The Art Year in Review: The National Gallery of Jamaica

At the opening of the Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition in February 2022

This post was initially published in two parts in the Monitor Tribune of January 15 and 22, 2023. It is published here with a few minor changes.

Internationally, 2022 has been a fantastic year for the artists of the Global Caribbean, with an unprecedented number of high-profile exhibitions, commissions and awards. On the local front the story for 2022 is much shorter, and far less exhilarating, certainly where our public cultural institutions are concerned. I will provide a critical overview of key developments relevant to Jamaican and Caribbean Art in a series of year-in-review columns, starting with the local picture.

The National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) warrants special attention here, as the institution has arguably been in a crisis, with a significantly reduced level of activity, but is of crucial importance to the health of Jamaica’s artistic ecology, as the country’s national art museum. While there have been plans for private art museums in Jamaica, none have as yet materialized, so the NGJ is also the country’s only art museum, which raises the stakes significantly, as there are no local alternatives in the museum representation of Jamaican art. As a public institution, funded with taxpayers’ dollars, the NGJ is accountable over its performance to the Jamaican public and its specialist stakeholders in ways that no private museum would be. It is time that we take that accountability seriously.

At the start of the year 2022, the NGJ had on view the Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition, a touring exhibition on Jamaican music history which had opened there before the pandemic lockdown started in 2020. This exhibition had only been open to the public for only a month then, and may not have reached its full potential, in terms of impact and viewership. However, the fact that the NGJ pretty much reopened “as it was” in October 2021, extending Jamaica Jamaica! for another overlong five months, raises questions about what was done during the eighteen months the NGJ had been closed to the public, as the time could have been used to refurbish the building, to finish reinstalling the permanent exhibitions, and to develop exciting new exhibitions and programmes. Only one related educational programme was held in 2022, on February 24, namely a panel discussion on music video production in Jamaica.

Nari Ward – Windward (2022), Kingston Biennial

On April 8, the NGJ confirmed the list of artists for the long-awaited and repeatedly postponed Kingston Biennial and announced the opening date as June 26, 2022. The Biennial was guest-curated by David Scott, Wayne Modest, and Nicole Smythe-Johnson, three well-respected Jamaican-born academics and curators, and important critical voices in the field of Caribbean culture, with the NGJ Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence. The selected theme was Pressure, which has significant cultural currency in Jamaica and in the present moment. Twenty-four artists participated, with a combination of older pieces and work that was created for the exhibition. The artists were: Hurvin Anderson, Greg Bailey, Simon Benjamin, Alicia Brown, Camille Chedda, Robin Clare, Katrina Coombs, Kaleb D’Aguilar, Ricardo Edwards, Laura Facey, Monique Gilpin, Nadine Hall, Satch Hoyt, Christopher Irons, Marlon James, Leasho Johnson, Matthew McCarthy, Arthur Simms, Roberta Stoddart, Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, Phillip Thomas, Omari Ra, Oneika Russell, and Nari Ward. The curators and artists were all Jamaican, either based on the island or in the diaspora. A catalogue, with essays by the curators and other contributors was also published.

While the exhibition was as such of a high standard and engaging, it was not what could and should have been. There were no surprises in the selections, which reflected what is an already established canon of contemporary art, nor was there any real depth or critical vigour to the exploration of the theme. Limited to the ground floor of the NGJ, and to Jamaican artists only, the exhibition was also significantly smaller in scope, ambition and local public engagement than the preceding Jamaica Biennials. We ought not to blame the curators for this underwhelming start of a rebranded biennial which was launched with significant fanfare and ambition, as the exhibition appears to have been hamstrung by behind-the-scenes politics.

The Kingston Biennial’s social media campaign had actually started on a promising note with attractively designed short features on each participating artist, with a quote regarding that artist’s interpretation of the Pressure theme. After an energetic flurry of near-daily posts, the social media campaign quickly ran out of steam, however, and was succeeded by tedious notices about the various notables, many of them Jamaican and visiting political figures, who came to see the biennial on official tours, along with the obligatory posed photographs in which the NGJ’s principals also prominently feature. This shift in the focus of the Biennial communications, away from the exhibition itself, which has also been evident on other occasions, suggests that the current leadership increasingly views the role of the institution in political and diplomatic terms, rather than in terms of its public cultural and educational mandate.

Likewise, the accompanying programme started with two panel discussions with some of the participating the artists on the day after the opening, with promises of more such public engagement opportunities to come. There were however no other programmes that facilitated such critical engagement with the artists and the exhibition itself, although a few other events were held. A Jamaican film series, guest-curated by Storm Saulter and broadly related to the “pressure” theme, was launched as an adjunct programme, which was as such commendable, as film needs to be part of that conversation. The series was, quite oddly, held at the AC Hotel, rather than at the NGJ itself, which was a missed opportunity to bring local audiences to the Biennial, and downtown Kingston, and to explore the connections between the selected films and the exhibition theme in a more relevant environment. One of the participating artists, Laura Facey, also staged a performance with Melda Darling and the St Ann Senior Citizens Cultural Group around her Guiding Their Way Home installation on November 29.

The NGJ’s efforts should perhaps have been spent on re-imagining its Last Sundays programme, with free Sunday events to animate the Biennial, and on introducing the long overdue regular Sunday opening hours. The Last Sundays programme had been cancelled earlier in the year, apparently because of budgetary constraints, and with it, an important tool for engaging new (local) audiences was squandered. Surely, it ought to be possible to get a long-term corporate sponsorship commitment for such an important initiative, as many museums abroad have done. The NGJ Education Department did reintroduce its Writivity programme in August, a free, three-day annual workshop which was introduced in 2015 to assist CSEC Visual Arts students with their journaling task. The 2022 edition appears to have been a success, so it is not that the Education team is unable to develop and sustain quality programming.

National Gallery West (NGW), the National Gallery of Jamaica’s (NGJ) Montego Bay branch, was equally lethargic with its programming. The Surrealism Black exhibition, which had opened in 2021, continued until late in the year, when it was quietly replaced by Re-Imagination: the Works of Albert Artwell, which was curated by NGJ Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence. A note that the exhibition is now open for viewing, which appeared on social media on November 10, 2022, although the exhibition had already been on view for a few weeks. As with the previous exhibition at NGW, no opening reception has been held, nor has a catalogue as yet been published (one was published for Surrealism Black and I have been told one is in planning for the Albert Artwell exhibition.) I have not yet seen the Artwell exhibition, which is scheduled to continue until May 2023. From what I have heard, however, and despite the catchy title, it is hardly the sort of probing, well-researched exhibition that a major and unique artistic and cultural voice such as the late Albert Artwell warrants. Hopefully, a full retrospective is being planned.

Where NGW has been far more consistently active is with its social media posts which, with few interruptions, included a weekly children’s art video that introduces small projects children can do at home, and Throwback Thursdays #TBT posts. Inevitably, most of the #TBT images come from times when NGW was more active, in an unintended acknowledgement that things are not so well in the present.

There has been no announcement on any new forthcoming exhibition at the NGJ in Kingston since the Kingston Biennial closed on December 31, but we can expect another iteration of the Summer Exhibition, which was supposed to alternate with the Biennial. Hopefully, the curatorial approach for that Summer Exhibition will be revised, as the listless, dramatically uneven inaugural 2019 edition was hardly the shot in the arm the Jamaican art world needs. Unless there will be another, as yet undisclosed exhibition in the interim, it thus indeed appears that the NGJ has settled for one exhibition per year, and much longer runs, down from an average of four to five exhibitions per year at each location in the past. This severely limits the range of exhibitions the NGJ is able to present, and it does not seem to lead to more in-depth curatorship or scholarship or, simply put, better exhibitions and programmes. It is obvious that the NGJ and its Montego Bay branch are not operating to their already well-established capacity, let alone, pushing the envelope further.

In September, there was a notice that the NGJ would be closed during its normal public opening hours, on the afternoon of September 8, which is as such a very unusual thing to do. It turned out that this was for an official tour of the Biennial by the Prime Minister and select invitees, followed by, as the NGJ’s photo-report of the event cryptically put it, “presentations from the Onyx Foundation”. The Onyx Foundation represents the NGJ’s late Chief Curator David Boxer’s estate and according to media reports, more than thirty works from Boxer’s storied art collection were part of this presentation and would be placed on view at the new Parliament Building. No details were provided of which art works and artists were represented. It is not clear whether this presentation constituted a donation or a loan to the National Collection, or why these works, which presumably include masterworks of Jamaican art that ought to be available to the public, are to be placed at the Parliament rather than the NGJ itself. Greater public clarity is needed on this point, and on the relationship between the Onyx Foundation and the NGJ and its board.

The Jamaican art historian and museologist Vera Hyatt, who passed away in June, had headed the NGJ in its crucial first year, until David Boxer joined the staff as Director/Curator in late 1975. She then served as deputy director until 1980, when she migrated to the USA and became a registrar with the Smithsonian Institution. One of her projects there was the Jamaican Art 1922-1982 touring exhibition, which she co-curated with Boxer and which was toured by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service to major museum venues in the USA, Canada and Haiti before returning to Jamaica in 1986. The exhibition represented a major articulation of Jamaican art history which remains influential today. Dr. Hyatt also advised the Jamaican government on museum development in the 1990s. Her contributions to the Jamaican cultural sector and beyond really warrant their own column (which I hope to be able to present in the near future). Unless I missed something, Vera Hyatt’s passing, and foundational contributions were not publicly acknowledged by the NGJ, which was very unfortunate. The NGJ certainly needs to pay more attention to its institutional history and honour all those who have contributed substantially to its development.

It would be interesting to hear how the NGJ Board and the Ministry of Culture view the NGJ’s performance in recent years, and particularly in the last year, as they are jointly accountable for this performance. The current board was appointed, with much fanfare and rather strident rhetoric, after the 2016 elections and quietly reappointed, with just a few changes, in 2019. After two consecutive terms, and with the appointment of a new board supposedly pending, it ought to be time to evaluate whether the NGJ Board’s performance measures up to the initial bravado. This is a matter of public interest. A board re-appointment is, after all, a vote of confidence on the part of the portfolio minister and Cabinet and sends clear signals to that effect to the public and the artistic community. While the disruptions caused by the pandemic ought to be taken into account, it is simply an understatement to say that the NGJ is not what it used to be, and has not progressed into any promising new directions.

Questions of governance also arise, especially since the President of the Senate, Tom Tavares-Finson, a senior politician in the current administration, has been the NGJ’s Chair since 2016. The government’s new Policy Guidelines for the Nomination, Selection and Appointment of the Boards of Public Bodies (2018) specify that “members of the Houses of Parliament and Parish Councillors” are ineligible for public board appointments and rightly notes that doing so, while a longstanding practice by both political parties, constitutes a conflict of interest (see page 11). While the implementation status of these much-needed new policies, which among other things seek to reduce the impact of partisan politics on public boards, is as yet unclear, the document is a creature of the current administration, and one would expect for its provisions to be followed in its new public board appointments, based on the principle of “practicing what you preach”. It is also unclear what the role of the current board has been in the NGJ’s management, as it appears that there has been significant politicking and board micromanagement of curatorial affairs, and not for the better. It will be interesting to see what happens when a new NGJ Board and Chair are appointed, as the current Board’s term would have expired last year, and one can only hope that there will not be another under-the-radar reappointment and that the governance issues will be addressed.

I can only hope that 2023 will bring better news, and renewed institutional energy and direction for the NGJ. The Jamaican artworld needs and deserves nothing less.

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