Provocations: The NGJ As a Politicized Venue?

I had initially posted this to my Facebook timeline yesterday, where an interesting discussion ensued. Given the import of the matter, I am reposting it here in this more permanent forum.

I was just at the National Gallery of Jamaica for a panel discussion related to the current Reggae Poster exhibition. If I counted correctly (as my count of those seated in the audience may include two staff members), there were six persons in the audience. But that is another story.

The reason for this post is, however, what was being installed on the upstairs landing this afternoon: an “exhibition” (as I am not even sure that is the right term) of photography from the Dominican Republic on what appears to be a carnival theme. The show, I understand, was foisted onto the NGJ at a week’s notice as a “diplomatic obligation,” with instructions that it needed to be on public view by Thursday. It is the sort of display I would expect to see at an embassy office but never at a serious art museum. It would be interesting to know who exactly did the “foisting,” but I have some ideas.

The photographs look like the sort of high-keyed, exotic photographs of the “local culture” that one may expect to see in a tourism advertorial. They are of little or no artistic interest, and they are furthermore poorly produced and mounted. It is not the sort of “exhibition” I had ever expected to see at the National Gallery of Jamaica, although it is well possible that it is part of some misguided effort to quell critical concerns about the dwindling number of exhibitions. But when it comes to art exhibitions at a major national museum, I’d frankly rather see quality over quantity. If the NGJ is only able to produce one credible exhibition per year at the present time, perhaps that has to be it until the institutional circumstances drastically improve.

The point is, of course, that this is NOT how a credible art museum is supposed to operate. I can say with total confidence that this exhibition would never have been accommodated under David Boxer’s watch, and it most certainly would not have happened under my own. We were under constant pressure to accommodate diplomatic and privately initiated exhibitions, most of which were totally inappropriate for the NGJ, which often led to unpleasant situations with Ministers etc but we both held firm on that count. One of David Boxer’s motto’s was, in response to such pressures, that “the National Gallery is an institution, not a venue” and he insisted that the NGJ needed to have curatorial control over, and thus be accountable for, the standard of all its exhibitions, which should not be compromised. Boxer also held firm that the NGJ should only accept externally curated exhibitions if they were professionally curated and came on a institution-to-institution basis. And right he was, on both counts. Either the “current dispensation” is unaware of such best practices, or it no longer cares, neither of which is acceptable.

It is not that the “diplomatic channels” cannot yield exhibitions of quality and substance. I remember fondly the exhibitions of work by Jacob Lawrence (USIS) and José Luis Cuevas (Mexican Embassy), both of whom visited on the occasion, and the exhibitions that came through the British Council and the Spanish Embassy. I would certainly love to see a good exhibition of Dominican Art at the NGJ, but the cheap “diplomatic advertorial” that is now being mounted is not it, not by any stretch of the imagination.

It is the responsibility of the Chief Curator, the Director, the Exhibition Committee and the Board to ensure that the NGJ’s curatorial and professional standards are maintained. But how is that supposed to happen when the Board is the principal conduit for the sort of political and diplomatic interference that now seems to define the institution? That this totally inappropriate exhibition is actually staged illustrates the extent to which the curatorial autonomy and integrity of the NGJ has been eroded. This should have been stopped, as a matter of principle, at the Chief Curator’s desk but the question of course arises whether the Chief Curator still has the power to stop such interference.

I would certainly like to hear from the “powers that be” at the NGJ as to what, in their estimation, justifies the present exhibition, as the NGJ’s credibility as an art museum is now clearly at stake. Surely the current Board does not want to be known as the worst thing that ever happened to the NGJ. It would also be good to hear from the Exhibition Committee, which was so eager to take over the curatorial controls around the time I left. We need answers, lest the NGJ’s death spiral continue.

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