This is a sad moment in Jamaica’s cultural and artistic history. I understand that the house of David Boxer, the late art historian, artist and collector, is slated for demolition, to make way for what will probably be another run-of-the-mill apartment complex, of which Kingston hardly needs any more. For those who did not know him, Boxer was the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Director/Curator from 1975 to 1991 and then its Chief Curator until 2012. His personal art collection was one of the most significant in the island, and indeed in the Caribbean, and covered the breadth and depth of Jamaican art and visual culture. His house was a must-visit for any overseas-based art researcher coming to Jamaica and he always welcomed such visitors. Many well-attended and memorable art-related receptions and exhibitions took place there. The house and collection have been featured in many art journals, most recently in Art+Auction in May 2017. Boxer’s own art was ground-breaking in the Jamaican context and deeply influenced the trajectory of many younger artists. He received the Order of Jamaica in 2016.
Boxer died nearly two years ago, after a long illness, but it had been his vision, expressed on many occasions, for his house and collection to be preserved as a museum. Setting up a museum like this requires significant start-up and operational funds, a workable legal framework and business plan, and specialist professional oversight and adequate staffing. Usually some form of state support is also needed for such initiatives to be sustainable. Perhaps Boxer’s plans were not realistic but his hopes for a museum represented an important implied recognition of his collection’s public cultural value, and he had actually established a foundation to this effect.
The house itself has architectural and historical value, even though it had been significantly expanded while Boxer owned it (and mainly to accommodate his growing collection). It is a quite beautiful example of the Cuban-Spanish style in Jamaica, with some Art Deco influences, and with screen-printed floor tiles and other period details. Very few such dwellings remain in Kingston and if the current trend is anything to go by, they will soon all be gone. Other famous Jamaicans had also lived there. According to Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins, the house was built in the 1920s and originally owned by Douglas James Verity, who then sold it to Director of Tourism, John Pringle in 1961. Margaret Bernal recently told me that the Jamaican national anthem was actually written there (the Verity and Sherlock families were related by marriage). In other countries, such sites would have been proactively protected and preserved, or at least thoroughly documented. The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera museums in Mexico City and the Frick Collection in NYC come to mind.
Part of the collection has already been dispersed. A number of works had been sold prior to and after Boxer’s passing and there was an auction some weeks ago, accompanied by an estate sale (which some have, distressingly, described as a flea market, with items lying on the floor). The auction appears to have been mainly of secondary works from the collection and also included a significant amount of Boxer’s own work — too much of it for a single auction in my estimation. According to a newspaper report, about half of what was on offer sold during and after the auction.
It is as yet unclear what has happened, or is to happen, to the most important works in the collection which included iconic examples of Jamaican art that surely ought to have been in public hands – major works by the likes of John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Ronald Moody, Carl Abrahams, Kapo, Everald Brown, David Miller Senior and Junior, Colin Garland, and Milton George, along with key examples of Boxer’s own work. A promotional Observer article just before the auction cryptically stated that certain works from the collection would be not be sold but would be exhibited “from time to time.” No specifics were provided, in terms of which works have been reserved for this purpose and how these will be kept and exhibited. Will these works be available to the public, students and researchers? Are they properly stored and conserved? More specifically, will they be available to or at the National Gallery? The house and collection may be private property, and what happens with private property is as such private business, but significant cultural property is a matter of public interest. A clear public statement from the Estate would be helpful to quell the current speculation and anxiety.
Many other questions however arise. Has the full collection been catalogued, photographed and documented (including provenance), so that art historians and other researchers have access to that information in the future? Has the dispersal of Boxer’s collection been duly documented so that works that were sold (or inherited or given away) can be tracked for future research purposes? What about his photography collection, which included some of the rarest early Jamaican photographs; his substantial collection of art books, many of them rare editions; his Taino and African art holdings; and his stamps? What about his furniture, which included Jamaican Art Deco designs by the likes of T.T. Jackson and Burnett Webster and fine examples of antique Jamaican folk furniture? His folk objects, early tourist souvenirs and toys? Collections are important cultural and historical artifacts. Each acquisition tells a story and collectively, the collection reflects a particular taste, personality and artistic vision; a way of living with art (which was very important to Boxer, whose collection was very carefully staged in his house); a wealth of unpublished knowledge; and a particular set of relationships with artists, dealers and other collectors. If major collections such as this one cannot be kept together, there could at least be a well-researched and -contextualized book.
As for Boxer’s own artistic work, I have to ask the same questions. How will his artistic legacy be preserved and promoted? Most of his major exhibitions were held at his own home and self-curated, and accompanied by self-published catalogues. Almost all of his site-specific installations were held at the National Gallery of Jamaica and dismantled at the end of the exhibition in which they were shown, with only basic documentation in the accompanying catalogues. This has limited the amount of information to which the public and researchers have access and special efforts will have to be made to ensure that adequate information about his work is publicly available. Have the ephemera from his studio, his sketches and notes, his elaborate sketchbooks, the many fragments of installations he had kept, the catalogues, press clippings and records of his exhibitions, been documented, preserved and archived? Will there be a retrospective, a book? And will these be at a scholarly and curatorial level that he would have been comfortable with and indeed insisted on? And what about the market for his work? He was once at the apex of the Jamaican art market and, especially for an artist who was very prolific, it takes well-informed and carefully timed efforts to maintain such a position in the long run. Art markets do not just happen, they are constantly made and remade.
I also have to ask about his scholarship. His art-historical scholarship was foundational and crucially important to our understanding of Jamaican art and culture – a monumental achievement in and of itself. I could not have done my own work without it. Yes, there are several books, book chapters, articles and catalogue introductions, but there was so much more that he could have published but never did, such as a book on his cherished Intuitives. Many of his publications, particularly his National Gallery catalogues, had only very limited circulation and are now out of print. And there must be unpublished research notes, documentary photographs and videos, and computer files that are worth preserving. It would be good to know what is being done to archive. preserve, and provide access to his scholarly contributions. It represents a hard-earned and extremely valuable part of Jamaica’s art-historical record and there should really be a David Boxer archive. An anthology of his writing would be timely.
I did not see eye to eye with David Boxer in the latter years of his life, because of significant professional differences, but I derive no pleasure from what is happening now. It is a major loss, to the history of art and culture in Jamaica, and indeed to the entire Caribbean. There are many lessons here. For one, those who are tasked with the preservation of our collective cultural legacies should anticipate such situations and take the necessary steps to ensure that such art sites and resources are adequately documented and preserved, with judicious interventions such as preservation orders where the situation calls for it. And for artists and collectors who care about such things, it is a good reminder that they should plan for what is to happen to their legacy and holdings after they are gone, with arrangements that are well-considered, well-articulated and feasible, and binding to those who are left behind. And finally, it also goes to the question of succession planning: what is Jamaica doing to ensure that persons with advanced art-historical and curatorial expertise are available going forward, so that the standards that were set by Boxer will be maintained and built upon?
From what I can see, though, the anticipated demolition of David Boxer’s house is the end of an era, and not in a good way. We must do better.
[With special thanks to Dianne T. Golding Frankson for pointing me to a reliable source on the history of David Boxer’s house.]
[Updated 28/4/2019 with information on the outcome of the auction, and on 29/4/2019 with a reference to a publication on the house and collection]