In this second installment of my critical reflections on developments in the art world in 2022, I continue to focus on critical issues of governance, leadership and performance in the public cultural sector. At the core of this is the relentless politicization, in the partisan political sense, of Jamaica’s public cultural institutions, mainly through the politically appointed boards, and its impact on policy and the management of such institutions.
Six years into the present administration, 2022 was a year in which many public board appointments, which are normally for three years, would have been up for renewal. A new board was announced at the Edna Manley College, which presently falls under the Ministry of Education, while the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport announced a new Chair for the Institute of Jamaica’s Council. I have seen no announcements on other new board appointments in the cultural sector, but it is well possible that there are some that have not been publicized.
There were significant changes in the Edna Manley College Board, which at least allows for a fresh start after a difficult period in the College’s governance, with the messy public handling of a sexual harassment complaint. Deiwght Peters, the CEO of Saint International Model Agency, is now the new chair, with only two members of the previous board held over. Peters’ appointment obviously signals a policy shift towards the entrepreneurial, outward-looking side of the creative industries and Brand Jamaica. I do hope that there will still be ample room in the programmes for those other possibilities that are a necessary part of a healthy and diverse cultural ecology, and that the faculty and students will retain the academic, critical and artistic freedoms they have previously enjoyed and require in a tertiary-level environment.
At the Institute of Jamaica, Bishop Herro Blair took on the position of Chairman which was left vacant when businessman James Moss-Solomon died earlier in the year, but I have seen no announcements regarding the rest of Council, which presumably remains unchanged. Nor have I seen any updates on the boards of the Institute of Jamaica’s divisions, which include the National Gallery. Bishop Blair has been on the Council since 2008, across different administrations, and has also served as the country’s Political Ombudsman, which requires the ability and willingness to act in a non-partisan manner. His longstanding affiliation with some of the past and present principals of the Jamaica Labour Party is well known, but other factors have come into play. Bishop Blair in 2012, and while he was still the Political Ombudsman, controversially encouraged his followers not to vote for the PNP in the general elections because of his religious objections to its election promise to review the Jamaican Buggery laws.
We do need to have a public conversation about what is expected from board and chair appointments in cultural institutions. Should the chair of a tertiary educational institution, for instance, not be one who is fully familiar, professionally, with directions and practices in tertiary arts education? Or what are the implications of appointing a conservative cleric to chair the Council of the Institute of Jamaica which is, through its divisions, mandated to produce new, cutting-edge and critical scholarship, publications, exhibitions, and educational programmes on Jamaican culture, history and science? This may include engaging with contentious subjects such as gender and sexuality, which appear commonly in the contemporary arts of Jamaica, which requires an open, even-handed and inclusive mindset, beyond populist impulses. The question arises whether Bishop Blair’s religious views could again get in the way of his professional impartiality if the Council would, for instance, have to deal with any controversies that involve such subjects in the Institute’s programmes and exhibitions.
There was also other news from the Institute of Jamaica, namely that its long-serving Executive Director Vivian Crawford has now retired for the second and presumably final time. Mr Crawford, who is also a proud Maroon and a musician, was best known, previously, for his career in banking. He joined the Institute of Jamaica in 2000 and initially retired in 2012, but re-joined in his old position in 2016. It will be very interesting to see who will succeed him, and whether this will involve a political appointment, as this has major repercussions for the Institute, its divisions, and the public mandates they serve.
It is difficult to talk about professional qualifications in our populist, “Trumpian” times, as higher education and professional expertise have been rendered suspect, and deliberately so. With qualifications I do not only mean educational qualifications, but also other factors such as professional experience and accomplishments, as well the technical, intellectual and leadership capacity to articulate and implement a well-informed and productive institutional vision and to represent the organization credibly in the public domain. Political affiliation, social privilege, family, school and church ties, or lodge and service club membership are not professional qualifications, but continue to play an important role in many public appointments in Jamaica, to the point of normalization. And political and nepotistic appointments, notoriously, often fall short of the required qualifications for the position.
It would be interesting to do a survey of the current leadership in Jamaica’s cultural institutions, in terms of the official job requirements, their actual qualifications, the date of appointment (how many predate 2016?), and whether the appointment is permanent or temporary. It appears, these days, that the public cultural sector in Jamaica has more “actors” than Hollywood. Jokes aside, however, this reliance on acting appointments further erodes the professional independence of Jamaica’s cultural institutions, as not having tenure, or being only marginally qualified (as is often the case with acting appointments), makes it even harder for the heads of cultural institutions to stand up to inappropriate political or board pressures. One wonders, in some instances, if that is the very point of such appointments.
It would also be interesting to do a review of the official job descriptions for the top positions in the sector, as there have been some curious shifts there. It is the global norm that the director of a cultural institution should be an experienced and accomplished practitioner in a field directly relevant to the institution, such as a published scholar of reference or a critically acclaimed curator or creative producer, as this equips such persons with the necessary tools to articulate the strategic vision for the institution. This is abundantly illustrated by any cursory look at the profiles of the directors of internationally renowned art museums. Yet here in Jamaica, there is now a prevailing sense that the directors of cultural institutions need to be administrators and financial managers foremost, with merely a tangential involvement with the cultural field, while specialist technical knowledge is relegated to the secondary level of the staff structure. This is not productive. Scholars and cultural practitioners are not always the best administrators but that can be dealt with at a second-in-command level, providing the accountability structure remains intact. Some the problems with poor decision-making that are presently evident in the Jamaican culture sector arguably stem from a general decline in the technical knowledge of its leadership.
Similar questions of governance and qualified leadership apply to heritage management, where increasingly problematic, ill-informed approaches seem to have become the norm. I am thinking of the controversial redesign of the Devon House courtyard and, in a tragi-comical example of the Disneyfication of Jamaica’s cultural heritage for tourist consumption, the plans for the Bolt statue in the historic Water Square in Falmouth, which is to be placed in the middle of the redesigned fountain, surrounded by changing coloured lights. That the Bolt statue for Falmouth is a replica of Basil Watson’s statue at the National Stadium in Kingston raises its own questions, as there could surely have been a new commission, from a different artist. In fact, it would be good to know what has happened to the statue that was commissioned in the early 2010s from Kay Sullivan, by the Port Authority, and completed and, I gather, paid for but which was never installed. Questions arise, more and more, about who exactly makes the conceptual and technical decisions for such projects, and whether this is done by those persons who are best equipped to do so, in terms of their technical and critical expertise on the historical and cultural significance of the sites involved.
It will be interesting to see the already delayed Port Royal Museum when it finally opens. Its location within the walled compound of the new cruise ship terminal certainly raises alarm bells about which audiences this museum will be targeting and how the narratives presented will be framed, as engaging Jamaican audiences is obviously not a priority. It is unlikely that we will see the critical scholarship and museology that the complex and difficult subject of Port Royal warrants. Port Royal was, for instance, also a major slaving port. Romanticizing piracy and colonial military history, which is already in troubling evidence in the displays and tour guide scripts at Fort Charles, may be very marketable to the tourism industry, where expectations are groomed by Pirates of the Caribbean narratives, but in a credible museum this should be tempered with a huge grain of critical salt. That the Port Royal museum experience will be “immersive,” as the press coverage has let us know, is hardly encouraging from that perspective.
Meanwhile, important historical monuments are left to languish, such as the Morant Bay Courthouse, which was gutted by fire in 2007 and which is increasingly derelict, while the square in front of it has deteriorated into a chaotic taxi stand. The sculpture base in front of the Courthouse, which held Edna Manley’s Bogle statue until it was removed for conservation after the fire, remains hauntingly empty, while the controversy with members of the community that has prevented its return remains unresolved. One wonders if it is that this site, which is so important to Jamaica’s history, cannot be co-opted readily as a tourist attraction or that what it represents is not presently seen as a political priority. The lack of any official response to the recent appropriation of the presumed Paul Bogle photograph, which has served as Jamaica’s official image of this national hero since the 1960s, to represent another, African American historical figure, after all, points in similar directions. And let’s face it, the parish of St Thomas never seems to be a priority.
Many other stories of rampant neglect exist in the heritage sector, with the ever-incomplete “restoration” of the Ward Theatre, which is led by the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation, as another pressing example. A credible update on that project is long overdue, as there have also been questions as to whether the renovations meet the standards of architectural heritage conservation and the technical requirements for performance spaces.
The Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) has been an important source of funding in the cultural sector since it was established, for instance funding the establishment and operations of National Gallery West in Montego Bay, but this increasingly seems to mean that culture and heritage projects are being conceived primarily as tourism attractions. That the Devon House courtyard renovation project is directly managed by TEF is not coincidental. The possibly even more cash-rich Port Authority of Jamaica is also a major funder in this field, with similar results, given that body’s involvement in developing the cruise ship industry. The Port Royal cruise ship terminal and museum are its projects. There is nothing wrong per se with mobilizing these funding sources for the benefit of the perennially cash-strapped culture and heritage sector, but care must be taken that touristic considerations do not take the upper hand over the needs and expectations of local audiences, with due attention to how Jamaican history and culture are managed and represented, and to whose stories are being told and how.
I will not even comment on the Jamaica 60 programme here, as that barely registered on the cultural radar screen, at least not beyond the actual holidays, and certainly did not “re-ignite” an increasingly weary nation. Nearly seven years into the current administration, there certainly needs to be a general review of the effects, efficacy and appropriateness of its interventions into the culture and heritage sector, as it appears that the balance card is not positive and the signals about what is to come are hardly auspicious.
UPDATE – March 9, 2023: When I wrote this column, I was unaware that a new Institute of Jamaica Executive Director had already been hired, as there have been no public announcements on the subject. I have since learned that the position was advertised last summer and that the new Executive Director is Mr Leslie Harrow, although it is still unclear when he started.
Mr Harrow is a career civil servant whose principal attachment has been with the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, where he most recently served as Zonal Manager/EDWRM Unit Manager. He also briefly served as Director General at the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management, on a secondment from his substantive post at the ECJ. His sudden departure from that position, after a mere six months, sometime in April 2021, led to speculation about his reasons in the press. He was short-listed for the position of Chief Election Officer in Guyana, but that post went to the Guyanese candidate, Vishnu Persaud. Mr Harrow also lectures in business management at the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC).
According to his LinkedIn page, Leslie Harrow holds a Professional Masters in Operations Management from the City and Guild of London Institute, and an Executive MBA from the UCC. I have seen no evidence of any professional expertise or experience in the field of culture, which is part of a regrettable pattern in the leadership of Jamaica’s cultural institutions.
I however wish Mr Harrow the best of luck in his new position and hope that his presence at the IoJ will lead to positive transformations.
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