Denis Farrell, AP Photo
JOHANNESBURG — Johannesburg dates its beginnings to the discovery of gold in 1886. Its downtown, where skyscrapers tower over deep mines, was abandoned by business in recent decades, and squatters turned the office towers into high-rise slums. But now, as the city celebrates its 125th birthday, creative South Africans are seeing gold in warehouses and cheap office space, and they're revitalizing neighborhoods with galleries, museums, shops, studios, clubs and restaurants.
When Fiona Rankin-Smith was making plans to renovate an office building to house a major new museum, she thought she'd be building a lonely outpost for art in gritty central Johannesburg. But nine years and 38 million rand (about $4.7 million) later, as she prepared to move nearly 10,000 African paintings, sculpture and other pieces out of storage and into the sleek new Wits Art Museum, she finds South Africa's economic hub is returning to its roots.
"There's this whole groundswell," said Rankin-Smith, the Wits' curator, as she surveyed the lively street scene on downtown's west side from her building's glass walls.
When the museum opens early next year in the Braamfontein neighborhood, its neighbors will include private galleries drawn to the area in part by plans for the Wits, which is owned by Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.
One side of the glass and concrete museum features brickwork that resembles basketweave. Brass knobs dot another facade covered in blue tiles from the 1970s-era building's original exterior, a pattern inspired by Zulu beadwork from the museum that incorporated British brass buttons.
Like much of downtown Johannesburg, Rankin-Smith says the museum is inspired by its past, and optimistic about the future. "There's these subtle references that refer back all the time," Rankin-Smith said.
Johannesburg's nickname is Egoli or "city of gold," and antiquarian book dealer Jonathan Klass says downtown draws its resilience from the energy that made it a mining capital and from "'its ability to change."
"People are accepting the change and trying to create the change and go with it," he said, "rather than trying to live in the past."
Collectors Treasury, the shop started by Klass, his brother Geoff and their late mother, has had homes in several buildings in and around central Johannesburg since 1974. The brothers have seen other attempts to revive downtown, and praise the latest because it is bringing back residents as well as business. An area that was a business district for whites under apartheid now is home to a vibrant multinational, multiracial community, including Africans from elsewhere on the continent.
Collectors Treasury's home since 1991 is a hoarder's paradise, eight stories of books and other antiques in the former headquarters of a company that imported printing presses. It's located at the gateway of an eastern downtown neighborhood developers call Maboneng Precinct. Maboneng means "place of light" in Sotho, one of South Africa's 11 official languages.
Renowned South African artist William Kentridge, whose grandfather once had law offices in downtown Johannesburg, has moved into a studio in a complex of Maboneng warehouses that now houses hip shops and apartments. The neighborhood has an art house cinema.
New York-born musician Joao Orecchia organized a series of concerts in Maboneng over the last year in not-quite renovated buildings. Audiences climbing six stories to a rooftop for one concert could see the rubble of what had been the elevator from the staircase wrapped around the shaft. Once on the roof, they were captivated by the view, Orecchia said. And while the site was forbidding then, the building will soon be renovated into homes and studios for musicians and artists, he said.
Artists "aren't afraid to come and find a space and do something," Orecchia said. "As an artist, you almost have an obligation to contribute to that picture of what Johannesburg is."
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