Our History

The history of the AVA reflects much of the social, political and cultural changes that have taken place in South Africa. Until 1995 it was known as the South African Association of Arts, Western Cape. However, the AVA had its origins in the South African Fine Arts Society, the first organised art body in South Africa, founded at a meeting in Cape Town in 1850.

The Association for Visual Arts is a non-profit, membership-based arts organisation whose primary aim is the advancement and promotion of South African contemporary art and artists. In 2004 the AVA received its certified NPO status from the Department of Social Development. The AVA Gallery is based in the heart of Cape Town, having occupied its current premises at 35 Church Street since 1971. It is the oldest non-profit art gallery in Cape Town. Here contemporary visual art production is promoted through regular exhibitions showcasing all media – from painting through to ceramics, photography, installations and performance – by established and emerging artists. In its choice of artists, the selection committee endeavours to promote the discursive and experimental nature of contemporary art. In doing this the AVA seeks to make important contributions to the ‘open texture’ of South Africa’s art community.


Melvyn Minaar, Gallery Director in 1971 attending to Business at the AVA

The aims of this Society were the formation of a permanent art gallery and art library for exhibiting and promoting art. In 1871 an Act of Parliament changed the SA Fine Arts Society into the SA Fine Arts Association, at the first meeting of which it was resolved to acquire a gallery and a permanent art collection in trust for the residents of the Cape Colony.

Its most significant legacy is that this collection, which started with a bequest of 45 pictures by the art patron Sir Thomas Butterworth Bayley, would form the core of the South African National Gallery, now part of Iziko Museums. In 1895, by means of the South African Art Gallery Act, the government took over the existing national art collection (comprising mainly bequests) in trust and formed a board of trustees. In 1924, after years of campaigning, a team of architects from the Public Works Department was appointed and the new gallery, the South African National Gallery, finally opened in Government Avenue in 1930.

Having achieved its primary goal, the Association developed into a national body in 1945, the South African Association of Arts (SAAA), which embraced existing art societies all over the country. Branches were established throughout South Africa with the SAAA, Western Cape as headquarters for the region.

In 1995 the SAAA, Western Cape, under the guidance of the residing chairperson Louis Jansen Van Vuuren, transformed itself into the Association for Visual Arts (AVA), an independent and autonomous organisation whose primary focus was cultural interaction. One of the reasons for seeking autonomy was the longstanding, largely political, tensions with the mother body in Pretoria, which had an ostensibly conservative outlook.

During Apartheid the SAAA, Western Cape was not politically neutral. Correspondence tells of the time and energy that went into opposing the new South African Constitution with its tri-cameral parliament and the concomitant division of the arts and museums into Own and General Affairs. A public meeting entitled ‘Unity in Art/Eenheid in Kuns’ was held in June 1983 with panellists Neville Dubow, Jan Rabie, Cecil Skotnes and Madeleine van Biljon.

In 2001 the AVA formed a partnership with Spier, who through the donation of the AVA’s premises became its major sponsor. This partnership has secured the continuation of the AVA as an NPO and its role in arts development.

The AVA is a non-profit, membership-based art organisation whose aim is the advancement of South African visual art. The association had its origins in the South African Fine Arts Society, the first organised art body in South Africa, founded at a meeting in Cape Town in 1850. Through the years it has evolved, but has remained a cultural hub of Cape Town.

In 2004 the AVA received its certified Non-Profit Organisational status. The AVA’s current vision is a natural follow-on from its past.

We aim to

  1. To advance artists from all backgrounds and heritages with a focus on development by assisting with skills transfer, materials and exposure.
  2. To draw to the organisation a plurality of identities.
  3. To increase public awareness through exhibitions and related activities.
  4. To support art education and visual literacy.
  5. To promote and help with the sustainability of contemporary art and artists.
  6. To take an active role through its ArtReach Programme in funding artists who require financial and infrastructural support.
  7. To serve the arts in all forms both in and outside the AVA’s gallery.
  8. To pursue its activities on the principles of shared decision-making, experimentation and collaboration.