Exacting head of fine arts at Wits
ALAN Crump, who has died at the age of 60, became one of the youngest professors and heads of department at Wits University when he was appointed to the top fine arts post at the age of just 30.
He had all the arrogance of a young man who knew he was right, and an ego to match.
Blessed with a brilliant eye for what was good and what was pretentious rubbish, Crump was capable of bullying students and staff whose work did not meet his exacting standards.
Watching him take apart a student of whose work and/or attitude he disapproved was like being at a crime scene. For youngsters just out of school, it was a terrifying experience, made perhaps even more alarming by the red leather bell-bottom trousers he wore in the early days. The experience either broke students or gave them a hard edge that made them good artists.
Crump was only interested in genuine talent. Those he decided were without talent would often be left shaken and in tears.
Those who were in his department because they believed that art was a soft option — the majority, as far as he was concerned — quickly learnt that they had made a bad mistake.
But, for all his nastiness, the fact is that, when Crump arrived, the Wits art school had no reputation to speak of. If you were serious about art, you went to Michaelis at the University of Cape Town, where, indeed, Crump himself had been, both as a student and lecturer, before studying in the US and then lecturing in art history at the University of South Africa.
By the time he left, Wits was regarded as the best nursery of artistic talent in the country.
Work by his students dominated the Grahamstown Arts Festival — and not only because he chaired it for 10 years, from 1989 to 1999.
One of the ways Crump turned what had been a moribund, posturing and over-academic department into the real thing was by hiring the very best talent available — people like Robert Hodgins, Peter Schütz and Penny Siopis.
He believed that teachers of art should themselves be recognised, practising and exhibiting artists.
He himself was a brilliant water-colourist, with work in a number of corporate and private collections.
Wanting the best and winning the best are different things; every art school wanted the best, but Crump was able to attract the top talent because he had turned the department into a place where serious artists wanted to teach.
Crump’s ruthless attitude made him feared and hated by staff and students. The unsurprising consequence of his behaviour was that in the early ’90s there was a staff revolt and he was deposed.
His overthrow was temporary, but had the desired effect. When he returned, he was a changed man. Gone was the arrogance and aggression. His lacerating tongue was sheathed and he was approachable.
But what did not change was his unerring eye for quality and his insistence on quality.
As well as producing the best art school in the country, Crump, through his work with the Grahamstown Arts Festival and Cape Town Triennale, promoted local art with a single-minded aggression and belief in its quality perhaps never seen in South Africa before.
One of the more famous artists he championed was the then little-known William Kentridge.
Crump, who was born in Durban on April 28 1949, had been ill for some time with prostate cancer.
He is survived by his wife, Caroline. — Chris Barron