The National Gallery of Jamaica: Some Notes on Governance and Institutional History

installation-shot-jamaica-biennial-deborah
Installation view of the central gallery during the Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

It appears that sometime in June this year, there were two major staff appointments at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ): O’Neil Lawrence, who previously served as Senior Curator, was promoted to Chief Curator, and Dr Jonathan Greenland, who had been acting as Executive Director since shortly after I left, became Senior Director. This first came to light in an unrelated press release to the NGJ blog, on the visit of Epsy Campbell Barr, First Vice President of Costa Rica. A subsequent release by the NGJ, which appeared in the form of a blog post on June 30, confirmed that O’Neil Lawrence was appointed as Chief Curator and outlined his many achievements, including a truly astounding record of more than thirty-five curated exhibitions in what has been a curatorial career of just about ten years. This was followed on the next day with another post, which took the form of a short interview in which the new Chief Curator outlined some of his plans. My congratulations, and lots of luck, to both men on their new appointments.

There has however been no announcement from the NGJ regarding Dr Greenland’s appointment, now nearly three months after it presumably became effective. I have to wonder why there is this protracted silence on that subject, since such appointments have major repercussions for the outlook, development and operations of a cultural institution and are a matter of public interest, certainly to the Jamaican and Caribbean art world. And there needs to be an explanation as to why Dr Greenland was appointed as Senior Director, instead of as Executive Director, as this suggests a change in status. I also understand that Dr Greenland still has oversight of National Museum Jamaica, but this may be temporary until a new Director is recruited there.

In the absence of publicly available information, we can only speculate about the significance of Dr Greenland’s new job title. It presumably means that the Executive Director position no longer exists and that the NGJ is now headed by a Senior Director instead. What this suggests, however, is a closer administrative and oversight relationship with the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ), the NGJ’s parent organization, and, potentially, less de facto autonomy for the NGJ. To understand why this matters, we need to have a look a the NGJ’s history.

The NGJ was established in 1974, as it was recognized at that time that the art collecting and exhibiting activities of the IoJ were not sufficient to support the burgeoning Jamaican art movement and that a specialized institution, with specialized personnel and dedicated programs, was needed to exhibit, collect, document and promote Jamaican art and to take it to new and diverse audiences. While the net effect of the NGJ on the development and reception of art in Jamaica, forty-five years later, is still to be documented, and while there have been many contentions about the institution’s operations and relationship with the artistic community over the years, there is no doubt that its impact on the Jamaican art world has been tremendous and mostly positive.

Other countries in the Anglophone Caribbean have followed the lead, and there are now also national galleries in Guyana, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, and the NGJ model has certainly been influential on these younger establishments, not only in terms of what to do, but also in terms of what not to do. The latter three have their own, defining legal status and operate on a quasi-governmental basis, which shelters them from the sort of political interference that is possible here in Jamaica.

Barbados has not yet established its own, although it has been planned for several decades now, and there is mounting agitation in the artistic community there about the delays. There has also been discussion in the Caribbean cultural sphere, recently, about whether the national gallery designation and model are really suitable for the postcolonial Caribbean, which is a legitimate question I will leave for another post, but there can be no doubt that a specialized public art institution, whatever form it takes and whatever name it gets, is of potentially tremendous benefit, as a catalyst, to the art communities in which it operates.

Devon House
Devon House

The NGJ was originally established as a limited liability company, which was an unusual legal statute for a public art museum, but this was apparently done to allow it to generate revenue to support its operations (and I understand that some of that revenue came from shop and restaurant spaces at Devon House, where the NGJ was originally located). While it inherited most of the art collection of the IoJ, it appears that the early NGJ operated autonomously from the IoJ, with Maurice Facey as the founding Chairman of the Board. David Boxer — a young artist and art historian with a recent PhD from the Johns Hopkins University, who was just short of thirty years old at that time and a close friend and protégé of Edna Manley — joined as Director/Curator in 1975 and set out to develop the NGJ’s curatorial and art-historical vision and program. The NGJ grew rapidly in scope and stature during those years.

The relationship with the IoJ changed in the late 1970s, when the NGJ became one of its divisions, with government budget funds disbursed via the IoJ instead of directly to the NGJ, as had been done before. It is not clear, without further research, when exactly this took place or why this was done but I would assume that it was after Institute of Jamaica Act (1978) came into effect and that it may have been in response to the economic constraints of that period.

The IoJ had been established in 1879 as a members organization, under the patronage of the colonial governor, and by virtue of the 1978 Act, it became a modern, statutory organization under the Ministry of Culture. Curiously, the NGJ was not mentioned in the IoJ Act even though its establishment predated the Act, although general functions of establishing museums and galleries, and collecting and exhibiting art are listed. The only preexisting entity that was  mentioned in the IoJ Act was the National Library, which has since become autonomous from the IoJ under its own act, with a concurrent amendment to the IoJ Act. (The Edna Manley College was originally also a division of the IoJ, as the Cultural Training Centre, but became autonomous from the IoJ in 1995 and is now a degree-granting college under the Ministry of Education).

I assume that the NGJ was not mentioned in the IoJ Act because it had its own statute as a company when that act was originally framed and was, at least initially, not actually regarded as part of the IoJ. Over the years, however, the NGJ had not traded as a company or met its filing obligations and around 2010-12 (when I was Executive Director), the company was wound up by the IoJ. In addition to being necessary to sort out long-standing and by then irredeemable administrative problems with the company status, this winding up was also done as a preparatory step towards what was then the planned autonomy from the IoJ under a new, appropriately framed NGJ Act.

The downside of the present situation is that there is no definition in law for the NGJ as an institution. This is most unusual and indeed an anomaly for a major public art museum, globally and compared to other such institutions in the region, and it has all sorts of actual and potential repercussions for its operations, its curatorial and administrative autonomy, the ownership and custody of its collections, for clarity about who is ultimately in charge, and the sort of specialist leadership that can thus be provided. There is, for argument’s sake, nothing to prevent an internal reorganization of the IoI by which the NGJ would become a mere department of another division, or for it to cease to exist altogether — these are not, in fact, idle speculations in a context where various public sector mergers are being effected for perceived financial efficiencies and where rumors of plans to incorporate the NGJ under National Museum Jamaica have circulated for more than a decade now. It is not that such things are not possible when there is a defining Act of Parliament, but at least, any changes would have to be negotiated in the public domain. The present situation makes the NGJ vulnerable in a way the institution, and the role it plays in the art world, in ways that are not recommended or even acceptable.

When I joined the NGJ staff in late 1984, initially in a part-time, semi-voluntary position in the Education department and as of 1987 full-time as Assistant Curator, the relationship between the NGJ and the IoJ was an odd one. There were tensions between the strong-willed, outspoken, and politically and personally well-connected David Boxer and the Council and management of the IoJ. The period, which followed on the 1980 and 1983 elections, was highly politicized and the NGJ, which was seen as a “Manley institution,” was under pressure. There had been rumored plots to remove David Boxer from his position in the aftermath of the 1980 elections and the NGJ was in 1982 rather abruptly relocated from Devon House, to a building that was originally designed to be a Woolworth’s department store in the Kingston Mall, on the Waterfront. While this was meant to be a temporary location, with a five-year lease and while a new, purpose-designed building was to be constructed, it is still the home of the NGJ today.

During the 1980s, the print media attitude towards the NGJ was quite hostile, with the Gleaner critic Andrew Hope taking aim at the NGJ, and at Boxer, at every opportunity, and there was also vocal criticism from Barrington Watson, one of the most influential artists at that time, with whom Andrew Hope was professionally associated. The touring exhibition Jamaican Art 1922-1982, which was organized with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and which also represented the fruit of Boxer’s foundational efforts to articulate a Jamaican art history, was a particular bone of contention as it appeared to challenge certain long-entrenched hierarchies in the Jamaican art world with its attention to the self-taught Intuitives (and to a lesser extent its Edna Manley-centredness). It seems fair to say that there was an active struggle for the controls of the NGJ and significant contestation of the growing power it had over the representation and pecking orders of Jamaican art — and this remains as a key issue in the Jamaican art world to the present day.

While the NGJ forged ahead with its programs, there were significant constraints, some of which are hard to imagine today. In terms of Government support, salaries, the building rental and utilities were paid directly by the IoJ and, for the rest, which included its exhibitions and programs,  the NGJ received a petty cash imprest which was replenished monthly by the IoJ, on the submission of bills and receipts – by the early 1990s, if I recall well, the monthly limit was somewhere in he vicinity of Ja$ 15-20,000 per month, which was of course even then completely inadequate to cover actual program and office expenses. This was however supplemented by the NGJ’s own income, which the NGJ retained and which came from admissions, donations and, increasingly, commissions on the sale of works of art from some of the NGJ exhibitions — selling art was an unusual and, from where I stand, inappropriate practice for a public art museum, but I can also see why it happened, given the financial constraints. At that time it was also much easier to get sponsorship for things such as exhibition catalogues – a simple call to one of the many generous patrons in the art world at that time would usually suffice.

The NGJ had a small accounts department, which was in the early to mid 1980s headed by the formidable Miss Dorothy McGregor, a retired accountant from the IoJ who ran a very tight ship, and who was assisted by a junior accounts clerk. Basic things such as office supplies were ridiculously scarce and guarded as if they were a dragon’s stash of gold. I remember being sent to Accounts by my Education Department colleagues to get office supplies for the department (because, I was told, “Miss McGregor liked white people”) and to return with the pathetic haul of a small stack of typing paper, two pencils and two or three Miler pens. Although it did not trade as a company, the NGJ apparently continued filing company returns for for several years but eventually fell behind, probably after Miss McGregor left (she was already at an advanced age and became ill and died shortly after), and the NGJ functioned as a de facto division of the IoJ.

By the late late 1990’s, the situation had become rather messy. Procurement and budgets were not as tightly managed and monitored as today, and many goods and services were obtained by the NGJ on a “good faith,” credit basis from regular, sympathetic suppliers, especially when the pressure to mount an exhibition was on. The NGJ’s annual budget allocation for goods and services was untenably small — and amounted basically to what was disbursed via the imprest — and the IoJ was not sympathetic to any requests for more funds to cover unpaid bills. Unless revenues could be increased, the only alternative would have involved a significant scaling down of exhibitions and activities. When I acted as Deputy Director for a few months, some time in 1990-91, I paid off a rather significant debt to Hyde, Held and Blackburn (now the Peartree Press) for the printing of catalogues and invitations, which had accrued for several years.

After the 1989 general elections, the government changed and the PNP was again in power, with Michael Manley returning as Prime Minister, and David Boxer’s position was again strengthened (although he had acquired allies on both sides of the political divide). A new Board was appointed and Aaron Matalon became the Chairman. Efforts were made to put the NGJ on a sounder financial footing, among others involving several fundraising auctions and art fairs, starting in 1993, which were initially quite successful. The financial relationship with the IoJ became an even more important concern to the NGJ Board and management when the IoJ, and the then Chair of its Council, Sonia Jones, took the position that the NGJ should share its fundraising efforts and revenues with the IoJ. This quite naturally did not sit well with the NGJ.

The truth is that the NGJ has always had an identity separate and apart from the IoJ, and was seen that way by many in the public domain. It also has a quite different and arguably more dynamic corporate mentality, and has operated with a greater degree of de facto autonomy from the IoJ than the other divisions (and I should make it clear that I am not lambasting the IoJ, which did and still does tremendously important work, but its approach to its mandate has always been different from the NGJ and arguably more bureaucratic). There was a growing sense in the 1990s that the NGJ would be better off autonomous from the IoJ, under its own legal statute and in a manner which would allow it to obtain and manage its own resources and forge its own direction as a specialized public cultural institution.

It was at that time that plans for a new NGJ building were also made, initially in the context of a cultural complex in New Kingston, at what is now Emancipation Park, and subsequently, for the NGJ alone, on King’s House lands. These plans did not find favor with the Jamaican public, however, as many believed that it reflected misguided priorities on the part of the Government of the day, while more pressing social needs such as better schools and hospitals were being neglected. Although the architectural plans for the new NGJ were essentially completed, the project was never executed.

It was also recognized that the NGJ needed a more effective and larger management and specialist curatorial structure, with more attractive compensation packages, in order to be sustainable. David Boxer, who had been on a one-year sabbatical after the 1990 Edna Manley retrospective, renegotiated his contract and selectively “resigned” from the “Director” portion of his post, becoming Chief Curator, as he did not wish to continue dealing with the administrative duties attached to his original post. He also adopted the title of “Director Emeritus,” although there is no record of this being formally granted to him. His vision was that the NGJ would have two parallel heads:  one, the Chief Curator, in charge of artistic direction and the other in charge of administration and finance. Boxer however continued serving as the head of the NGJ until 2004, when the Executive Director position was activated, and there is no doubt that, even after that, he continued to see himself, and was seen by many others within the organization and the Jamaican art world, as the ultimate authority at the NGJ — a perception which was buttressed by the considerable social and political capital he had acquired.

The NGJ came  increasingly under fire from the artistic community in the late 1990s and the focus was no longer on the NGJ’s promotion of the Intuitives, as it had been in the 1980s, but on allegations of conflict of interest arising from Boxer’s overlapping functions as the NGJ’s head, a major artist in his own right (who frequently exhibited at the NGJ), a major collector, an appraiser, and an advisor to several other collectors, which placed him in a position of immense personal and professional power in the Jamaican art world. The NGJ’s practice of selling art, from its exhibitions and otherwise, became a related source of contention, as many felt that the NGJ was inappropriately involved in the art market. The NGJ was also accused of catering to an “inner circle” of artists only, at the exclusion of the rest of the artistic community.

Among the NGJ’s most vigorous critics at that time were the Indian expatriate Annie Paul, who had started writing about art in the mid 1990s; artists such as Roberta Stoddart and Judy Ann MacMillan; and the new leadership of the Jamaica Guild of Artists, especially its President Vivienne Logan. What was again at stake were the NGJ’s powers of artistic validation and artists who believed, rightly or not, that they did not receive the recognition and support to which they felt they were entitled. Accusations of elitism on the part of the NGJ were rife but, ironically, it is largely because of their own elevated social status, and the access to the halls of power that came with that, that these critics were able to receive audience, while those in the Jamaican art world who were genuinely excluded and disempowered remained voiceless — a problem that is still to be resolved today.

Several strategic reviews and management audits were commissioned in the late 1990s, at least in part in response to the issues outlined in the previous paragraphs. Two were specifically on the NGJ, the so-called Brown-Browne report, which was commissioned in 1998 by the IoJ from two consultants associated with the Smithsonian Institution, Claudine Brown and Rachelle Browne; and a management audit by the Management Development Division of the Cabinet Office the following year. There had also been a general strategic review of the cultural sector in 1997, which is commonly known as the Pereira Report, after its chair Beverly Pereira. These audits and reviews had different objectives and came to very different conclusions – the Brown-Browne report, which was heavily contested by Boxer, made a scathing assessment of the NGJ’s collections management, the relevance and effectiveness of its programs, and the conflict of interest issues faced by the Chief Curator – but they were unanimous on one point: they all recommended autonomy from the IoJ for the NGJ, under its own legal statute (and the Pereira report recommended the same for the National Library of Jamaica).

The Cabinet Office report, which followed up on the Brown-Browne report, in fact represented a first concrete step towards the NGJ’s autonomy from the IoJ and involved a reclassification exercise which established the staff structure that would have been needed for that purpose. David Boxer’s proposal for dual heads was not accepted, as the position taken was that this would pose an inherent conflict. Instead, the new staff structure was headed by an Executive Director, to whom the Chief Curator and a Director of Finance and Administration (an upgrade from the original Deputy Director post) would report. The accounts department was also expanded and several posts were added, or upgraded, in the curatorial department.

While this presented a major and welcome rationalization of the staff structure, which gave the NGJ more de facto autonomy from the IoJ in its operations than the other IoJ divisions, the perceptions about the Chief Curator inevitably remained. Many saw the Executive Director as merely the administrator and fundraiser whose job it was to support the work of the Chief Curator, who was the real person in charge, which represents a limited understanding of the role of a museum director. Dr Boxer also continued to serve on the NGJ Board until 2012, which only reinforced those perceptions It should have been clear that this, along with the failure to make adjustments to the Chief Curator post to reflect the changes in authority and responsibilities, was a sure recipe for future conflict.

While the National Library forged ahead with its autonomy from the IoJ, the NGJ’s process was subject to multiple stops and starts. Why exactly this happened is something that would require further investigation but the Executive Director position was activated in 2004. Dr Boxer was offered the post but declined and the first Executive Director was an external recruit, Dr Jonathan Greenland, a Welsh art historian who had recently married Edward Seaga’s niece, Dr Rebecca Tortello, and who was previously employed as Academic Programs Coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum (a 2016 advertisement for, presumably, the same post gives an idea of what this post involved). It is no secret in the art world that the working relationship between Dr Greenland and Dr Boxer was stormy and Dr Greenland eventually resigned in 2008. I became Executive Director in July 2009 and very soon similar problems occurred.

There were other problems with the NGJ Executive Director post too: while it was meant to be temporary, until the NGJ became autonomous from the IoJ, it was certainly an anomaly that the post not only reported to the NGJ Board, as an Executive Director would normally do, but also to the Executive Director of the Institute of Jamaica, and through both channels ultimately also to the Council of the Institute of Jamaica, of which the NGJ Board is a subcommittee by virtue of the IoJ Act. None of this makes for good governance and many practical problems occurred, especially since the human resources of the NGJ continued to be managed by the IoJ, by an HR department that had no reporting relationship with the NGJ Executive Director, and since the IoJ Executive Director retained ultimate authority over the NGJ’s administrative and financial management (even though government budget funds were now remitted in full to the NGJ, which handled its own accounts.) All of this would of course have been resolved the day the NGJ became autonomous from the IoJ.

The last development that I am aware of was a new strategic review of the IoJ which was commissioned in 2014, which would among other things recommend on the NGJ’s autonomy prospects, but this was only partially completed and I do not know if there has been any further review or formal decisions since then. The recent appointment of Dr Greenland, who was the NGJ’s first Executive Director, as Senior Director however suggests that the plans for autonomy for the NGJ have now been permanently shelved. If that is indeed the case, I believe that this would be most unfortunate, as the reasons for recommending autonomy and a specific legal statute for the NGJ in the late 1990s were sound and have not substantially changed. In my view, autonomy from the IoJ is still needed for the NGJ to reach its full potential and to function as a national art museum should, in keeping with international norms for the governance of such institutions. The National Library of Jamaica certainly appears to be thriving under its new status and statute.

It is necessary for the public, and especially active stakeholders, to be better informed about what is taking place at the NGJ and at the very least, clarity is needed about who is in charge. I hope that the powers-that-be will open the channels of communication with the Jamaican art world and may be convinced that, at the very least, the existence of the NGJ needs to be defined in an amendment to the IoJ Act. And since much publicity was granted by the NGJ to the appointment of the Chief Curator, and none thus far to the appointment of the Senior Director, which sends mixed signals about who is in charge at the NGJ itself. The job titles themselves, Senior Director and Chief Curator, send similar mixed messages. I can only hope that the reporting relationship issues between the two top positions at the NGJ were sorted out.

These are not arcane, technical matters, but developments that have potentially great significance for the future of the institution and, more broadly, the health of the entire cultural ecology of Jamaica. It behooves all of us in the Jamaican art world to take an active interest and to ask the right questions, especially since it appears, looking at recent exhibitions, that the internal leadership of the NGJ has in fact weakened.

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