Sunday Times

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

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