Wits Art Museum at night Pic: Wits Art Museum

After a decade of planning and years under construction, the multi-million rand Wits Art Museum has opened its doors to the public offering access to the university’s rich African art collection, but sadly it does not yet represent the welcoming space conceived by the architects and Wits.

The art museum’s double volume glass windows and doors which open onto the bustling corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets were meant to symbolise a close interaction between the university and the wider Braamfontein community, but for now the building’s sleek architectural lines and concrete finishes simply highlight the vacant dead zone where a coffee shop should be.

Several hundred thousand rands worth of shiny new shop fittings and top-of-the-range equipment stands unused in the lofty foyer, awaiting the awarding of the contract to grind and serve the coffee.

The unused kitchen and coffee machine   Pic: B. Read

The shop fittings, including a scullery area, cold storage, oven and high-end coffee machine, have been provided by the Wits Services department which is managing the tender process.

The initial idea was to seek tenders for an operator that could run a number of outlets on campus from a centralised kitchen, but there were no suitable takers so a second closed tender process for a unique coffee shop for the museum foyer is now underway.

While the decision will be made within weeks, it will likely be months before frothy cappuccinos and light lunches are served up – mid-August at the earliest.

But after the care and expense to redevelop the iconic Lawsons building to showcase the university’s extensive African art collection, every care is being taken to secure the right coffee shop operator to fit the vision of the art museum.

“We want a slick, fabulous coffee shop befitting of a world class gallery,” says Wits Art Museum special projects curator Fiona Rankin-Smith.

Even details like the choice of tables and chairs call for design approval from the architects Nina Cohen and Fiona Garson to be mindful of the space and consistent with the architecture of the museum.

According to Rankin-Smith there are plans to allow for a public space at the far corner of the coffee shop area, where a ramp offers access from the road.

“We want to keep that as an engaging space, where we can host site-specific installations, poetry recitals or performances. We want to activate that space, make it a truly public space.”

But for Rankin-Smith it’s not all about aesthetics – the key to the success of the coffee shop is the quality of the coffee.

“It’s actually all about the coffee,” says Rankin-Smith. “It has to be really good coffee, roasted, ground and brewed just before serving.”