For some time now, the Jamaican and Caribbean art world has been buzzing with questions about the next Jamaica Biennial. Launched in 2014, as the successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National exhibitions, the second Jamaica Biennial was originally scheduled to be held in December-March 2016, as had been the traditional timing of its earlier incarnations. It was however postponed to February-April 2017, because of the delayed appointment of a new Board after the 2016 General Elections. The new opening date also allowed the National Gallery to consider whether opening at that time of the year would be more advantageous. Because of this change, it was widely anticipated that there would be a third Jamaica Biennial in February 2019 and that the call for submissions would have gone out in summer 2018, if not earlier. Not surprisingly, the National Gallery’s prolonged (and rather unwise) silence on the matter has caused consternation and much speculation.
About a week ago, I was told, emails went out to the artists who had been on the invited list for previous Biennials and Annual Nationals, who were invited to a meeting which took place yesterday morning, to discuss the National Gallery’s new plans for the Biennial. The meeting, I understand, was chaired by Dr Jonathan Greenland, the (acting?) Executive Director; and attended by Ms Susanne Fredricks, Board member and chair of the Exhibition Committee; Ms Annie Paul, Board member and member of the Exhibition Committee; Mr O’Neil Lawrence, Senior Curator; and Ms Roxanne Silent, Registrar. Only 10 of the invited artists were also in attendance, from a list which, at the last count, stood at 74 (although 6 of these persons have passed away in recent years), so it was not well attended. This is not surprising, for a meeting held on a Monday morning, at relatively short notice and in the days leading up to the Holidays, although it also suggests a lack of interest in what would be discussed on the part of those who were absent.
Dr Greenland, I was reliably informed, announced to the meeting that the National Gallery’s new leadership had come up with new ideas and that it had been decided by the Board, the Exhibition Committee and the professional staff, that going forward there would be two exhibitions: a national exhibition, which would be held in the summer and which would be curated by the National Gallery team, and what would now be the Kingston Biennial, which would return to the Biennial’s original December opening slot and which would be international and guest-curated. While the new national exhibition would be held at the National Gallery only, the Biennial would be at different locations throughout Kingston and would involve other partners and more interdisciplinary approaches.
So basically, if I understand it well, this means that the old National Biennial will be re-established, albeit on a different schedule and perhaps a different name, and that the Kingston Biennial will take a form similar to what was done for the Curator’s Eye exhibitions in the 2000s, for which guest-curators were also used, and for the invited and off-site projects in the Jamaica Biennials in 2014 and 2017, although the engagement with the Kingston as a Creative City initiatives would add a new dimension. Dr Greenland also announced that the invited list would be maintained for the new summer exhibition, although this was later contradicted by a Board member who claimed that it would be phased out. I gather that persons left the meeting without much clarity about the format of the new Biennial and summer exhibition, and the future of the invitation system, or whether there was any room for further discussion.
So that we all understand what this invited list represents and why it is problematic, let me give you a bit of history here. While there are other, earlier antecedents, such as the Institute of Jamaica’s All Island Exhibitions, the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Annual National exhibition was established in 1977 and held annually until it was replaced by the National Biennial in 2002 which was, as the new name implied, held every two years. The format for the early Annual Nationals had varied but by the mid-1980s, the exhibition had a fixed format that featured two groups of artists: invited artists and artists who entered through the jury process, and this format was maintained for the National Biennial. The invited list consisted of artists who were deemed by the National Gallery to be “established” and, while invitations were “for life,” the list was expanded annually, although the inclusion was based on rather loose criteria that were never clearly articulated. Invitees could enter up to two works of their choice, as long as these fit within the media for which the artist was invited and the date range and format guidelines for the exhibition, so there was little or no curatorial input for that part of the exhibition.