Exhibition honours curator

Christopher Peter in front of a portrait of himself by Terry Kurgan.

Christopher Peter, 65, will retire at the end of this year after a 40-year stint at UCT’s Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank.

In the late 1970s, Mr Peter was working at Stellenbosch Museum, after completing a diploma at Port Elizabeth Technikon in fine-art painting, when a friend told him about a job opening for a curator at Irma Stern Museum. Unhappy with his living conditions at the time, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I was living in this ice-cold cottage in Stellenbosch, which had no running hot water.”

Professor Neville Dubow, the then chair of Michaelis School of Fine Art, was the director of Irma Stern in 1979 when Mr Peter started there.

“Professor Dubow was a very well-informed man and also involved with setting up the museum,” Mr Peter said.

His new job presented its own set of challenges.

“It was a very lonely job as I worked with five elderly gentlemen who were museum guides. I had to be their boss and had to look after the property and check that the exhibits are correct.”

Over the years, his responsibilities expanded to include UCT’s art collection.

“The UCT artwork is displayed in numerous buildings on the campus, so my job got tricky being curator at the museum and then also governing and curating the UCT art collection.”

Apart from displaying the art of the late Irma Stern who died in 1966, the museum exhibits work by a wide range of artists. And exhibitions, explains Mr Peter, are the lifeblood of any art museum. “It is important to do this otherwise people stop coming.”

The museum started holding exhibitions in 1981 and the more than 100 that have followed since have captured a great 40-year-long “slice” of South African life. One of the earliest, Mr Peter recalls, was of photographs showing the destruction of District Six.

Professor Dubow retired in 1998 and Mr Peter became museum director in 2001. He has seen the museum grow from being a home to the art of Irma Stern to one embracing a wide offering of both commercial and academic art. But Irma Stern’s legacy is at the very heart of the museum.

The museum will honour Mr Peter with an exhibition, A Splendid Summer Send Off: 40 years and more than 40 artists, from Saturday November 2 until Saturday November 16. Call 021 650 7241 or visit www.irmasternmuseum.org.za for more information.