The art of fairs and friendships




Arena Holdings PTY

News | Society

● One person is about all I can handle over lunch for this column — but I have made an exception for Roberta Coci and Lucy MacGarry, the marvellous power duo behind the RMB Latitudes Art Fair opening on Wednesday in Johannesburg and running till next Sunday. Besides, how to separate them? These two have been joined at the hip since they met on the first day of high school. Roberta saw Lucy scratching out her name on her locker. She had decided to ditch Lucy and go by Jane, her middle name. Go figure! The friendship flourished despite the naming crisis and they spent the rest of high school, university and a year in San Francisco deepening a connection that has lasted their entire lives and resulted in an inspirational partnership that builds on each woman’s strengths. Lucy dreams big and Roberta knows how to make it happen. Together they create a magic that is much greater than the sum of their parts. We meet at Super Sconto — the Italian deli/supermarket on Louis Botha. Downstairs olive oil, pasta and the kind of Italian treats that add centimetres to your bottom line just by looking at them tempt you to take a bulk-buy approach to your shopping. Upstairs the old school deli offers classics such as melon and parma ham, panini stuffed with an abundance of cheese and charcuterie, while the pizza slices taste as if they were baked in Rome this morning. Given the kind of week I imagine they are having, I thought I should propose lunch somewhere convenient. The fair is taking place around the corner at Shepstone Gardens. Lucy grew up in this fanciful folly that unfolds at the foothills of Linksfield Ridge on Hope Road. Whenever I step foot into this parallel world it feels as if I am an extra on the set of an elaborate fantasy series. The natural stone masonry, mysterious heavy doors, soaring chapels, conservatories, halls, charming nooks and staircases are the product of her parent’s vision — her father attending to his architectural fever dream and the new turrets and crenulations and her mother softening the landscape with a sublime garden. The effect could be Italy. It could also be Westeros. But next week Lucy and Roberta are transforming this Joburg institution into a cultural hub. Marrying the gravitas of a serious art fair with major South African galleries participating in what promises to be a much-needed shot of energy and delight for our beleaguered city. They have worked on some of the biggest cultural highlights of the Joburg social calendar, so they understand what will spark joy in the hearts of the put-upon dwellers of the north. They launched Latitudes in 2019 in Sandton Square and were moving it onto the roof because it rapidly outgrew the space. “Then Covid happened. We’d always wanted to create an online platform, so we used the time to do that in July 2022 and we had 350 artists on the site — and now we have 1,600 — its amazing,” explains Roberta. Lucy continues: “The ethos behind the site and the fair is that we have a unique context on the African continent. And the art fairs have generally followed a European or American model. It has to be only galleries showing and you have to have a physical space and tick all these boxes. But being an arts practitioner in Africa you don’t necessarily have all these things in place, so why exclude those artists? So our thing is that we have independent artists and print studios and galleries, and there are different ways of participating.” They also built a huge following and an engaged audience of buyers from around the world. “We used the three years to build a database and a community — 1,500 artists, hundreds of galleries and thousands of collectors and subscribers to our newsletter, so we were perfectly primed to put on a fair,” says Roberta. “Everybody’s mindset shifted during Covid, and because we were home we saw an opportunity for a different experience of an art fair, not in convention centres or in malls. I think that is why we got so much buy-in. We needed something different, not a cookie-cutter experience,” says Lucy. Roberta adds: “It’s a fine balance getting the art to shine but still be complemented by an amazing food and wine experience. We’ve worked hard to make it special. James Diack of Il Contadino has been growing the food for the fair at his organic farm for the last three months. Franschhoek Tourism is bringing 12 top wines. There are food stalls, a children’s experience, and Nelson Makamo’s Ocama Collective has curated the music.” I wonder if they fight? They laugh, and Lucy answers: “We are squabbling every day now — but I think if you are doing something like this, which is high stress, you have to do it with somebody you trust; you can’t be figuring out the relationship.” Roberta concludes: “We balance each other out nicely. I recently found a lot of old photo albums, and you can see that we have been in each other’s lives and families for every important event since we were 12. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”