Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part II

Last Sundays at the National Gallery of Jamaica, December 31, 2017, feat. Nexus Performing Arts Company (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. The first part can be read here.

How can [art] participate in networks of power that its content willfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance. Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something. Art and  power have always been begrudging bedfellows.Annie Godfrey Larmon

When I moved to Jamaica in 1984, I encountered a very different situation, where colonialism and its aftermath had put into question the sort of cultural ownership I had taken for granted when going to museums while I was growing up. There has been some progress with that since then but museums are still faraway institutions in the lives of most in Jamaica, visited only in the event of a compulsory school trip or heard about on the news, if at all. That is the hard reality everybody who works in this field should face, and seek to address. There is no glossing it over.

This question of cultural ownership and identification, of articulating a cultural “us,” no matter how complex and fraught this process may be, has been a driving force in the development of postcolonial Jamaica’s cultural production, including the visual arts. It certainly explains the immense popularity of works of art such as Barrington Watson’s painting Mother and Child (1958), a very relatable, intimate representation of a black mother and her young child, or the ceramic and bronze head sculptures of Gene Pearson, which represent a classical, aestheticized vision of blackness with which Jamaicans identify as readily as my family and I did with the Petrus Christus portrait of a young girl.

Gene Pearson – untitled ceramic head (c2000), Private Collection

But perhaps even with these very popular art works, the sense of identification is often too unquestioning, and it is not appreciated sufficiently how this is mediated by other factors, such as the ability to own such works of art, or to have comfortable access to them by feeling “at home” in the museums that own them. And such affirmative, collective artistic images have, historically, also proven to be problematic for other reasons, because they leave no space for otherness, for minorities that do not fit the image projected, and because they promote a static, often even reductive sense of self, that leaves little or no room for change, complexity and critical engagement.

One of the oldest and most basic criticisms of postcolonial cultural nationalism—of which postcolonial public museums are typically both products and agents—is that this ideology has served the interests of postcolonial elites under the guise of cultural populism, that it promotes an ostensibly seamless, consensual cultural identity that is appropriated from the popular but fails to empower the popular masses or to recognize the complex, dynamic and often oppositional nature of the popular culture. Museums in the postcolonial Caribbean are, far more so than in my native Belgium, regarded as organizations that serve the interests of the privileged few (or serve as attractions for the tourists, but I’ll leave that for another post). This perception is particularly strong for art museums, since art patronage, in its traditional form (and there are other options), is almost inevitably associated with wealth and social status.

It does not help that the museum concept itself is, historically, deeply rooted in the colonial enterprise, in the histories of conquest, empire, and exploitation, and the self-justifying, propagandist cultural narratives that have been spun around that. That is not only so for colonial museums such as the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, but also for the larger, well-known “universal survey” museums that were set established to celebrate the ascent and dominance of Western culture, such as the Louvre, the British Museum and, for that matter, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Several major museums and cultural institutions in the Caribbean also have their origins in the colonial era and this casts long shadows, especially in terms of how these institutions are seen by the public and, arguably even, how some of them still operate. The Institute of Jamaica, for instance, was established in 1879 under the patronage of Governor Anthony Musgrave and initially served as the cultural arm of late colonial policy in Jamaica.

Central galleries, National Gallery of Jamaica (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Caribbean museums of more recent vintage are, furthermore, often based on models that are derived from those histories. I have, for instance, always been fascinated by the rather uncritical adoption of the “National Gallery” concept and designation in the establishment of public art museums in the region, although this was obviously motivated by the sense of national prestige and validation that comes with that designation. While the actual practice of these art museums deviates in crucial ways from their models, I am left to wonder why there has been no greater effort to rethink the concept, and naming, of those public art museums, in ways which would have been more relevant to the postcolonial Caribbean and which would have come with less problematic ideological baggage.

To paraphrase the epigraph I chose for this second blog post, museums and power have always been bedfellows, and arguably less begrudgingly so than art and power, although the relationship is an uneasy one. A public museum, of any kind, is theoretically owned by all and expected to operate for the collective public benefit. It supposed to be about “us.” The question is of course who gets to define this “us” and the “collective public benefit,” and what ideologies and interests are reflected in those definitions, which has significant implications for what a museum collects and exhibits, how it interprets and presents its collections and exhibitions, and how it selects and engages its audiences. There is an inherent and hard-to-resolve tension between the ostensibly egalitarian, inclusive mandate of public museums and their propagandist functions and association with socio-economic and political power. It is, by and large, this tension that is at stake in most of the activism that has surrounded museums in recent decades which, in most instances, hold museums to account over their public obligations to specific stakeholder groups. It is a tension to which the postcolonial Caribbean has paid insufficient attention, yet which contributes significantly to the lack of public engagement with, and confidence in, its museums.

Part of this tension stems from how public museums are connected to the state, as public institutions with significant national and international prestige and symbolic potency. They are part of the accessories of “the well-furnished state,” as Carol Duncan has put it, and, because of how they are typically established, operated and funded, they are closely tied to state power and politics—often too close for comfort, especially in politically contentious situations, and, in some instances in the postcolonial Caribbean, without the sort of legal statute that imposes healthy boundaries. And without such boundaries, it is difficult for museums to maintain the curatorial, academic and critical autonomy they need to intervene productively into the societies they are supposed to serve and to address the needs of their diverse array of stakeholders.

There are many other things that complicate the troubled relationship between museums’ egalitarian core mandate and the mounting demands of stakeholder activism on one hand, and the economic and socio-political realities that affect their operations and sustainability on the other. One such instance is the need for fundraising and donor cultivation, which almost inevitably involves catering to the upper classes, and which is amplified by the celebrity culture and fondness for exclusive red carpet events of the current cultural moment—a cultural moment in which places like Jamaica are enthusiastic and rather uncritical participants. As a result, it increasingly seems like the day-to-day operations of museums are the province of the anonymous (and paying) “ordinary visitor” while a strict socio-economic filter is applied to who is welcomed for the high-stakes, high-visibility events, where the identity and status of those in attendance matters a great deal. This sends powerful signals about a museums’ social priorities and alliances, especially in situations where there is no established sense of collective ownership of museums.

While working in junior positions at the National Gallery of Jamaica in the mid to late 1980s and 1990s, I was often confronted with accusations that the institution was elitist, coming from various friends and acquaintances and often posed belligerently, signalling that this label was the defining characteristic of the organization. I initially responded defensively, noting that there was social diversity in the visitorship, particularly because of the many school children who came, but I eventually had to recognize that the National Gallery’s core audience was socially delineated, in ways that reflected exactly what the critics of cultural nationalism were arguing. There was much debate about this in the 1980s and 1990s, with accusations that the National Gallery catered excessively to a narrowly delineated “inner circle” of artists and collectors and was, furthermore, overly embroiled with the local art market, serving as the dominant taste-maker in a way that left little room for artistic choices not favored by the institution.  While the latter is debatable (I would argue that a significant part of the then-thriving local art market paid no mind to the National Gallery’s artistic preferences), some of these criticisms were valid and valuable. However, the debate was marred by personal politics and self-interest and, at the end of the day, most of the contention was really about who aspired to be at the controls and among the beneficiaries, and less so about questioning and addressing the broader principles.

Considered efforts have been made, since then, to remove, or at least lessen, some of the social thresholds that have hampered broader audience reach and engagement. The introduction of the Explorations exhibition series in 2013 was one, and involved a more engaging curatorial approach to exhibitions, which invited and empowered audiences to be part of the conversation, rather than to be subjected to a from-the-top-down “lesson” about “our culture,” and which questioned the established canons and narratives in the process. The establishment of Last Sundays in 2012, a once-a-month Sunday programme with free admission and special audience engagement programming and entertainment was another. The 2009 introduction of a blog and social media were also part of that effort. But the project remains woefully incomplete and requires significant and sustained additional attention.

The John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night exhibition, which originated at the Perez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM) in 2017, is currently on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica and makes for an interesting case study. I had the opportunity to see the exhibition a few times at PAMM, where I participated in a related panel discussion on September 23, 2017, and I also reviewed the exhibition for the Miami Rail. The exhibition was very well received, critically and by PAMM audiences, and it certainly went a long way to make Dunkley’s important oeuvre more internationally visible. Later this year, it will also travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

John Dunkley: Neither Day Nor Night at PAMM (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

The showing of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica will for many be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a significant part of Dunkley’s work in one place, not had in Jamaica since the National Gallery of Jamaica’s 1976 retrospective. Overseas exhibitions of Jamaican and Caribbean only rarely make it to the Caribbean, due to funding constraints. So the National Gallery of Jamaica deserves full credit for taking the steps to show the exhibition in Jamaica and I encourage all who can do so, to go and see it before it closes on July 29. I do have a few concerns, however, about how the Dunkley exhibition has been socially positioned in Jamaica, and what that may say about how the National Gallery’s understanding of its social mandate is evolving.

The curatorial essay in the catalogue publication that accompanies John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night, which was co-authored by Diana Nawi and Nicole Smythe-Johnson, elegantly raises the question of the social position, and positioning, of Dunkley and his work. While his descendants are now quite solidly middle class, John Dunkley (1891-1947) was a poor, black Jamaican, originally from Savanna-la-Mar who, like many young men of his generation and social background, gained socio-economic mobility by working as a migrant labourer, to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba and also as a sailor, before moving to Kingston, where he established a barber shop on Princess Street, in the heart of what was then the city’s harbour and market district. While Dunkley has been canonized from as early as the late 1940s as a major Jamaican artist, he is, as Nawi and Smythe-Johnson argue, curiously mute in all of this. The interpretation of his life and work is left to his patrons, scholars, curators and apocryphal stories, while his own voice remains opaque, audible (or more correctly, visible) only through his mysterious work. This predicament is shared by other so-called Intuitive, self-taught artists, who are, unlike their mainstream counterparts, remarkably under-empowered in the representation of their work and subject to significant exoticization. This apparent lack of regard for the subaltern cultural voice, on its own terms, is one of the contradictions of how popular culture has been positioned in postcolonial Jamaican culture, and in the official culture of many postcolonial societies like Jamaica, and, as I have argued before, it is also one of the contradictions in how the Intuitive art category has been conceived.

The social contradictions that surround Dunkley’s work are compounded by its status in the Jamaican art market, where it holds a much-coveted top position—perhaps THE top position—and this is mediated by its exceptional nature and rarity. Other than what has remained in the hands of his family, his extant paintings and sculptures are now part of some of the main art collections in the country, as well as a few overseas collections. And the market value of his work has almost certainly benefited from the showing at PAMM and this will continue in response to the additional, Jamaican and NYC showings of his work.

How Dunkley speaks, what he says, who he speaks for, and to, across the boundaries of time, geography, social status, culture and race; who “owns” his legacy, literally and symbolically; and how is all of this mediated by scholarship, criticism, patronage and the market—these are reflections that need to be part of this exhibition project, especially now that the exhibition is on view just blocks away from what was once Dunkley’s home turf in Downtown Kingston, where he created most of his major works. There is an invaluable opportunity there for the National Gallery of Jamaica to reflect on how Dunkley and his oeuvre fit in with the social dynamics I have sketched out in this post and how this, in turn, relates to the social dynamics that surround the National Gallery itself. A very interesting educational programme could be developed around these questions, but, to date, it appears that the presentation of the exhibition is framed rather uncritically around the market prestige that now surrounds Dunkley’s work.

How public museums handle exhibition openings and other functions and programmes sends powerful signals about who it values, represents and targets socially. I am not a fan, for instance, of private, by-invitation-only exhibition previews at public museums. They may be the norm elsewhere but in social contexts such as those of the contemporary Caribbean, these only reinforce the perception that art and museums are for a privileged few. It has therefore always been my position that exhibition-related events at public museums need to be free and open to the public, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. I understand that there was a small private preview for lenders and select invitees on the evening before the public opening of the Dunkley exhibition. This was a first in many years (with the only recent exceptions being the Biennial opening functions at Devon House, which were necessarily by invitation because of capacity limitations and security considerations at that heritage site) and it sent a clear signal about how Dunkley’s work is being privileged, in every sense of that word.

I attended the public opening on April 29, which was free and open to the public as part of the Last Sundays programme on that day. Paper and e-invitations appear to have been sent to a VIP list while the National Gallery’s blog and social media were the only forums through which others were made aware and invited. Prime Minister Andrew Holness was the main speaker and, from what I could see where I was seated, it appears that the formal part of the programme was attended mainly by diplomats and other persons with a high social profile. Only a small number of artists and younger people were initially present (which is remarkable in a country where half of the population is under thirty) but this demographic noticeably changed when the programme moved towards the more informal Last Sundays part of the programme—a shift to which the National Gallery should pay careful attention.

I am not suggesting that certain courtesies and protocols should not be observed at public events staged by government institutions, especially when the Prime Minister is present, but the formality and hierarchical nature of the Dunkley opening function was tedious and unwelcoming to those who were not deemed to be among the “notables.” And unfortunately, it was all too typical for how such events are handled in Jamaica. I can only hope that the seemingly mindless, self-perpetuating genuflection to power and status, with the endless salutations, acknowledgements, introductions, and formalized but generally meaningless speeches, will one day be deemed obsolete and undesirable for public events such as this one.

Call me an “ole’ socialist” if you wish (or a new one, for there is certainly a need), but I believe that the last thing a national art museum in a postcolonial society needs to do is to involve itself needlessly in such classist, ritual reassertions of the entrenched social hierarchies, and should make its public functions as informal, informative, enjoyable, and socially inclusive as possible (and keeping them short and sweet is good practice too). The focus at an exhibition opening should be on the art, the artist and the exhibition itself and it should not be a chore to attend, nor should anybody in attendance be made to feel less welcome or important. It is my experience that many potential visitors are in fact put off if there is too much pomp, circumstance and officialdom at exhibition openings, and often deliberately delay their arrival until the formalities are over, if they come at all—which is hardly desirable if the National Gallery indeed wishes to move towards greater social inclusivity.

I am hoping for a robust, more socially thoughtful educational programme that will compensate for the social biases that mired the Dunkley opening events and I was therefore heartened to hear, at the same opening, that this would include a story-telling session and a discussion of the psychological implications of Dunkley’s work—I do look forward to both. I was a bit surprised, however, to hear that the programme would also include, and this was singled out as a particularly noteworthy initiative, a special reception for the Diplomatic Corps, even though this group was already very well represented at the opening function. There is nothing wrong with cultivating the Diplomatic Corps if they can contribute meaningfully to the development of the National Gallery and its programmes (and some members definitely can and will) but singling out this initiative as one of special note at what is supposed to be a public and inclusive function again signaled that the efforts to engage audiences with the exhibition are couched in notions of social exclusivity, status and power.

To add to this, the first publicized event to accompany the exhibition was announced as a “business mingle” on May 17, with free admission, tours and a business card raffle. An acquaintance shared the event flyer on Facebook and was immediately, and quite predictably, asked if this was for managers and business owners only. I certainly have to ask what the motivation was behind singling out a socially delineated group and why this event could not have been presented as a general open day. It may be a relatively small matter but it has a cumulative effect in terms of how this exhibition project is positioned and viewed. It also illustrates how the National Gallery appears to be tone-deaf to the social signals it sends by how it frames, names and targets its events and, particularly, the Dunkley exhibition. That this programme was held the day before International Museums Day, sure has its own ironies.

The point I wish to make with commenting on the Dunkley exhibition events is that the National Gallery of Jamaica is a public organization, which is funded with tax dollars and which has a fairly well-articulated public mandate, and that it must be held to account about how it navigates Jamaica’s social terrain, and must do so without social or other favouritism. As much as there is a need for transparency and accountability in other aspects of its operations, there is a need for social transparency too, and if what I have seen and heard this far with the Dunkley exhibition is anything to go by, the National Gallery of Jamaica is putting itself at risk of, once again, being lambasted as an elitist institution, before it had ever fully shed that image. I can only hope that this will be a more conscious and active part of the considerations that shape the National Gallery’s programming going forward, for the Dunkley exhibition and other future exhibitions and events.

Further Reading

Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge, 1995

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Alain Darbel. The Love of Art. Cambridge: Polity, 1990

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge, 1995

Nawi, Diana and Nicole Smythe Johnson. “Beyond Context: Rethinking John Dunkley.” John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night, Miami: PAMM and DelMonico Books+Prestel, 2017: 10-15

Paul, Annie. “Legislating Taste: The Curator’s Palette.” Small Axe 4 (1998): 65-83

Poupeye, Veerle. “Intuitive Art as a Canon.” Small Axe 24 (2007): 73-82

———— . “The National Gallery of Jamaica: A Critical History.” Plantation to Nation: Caribbean Museums and National Identity, edited by Alissandra Cummins, Kevin Farmer and Roslyn Russell. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground, 2013: 83-108

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