About that Biennial

 

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 Jamaica 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 and the invited and off-site projects in the Jamaica Biennials in 2014 and 2017, for which guest-curators were also used, 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. 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.

The invited list has always been a source of contention, from those who hold more egalitarian views and believe that all entries should have gone through the same competitive process; or, in the case of certain artists, those who believe that they are unfairly excluded from it (and the list is indeed quite eclectic and inconsistent). The juried part of the exhibition has also generated controversies, although this has usually revolved around the non-selection of the work of certain artists who had expected to be accepted, with questions about the selection criteria and the composition and decisions of the panel of judges. While the latter is inevitable for any juried exhibition, and can be mitigated with careful review of the processes involved and better communications, it is the invited system that is the most problematic and hard to resolve, especially since the invitations have been “for life” and not based on consistent or clearly articulated criteria or subject to any regular review.

The social implications of the invited system are troubling: even a cursory review of the invited list will reveal that the artists on it typically come from the more privileged and well-connected classes (although it also includes a few artists from other backgrounds who have been actively patronized and collected by those classes and in which they thus have a vested interest), while the social profile of artists who have over the years entered through the juried system is much more diverse. From this perspective, the invited list is an unfortunate reflection of the extent to which Jamaica’s art hierarchies, and the outlook of the National Gallery, are enmeshed with its class hierarchies, and how what amounts to a de facto national canon is often based more on privilege, access, and entitlement, than on considerations of merit and performance. It is not that the invited artists are not accomplished, or deserving of support and recognition, but that the list reflects social biases and that, once invited, their work has not been held to the same standards as that of the juried artists. That those invitations have been “for life,” moreover, has reinforced the common view that the National Gallery caters excessively to an “inner circle” of associates. To add to this, the more interesting entries have often come from the juried artists, which is not surprising since they have had to submit through a  rigorous, competitive process, with no guarantees of acceptance.

From as early as the late 1990s, there have been discussions that the invited system should be dispensed with, and a proposal was in fact taken to the Exhibition Committee but met with fierce resistance from some of the invited artists who saw the guaranteed invitation as part of their unquestionable entitlements. One artist, who was a member of the Exhibition Committee and Board at that time, made it very clear that s/he had no intention of ever submitting his/her work to a jury, and other invited artists gave similarly indignant feedback. In light of the mounting contretemps, the proposal was quietly shelved.

Initially, the transition from National Exhibition to National Biennial was made to enhance the quality of the exhibition, by giving the artists more time to develop their work, but other developments took place, such as the inclusion of high-profile Jamaican Diaspora artists such as Renee Cox, who first participated as an invited artist in 2004. And an award, named after the late Chairman Aaron Matalon, was also introduced. The National Biennial grew in stature and there were also developments in the contemporary art scene that gave the National Biennial a more energetic, innovative, and international outlook. But overall, the old structure was maintained and the exhibition remained as a national exhibition.

By the time I became the National Gallery’s Executive Director in 2009, it was clear that further change was in order. I initially developed a proposal for what was, ironically, called the Kingston Biennial, which would have an international outlook and take place at different sites in Kingston. The idea got some traction but it took until 2014 before it finally came to fruition and the re-conceptualized, renamed and rebranded Jamaica Biennial was launched. After careful consideration, we then opted against framing and naming the exhibition as a Kingston Biennial, as we wanted to involve other parts of the island in the conversation, to counter the restrictive and exclusionary Kingston-centeredness of the Jamaican art world. The exhibition was internationalized by including specially invited artists from elsewhere in the Caribbean and its Diaspora and, in a further effort to open things up, two international jurors were invited to select the juried section. The 2014 Jamaica Biennial was held at multiple locations: in addition to the National Gallery itself, this included Devon House, locations on the downtown Kingston streets (for Bahamian artist Blue Curry’s project) and National Gallery West in Montego Bay. And if I say so myself, the 2014 Jamaica Biennial was a game-changer, which registered as such locally and internationally.

The long-term vision was that the Biennial would eventually become a (guest-)curated one, and that the invitation system, as it had existed thus far, would be dispensed with. As a transitional arrangement, the invitations were maintained for 2014 but no new names were added. Although there were some disgruntled rumblings from a few of the invited artists, the plan was that for 2016, the old “invited for life” system would finally come to an end and that the bulk of that exhibition would be juried. The proposal we articulated for 2016 was that for that edition there would be a limited number of curated, local and international invitations—up to ten of each—along with special tributes to two carefully selected Jamaican artists, but that these invitations would be for that edition of the Biennial only and, for the local artists, not exclusively drawn from the old invited list. Everything else would have gone through the jury. We had also wanted to put a cap on the number of artists and art works, to ensure that the size of the exhibition remained manageable. The exhibition would again be held at different locations and we had hoped to add to these.

General Elections intervened and this proposal was not supported by the new Board. We were instructed to maintain the invited list and to reintroduce local judges for the juried section (two Board members were appointed by the Board, in addition to the two international judges who had been proposed by the curatorial team). The result was a very large exhibition which, while there were many exciting highlights, such as the Devon House and National Gallery West interventions, lacked the cohesion of the 2014 edition. It remains as one of my professional regrets that we were not able to execute that exhibition as the curatorial team and I had proposed, as I believe that it would have yielded a stronger exhibition and provided an elegant way to usher out the invited list.

When the new Board in 2016 discussed the question of the invited list, it was, as one Board member revealed in a 2017 newspaper column, suggested to have a second exhibition, in which the invited artists could be accommodated. This proposal was however not accepted by the Board. I had myself not supported it, mainly because I was of the view that the invited list would inevitably remain as the sticking point and I was also not convinced that some of the invited artists would be satisfied with being relegated to a secondary, locally focused exhibition. I felt that the underlying problem would be displaced instead of recognized and resolved. It will be interesting to see how the National Gallery will negotiate its way out of the murky situation it has now created, given the mixed messages that were given by the management and Board members present about the future of the invited system at yesterday’s meeting.

Personally, I find it inconceivable that in 2019, and after years of debate and efforts to phase out the concept, the National Gallery of Jamaica would decide to maintain a retrograde system that has, as its current principals must know, served to reinforce unproductive artistic hierarchies which are, furthermore, problematically related to the country’s equally entrenched social hierarchies. Or, to put it differently, the National Gallery ought to be less concerned with appeasing and accommodating those invited artists who are unwilling to relinquish their privileged status, and more with convincing the rest of us why this system should be maintained any further. I believe that the only productive way out is for the National Gallery is to take a courageous, clear and firm decision to abandon the “for life” invitations once and for all. The Jamaican art world urgently needs this leveling of the social and artistic playing field, and it would send an important and long overdue message about where the National Gallery stands on these issues.

Nor do I think that it is productive for the National Gallery of Jamaica to re-inscribe the now very dated notion of a national exhibition at a cultural moment where such approaches and underlying notions about “the national” are being questioned. The Jamaica Biennial had been quite successful with opening the local terrain to exciting new regional and international dialogues. I am also not convinced that re-conceptualizing and rebranding the Biennial, so soon after this was done in 2014, will serve the interests of the Jamaican art world well, especially given the international visibility and acclaim the Jamaica Biennial had already attracted. I believe that it would be more productive to recognize, and build on, what was achieved in 2014 and 2017.

It is also quite telling that the National Gallery would have started its communications on the next Biennial, which is a matter of some contention in the art world about which a public statement is long overdue, with what was for all intents and purposes a private, “by invitation only”, and “below the radar” consultation with the members of its controversial invited list, as this, once again, reinforces notions about catering and answering to a privileged “inner circle.” No doubt, some judicious diplomacy is needed when major changes are made that affect entrenched entitlements, but such consultations ought to be public, transparent and inclusive, and go beyond what is obviously its most self-interested stakeholder group. I must question, therefore, why the National Gallery did not have an open, public forum to announce and discuss the new plans and at which the issues and perceptions that surround the Biennial could have been more appropriately and productively discussed (this is the reason why I decided to publish this post). And perhaps this ought to have been done before the new format was decided on. Now that the cat is out of the bag, however, the National Gallery urgently owes the public, and the artistic community specifically, a statement with an outline of its new plans and an indication as to whether these are final or whether there is still any scope for public consultation.

There are many other implications of what was announced yesterday. I am all for capitalizing on the designation of Kingston as a Creative City and there are many possibilities for activating that in exciting and innovative ways with the upcoming Biennial. But, as we all know, Kingston is not Jamaica, also on the cultural front, and it would certainly be unfortunate if the Kingston Creative momentum would inadvertently serve to reinforce the Kingston-centeredness of the Jamaican art world, and to “provincialize” the rest of Jamaica artistically. Yesterday’s announcements also make me concerned about the future role of National Gallery West, which was established to serve the cultural needs of Western Jamaica and, in doing so, to be an active part of the national and international conversations, of which its inclusion in the Biennial was an active strategy. I would rather see a future Biennial which engages with more of the island, not less of it, and to include other towns and, for that matter, rural areas in the project, in addition to Montego Bay.

Given what appears to be a renewed propensity of the National Gallery to engage its present inner circle only, I also have misgivings about the selection process for a guest curator (or guest curators) and I hope that this too is not already a “done deal.” I am sure that many stakeholders would like to see an open and transparent selection process for the guest-curator(s) of the Biennial, in which an appropriate range of suitable contenders are considered and selected, based on objective criteria—given the sort of fees and other expenses that will likely be involved, and the recent debates about contracts in the public sector, I am sure that the Contractor General would concur. In fact, it would be a good idea to launch a competitive call for curatorial proposals and to establish clearly and publicly what is expected, in terms of professional qualifications and curatorial vision and with a clear outline of  the curatorial brief for the upcoming Biennial. That way, the guest curator(s) could be selected from a pool of interested persons in a transparent manner, based on the merit of the proposals and the demonstrated qualifications of the applicants. Doing it this way may also yield more exciting and innovative exhibition ideas and curatorial approaches.

And before the National Gallery embarks on what will surely be a taxing dual recurrent exhibition system, in addition to its other exhibitions and programs, it will also be necessary to ensure that the organization is fully and effectively staffed and that the senior staff has the appropriate expertise and experience, and is sufficiently empowered and autonomous to provide the strong, inspired and informed organizational and artistic leadership that will be needed, without micromanagement from the Board and Exhibition Committee.

Unless I missed the announcement, I gather that Dr Greenland, who was appointed as a Board member of the National Gallery in 2016, is still the Director of National Museum Jamaica, as he has been for some eight years, but has also been acting as Executive Director of the National Gallery since earlier this year. What this dual capacity arrangement, if that is indeed what it is, means for the National Gallery, and for the National Museum, as well as for the present and future relationship between those two entities, appears to be anybody’s guess and it is certainly not the public knowledge it ought to be. The National Gallery has moreover repeatedly advertised for a Chief Curator, and unless I missed that announcement also, I am not aware that anyone has been hired or promoted, or what the plans otherwise are. Nearly one year after my own departure and with major exhibition projects coming up, it is certainly time for public clarity on the current and future management structure of the National Gallery.

The National Gallery of Jamaica, as a public institution, is accountable to all of us, from the general public to the artistic community, and should be proactive, transparent and inclusive in its communications about any matter of public interest, but especially major changes to its established exhibitions, programmes and leadership structure. That there has been nothing public thus far on the Biennial, after such a long silence, is incomprehensible and unacceptable. Members of the public and stakeholders in the artistic community, myself included. have every right to ask questions about this state of affairs and to receive measured, professionally communicated and timely responses from the National Gallery. In light of this, I reiterate my call for a statement on the status and plans for the Biennial and its spin-off exhibitions, including the matter of the invited list, and for a public forum on the way forward, to be held at a time when interested persons are reasonably available and with sufficient notice. I also call for urgent clarity about the present and future management structure and any guest-curator arrangements that will support  these exhibitions.

[Minor edits were done on December 19 and 20, 2018]

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One thought on “About that Biennial

  1. The National Gallery of Jamaica has on January 25, 2019 issued the following press release:

    “The National Gallery of Jamaica wishes to update all our audiences that there will be some changes to the NGJ’s Jamaica Biennial exhibition. Moving forward, we shall be dividing the Biennial into two separate exhibitions. Both will occur every two years, on alternate years.

    The first exhibition will be held every two years in the Summer and will be similar in structure to the current Jamaica Biennial. It will be called The National Gallery Summer Exhibition.

    It will involve:

    – A call to all Jamaican and Jamaican Diaspora Artists for the open submission of works which will be juried,
    – A jury of Curators and other Art Professionals will select works for exhibition
    – Inclusion of the Invited Artists list
    – This exhibition will have competitive elements and prizes
    – As the name suggests, the first staging of this exhibition will be in Summer 2019.

    The second exhibition will be called the Kingston Biennial:

    – This exhibition will be curated by either one Curator or a small group of Curators selected from a local and an international pool of professionals with knowledge of contemporary Caribbean Artistic developments.
    – The Curator[s] will select the artists to be involved as well as possible themes for the exhibition and work with the artists to develop a cohesive exhibition.
    – This exhibition will be staged in multiple locations in Kingston to form part of a city-wide art and culture experience.
    – Artists from Jamaica as well as the Jamaican and Caribbean Diaspora will be considered for this exhibition.
    – The first Kingston Biennial is scheduled to open in December 2020.

    If there are any questions, please contact the National Gallery of Jamaica.”

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