Generations of Generosity

Mary Slack needs no introduction. Her continual support of the arts inspires everyone around her
Mary Slack – Champion of the Arts, BASA 27th August 2012

Text Michelle Constant, Business Day Special Edition, August 2012

It’s bitterly cold in Johannesburg and Mary Slack is ensconced in her study at Brenthurst. The space is cosy and personable, a mélange of photographs of her family and her horses, extraordinary artworks (including a great Johannes Phokela just down the passage), warm comfortable couch and arm chairs, the complete poems of Rudyard Kipling, Melville’s Moby Dick and two of her dogs – Hamlet and Roger. That her dogs are named after two of Slack’s passions – the arts and sport (tennis player Roger Federer, to be exact) comes as no surprise.

Mary Slack, nee Oppenheimer, needs little introduction with regard to her lineage, and she has made her mark as a patron and philanthropist of the arts in South Africa. It is this ongoing and lifelong engagement that has seen her being awarded Champion of the Arts, at the 15th Annual Business Day BASA Awards, supported by Anglo American. Through the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust and the Foundation she has created with her daughters, Slack has had extensive and diverse involvement in funding the arts. She has also held positions in a number of arts and culture organisations, including, in the past, FUBA, Dorkay House and the Market Theatre. It was through Slack’s efforts that Business and Arts South Africa was originally founded fifteen years ago. In 1997 she became the Chairperson of BASA, inviting Christopher Seabrooke, and Wendy Appelbaum, amongst others, to sit on the initial Board, and persuading around 50 different companies to join the NPO. Slack has a wicked laugh, and she remembers, with a twinkle in her eye, the original BASA launch. “It was a grand event, which I won’t forget to my dying day. Pieter Dirk Uys was the speaker, and he made some funny but perhaps inappropriate comments. With then President, Thabo Mbeki, at my side, I was hugely relieved when the actor John Kani led the fray, and laughed uproariously at the satirist’s sharp commentary, opening the way for the rest of us to enjoy his humour!”

Slack says it was the value that BASA provided for both business and the arts that she originally supported. “I also particularly loved the Mentorship Programme.” (The Programme, supported by Etana, has grown enormously in the past 15 years, and now sees over 60 mentors mentoring arts projects around the country, in financials, governance, marketing and the like.) Slack also applauds the support that smaller businesses give to the arts, given the level of red tape they face, in growing their own organisations.

When talking to the challenges of fund-raising, Slack says, “Responsible giving requires responsible follow-up.” Currently she works closely with her daughters in this field. “You need to see that the money is spent properly in order for the project to be considered again, in the funding process.” She also talks to the importance of championing causes, giving as example her patronage and endorsement of the SA Mzansi Ballet Company. “The rationalisation of the two companies has vision, and they deserve to be rewarded for this. It’s a good model, and we should see more of this in other environments, as well.” Slack engages strongly with the idea of responsibility. “When I grew up there was a strong sense of responsibility. South Africa is the most extraordinary country, one with a high level of generosity.” She concedes though, that there could be even more giving back to the country currently, saying, “some people say it takes generations, before you understand the importance of giving back.”

On a side table in the study, are a few contemporary thrillers, and indeed Slack says she loves ‘the new subversive struggle of South African crime writers”. She enthuses about the works of Margie Orford, describing how much she enjoyed Orford’s latest novel, Gallows Hill.

“I love seeing what people are reading on the plane, and right now everyone seems to be doing Shades of Grey. But if that’s what you need to get people reading, I’m all for it.” Slack’s passion for the written word is obvious, even as one sits in the study, surrounded by walls of classics and first editions. Indeed her support of the Brenthurst Library (she is Chairperson of the Library and the Brenthurst Press) is evidence of this; she is a council member of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Mali Manuscripts Trust, “I loved the idea and was swept away by Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance vision”; all speak clearly to this.

Slack’s taste is surprisingly eclectic, and this is demonstrated in the diverse artworks hanging in Brenthurst. A passionate art lover, she highlights the work of the Swazi Project, headed up by Jiggs Thorne, called House on Fire. She talks of her ‘unscientific’ palate, admitting that she has her eye on a sculpture created by Mocambican Cristóvão Canhavato, out of disused weapons, AK47s and the like. It’s this appetite for work from the continent that saw her become a director of the Amaridian Gallery in New York, which Slack says continues to promote authentic African art.

It’s a short interview, but it’s one that is warm, humorous and engaged. Listening to Mary Slack elaborate on her tastes, passions and what drives her ongoing engagement with the arts, one is struck by her vision of the world, and crucially, her understanding of the importance of culture and the arts in the creation of a ‘complete’ society.