This is the first of a two-part post on the National Gallery of Jamaica Summer Exhibition. Part 2, which takes a closer look at the exhibition itself, can be found here.
Having worked in curatorial positions in a museum context, at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), for the better part of my thirty-five years in Jamaica, I understand all too well how protective curators tend to be of the projects they work on, as I have been there myself on many occasions. The NGJ staff works very hard, and is highly committed, and that has always been one of the institution’s greatest assets. What they do involves long hours of challenging work, sacrificing personal time and work-life balance, and engaging deeply with the material on view. The resulting protectiveness is not unlike how most artists feel about their own work and that certainly deserves our respect.
So when I read the curatorial essay by the lead curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, of the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, which opened on July 28, I know perfectly well where she is coming from. Her determination to serve as an advocate for the art works and the artists in the exhibition she curated is commendable and shared by most curators, and is in fact part of the professional ethics attached to the field. Nonetheless, I also have reason to be concerned about the overly defensive, legitimizing tone of the essay, which appears to leave no room for any critical engagement. The coyly dismissive references to “vitriol” and the “big, bad critic” and cryptic declarations such as “I do not believe that this is the moment for maintaining demarcations based on opinions of achievement” do not bode well in that regard. If a curatorial project is to be successful, there must be room for healthy and diverse critical engagement, from within and without, and this should be welcomed and even solicited rather than feared, resisted or dismissed.
Perhaps the defensiveness of the essay is unconsciously pre-emptive, and really an implied acknowledgement that there are, in fact, serious problems with the exhibition, for the Summer Exhibition is not even close to the level that we ought to expect from the NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum. My expectations were admittedly not very high, given the self-limiting manner in which the exhibition was framed, but I am still shocked at its plodding, uninspiring, and dramatically uneven quality. There are some outstanding and interesting works, but the bulk of the exhibition ranges from disappointingly average to, in several instances, totally inappropriate for the NGJ. And I am not the only one to have these views, which are shared by far more observers than the NGJ may care to acknowledge.
The exhibition of course also has its defenders and there has been quite a bit of spin on social media, coming mainly from persons who are part of, or close to the current power structure of the NGJ. They appear to have declared the exhibition an unqualified success and a paean to “inclusiveness,” which has apparently allowed the NGJ to finally break free from its elitist moorings. I understand that the judges for the juried section were asked to be “inclusive” with their selections – the local judges were Petrina Dacres and Sara Shabaka and, the former Director/Curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, Erica James, was the international judge. I have to conclude that this meant lowering the bar, as there are some truly incomprehensible selections in the exhibition (while work by several serious artists with a well-established practice was left out). I have no means of verifying what was submitted to the jury but if what was selected is anything to go by, it appears that the submissions were not representative of the range or quality of current art practices in Jamaica.
From where I stand, however, being inclusive should not be about lowering the bar but about leveling the playing field, so that there can be a healthy and productive representation of diverse artistic practices and by artists of diverse social backgrounds. It is about a commitment to genuine social justice and diversity in culture and not about shallow, opportunistic, populist moves. The last thing the Jamaican art world needs, if there is to be robust and sustained growth, is the patronizing but ultimately stifling “encouragement” of the mediocre and the rewarding of the entitled that are the hallmarks of parochialism. Jamaica would never have become the Olympic superpower it is today if it would have had to give every aspiring athlete “a chance” or to blindly promote the “well-connected.” Instead, the bar is set high, decisions are made based on actual performance, and Jamaica’s most talented and dedicated athletes have responded accordingly.
The claim that the Summer Exhibition is about inclusiveness, and a departure from the NGJ’s tradition of elitism, is really quite a cynical move. It is well documented that the exhibition concept originated from an effort to find a convenient “parking spot” for the permanent invitations that were inherited from past Biennials and to placate some of the artists involved, who had objected to earlier plans to finally terminate the permanent invitations. It was a move which amounted to pandering to a deeply entrenched tradition of privilege and entitlement, and to perpetuating a fundamentally exclusionary practice. And, in a revealing illustration of the NGJ’s priorities, the Summer Exhibition was first announced in a closed meeting in mid-December 2018 to which only the artists on that list were invited, more than a month before the plans were disclosed to the rest of the artistic community, when the call for submissions to the juried section was finally published in late January. As long as this permanent invitation system remains in effect and is not replaced with a more equitable and transparent selection system, the NGJ has no moral authority to claim inclusiveness for this exhibition, or others that operate on similar models. (I wrote about this in another post when the exhibition was first announced, which can be found here)
And it appears that the spin does not stop there. It had always been the practice of the NGJ to disclose the full list of invited artists in the catalogue and to indicate in the catalogue who, of the actual participating artists, was invited and who entered via the juried system. There is no such thing in this year’s catalogue, or any reference anywhere in the press communications about how many invited artists responded and participated. It appears that this has suddenly become a secret.
Assuming that the NGJ is still using the 2012 invitation list, to which no new names were added for the 2014 and 2017 Jamaica Biennials as it was assumed then that the invited list would be abandoned in the following edition, there should have been about 70 invited artists (and that is if no new names were added this time around). By my count, there are only 23 invited artists in the Summer Exhibition – Hope Brooks, Michael Chambers, Albert Chong, Carol Crichton, Rex Dixon, Laura Facey, Rafiki Kariuki, Amy Laskin, Judy Ann MacMillan, Bryan McFarlane, Jag Mehta, Els Meyns, Winston Patrick, David Pinto, Norma Rodney Harrack, Judith Salmon, Stafford Schliefer, Nigel Scott, Tina Spiro, Kay Sullivan, Heather Sutherland Wade, Samere Tansley, and Donnette Zacca – which is, by far, the lowest response rate in that system’s history. Interestingly, the glaring absences even include a member of the current Board, Omari Ra, who has been a perennial presence in previous annual and biennial exhibitions and a past winner of the Aaron Matalon Award. This is a most remarkable outcome for an exhibition which was developed mainly to accommodate the assumed demands of the invited artists group. I believe that disclosing who was invited for the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, and who actually submitted, is a matter of public accountability and transparency, and the NGJ’s secretiveness about the matter does not look good.
The absence of so many invited artists, including quite a few who have consistently participated and contributed outstanding, award-winning works in the past, speaks volumes. Instead of trying to gloss it over, and pretend that the Summer Exhibition has suddenly and miraculously become egalitarian, the NGJ should carefully document and examine the reasons for those absences. They suggest, among many other things, that the NGJ Board may have misread the collective expectations and views of the artistic community when it decided to establish the Summer Exhibition and maintain the invited system. If there had been any kind of thoughtful, inclusive stakeholder consultations, as there ought to have been before the Jamaica Biennial was abandoned and this new exhibition decided on, this might not have happened.
I have spoken with a number of the non-participating invited artists to find out why they did not submit. One reason cited was a lack of confidence in the Summer Exhibition and, more generally, a lack of support for the current curatorial direction of the NGJ. Another reason cited was the unusually short notice of the invitations and the very early submission deadline, which was too short (even after it was extended with six weeks) for them to produce any significant new work. And while I did not get that response from the artists I spoke with, I have also heard from other sources that some of the invited artists still expect to be included in the more prestigious and internationally focused Biennial next year, even though that exhibition will apparently be guest-curated, without consideration of the current invited list. I was also told that several invited artists who had originally not planned to submit received frantic calls from the NGJ and were encouraged to enter earlier work if they had nothing new – that explains a lot, by the way, with regards to the disappointingly “average” quality of many of the works in the exhibition, since some of those artists may have entered secondary works that they would otherwise not have considered for exhibition at the NGJ. It is certainly not how good exhibitions are curated.
The idea for what has now become the Summer Exhibition, as a national exhibition which would alternate with the Biennial and in which the invited artists could be accommodated, was first advanced in 2016 by Board and Exhibition Committee member Annie Paul (who has publicly taken credit for this in one of her Gleaner columns, so I am not breaching board confidentiality here). I then cautioned that this exhibition would inevitably be seen as secondary and that the Biennial would remain as the exhibition the invited artists really wanted to be in. It is unfortunate that these concerns were disregarded, as they appear to have been on point. And almost everything the NGJ has done with, and signaled about the Summer Exhibition, including the timing and naming, has unwittingly reinforced the sense that it is, in fact, a secondary exhibition, so it comes as no surprise that it appears to have been regarded as one such by many of the artists, sadly resulting in a second-rate exhibition.
I have no beef over the general quality of the exhibition with Mrs Barnett-Davidson, who is a highly competent, thoughtful, and diligent young curator and who obviously did her best with the hand she was dealt (and that such a contentious exhibition was assigned to a junior curator instead of being handled by the Chief Curator is another concern). A significant part of the problem with the NGJ Summer Exhibition is that curatorial decisions about museum exhibitions should not be made in board meetings. The professional staff of the organization should be allowed to conceptualize, develop and implement its exhibitions, using their specialist skills and experience and sound, well-researched information, instead of being “assigned” to have to make the best out of ill-conceived, reactive and politicized curatorial “decrees” coming from the Board or its Exhibition subcommittee. That is a matter of basic governance, in terms of having a healthy and necessary separation between board and management functions. The Board and its subcommittees should allow the specialist professionals to do their jobs, with an appropriate level of curatorial autonomy, and provide them with the necessary resources and support, while of course holding them accountable over the results. This is the norm at public (art) museums globally, even those with politically appointed boards.
Please click here for part two.