highlights of the South African collection include the works of Gerard Sekoto, Alexis Preller, Maud Sumner, Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae.

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Sir Hugh Lane, Director 1914-1915 [Online]. Available at:|


The Johannesburg Art Gallery.  [Online]. Available at:|


Carman, J. (ed.). 2010. 1910-2010: One Hundred Years of Collecting: The Johannesburg art gallery. Johannesburg: DESIGN>MAGAZINE.

Further Reading