The National Gallery and Public Scholarship

Pat Byer’s work (left) in the book “What Kind of Mirror Image: Art in Barbados” (1999) by Alissandra Cummins, Allison Thompson and Nick Whittle

Update: the NGJ has this morning, November 16, 2019, corrected its obituary and it now includes accurate family information.

My dissertation director at Emory University, the late Ivan Karp – one of the leading voices in the debates about museums and representation, liked to describe museums a “institutions of public scholarship.” And indeed, museums are, or should be, institutions where knowledge is produced, shared, critiqued and debated, and which are in the front-line of knowledge-production in their respective disciplinary and specialist fields. And it speaks for itself that the knowledge produced needs to be of the highest quality and, while not immune to critical challenge, must be sound and credible. That is part of a museum’s pact with the public.

To do this, museums are led by persons who are eminent scholars and curators in their field, and who also have the capacity to translate this expert knowledge into expert curatorial form that can be engaged with by the public, through the objects they exhibit and the manner in which these are presented and contextualized. That is so for all museums, and no less for art museums.

In the Caribbean, all of this is no less important. In fact, I’d say that the stakes are higher, because there is so much pioneering work to do in writing and documenting the art histories in a way that produces innovative, relevant and credible scholarship, in ensuring that there is a healthy and well-informed critical climate, and in building a curatorial and audience engagement practice that is innovative and relevant to the context – all of this in a setting where specialist art historical and museum skills are scarce and resources even scarcer. But perhaps the biggest threat in the Caribbean is that there is so little regard for such specialist scholarship, and even less understanding as to why sound, in depth expert scholarship matters so much in museums. And unfortunately, this is evident in how some of our cultural institutions are managed.

Last week, Hugh Dunphy, the proprietor of the storied Bolivar gallery and book shop, passed away. He had been ailing for some time and Bolivar had closed in 2016, which marked the end of a gallery which had been a major player in the Jamaican art world for several decades and one of several such losses in recent years. The National Gallery of Jamaica, on November 7, 2019 published an obituary on its blog and I must admit that I did not pay a lot of attention to it initially, as I feared it was yet another example of the sort of loosely stitched-together obituaries the Gallery tends to issue these days. When I finally read it, however, I realized that the obituary, which goes into great detail about certain aspects of Dunphy’s life, was also curiously silent about major other parts of it, such as his first two marriages. In fact, his first wife was a well-known artist and jeweler who was active in Barbados and Trinidad, Pat Byer – something the curatorial leadership should have know – and they had a son together, Damian Dunphy, who now lives in Australia. It was clear that whoever wrote the obituary did not know much about Hugh Dunphy and had not researched his life and work with any kind of care. And that whoever approved it for release clearly did not know any better.

Not surprisingly, a few persons who did knew Dunphy well, started to comment on social media and questioned why the National Gallery had issued such a poorly researched obituary which misrepresented Hugh Dunphy’s life and which may have caused distress to his family. I cannot disagree with them – the omissions in the obituary are embarrassing. I am not suggesting that the National Gallery staff should have in depth knowledge on the lives of all major figures in the art world, but merely that its staff should do its homework when such a document is prepared and that there should be the sort of oversight that is necessary to prevent such embarrassing blunders from being published. Or that, if the National Gallery was for any reason not able to produce a sensible and sensitive obituary for Mr Dunply, somebody else who is better equipped to do so should have been invited to guest-author one.

The National Gallery has historically been the main producer of art-historical knowledge in Jamaica. Agree with his perspectives or not, David Boxer was an eminent scholar of Jamaican art and culture. And other senior staff members such as Rosalie Smith-McCrea, Petrine Archer-Straw, myself and more recently Nicole Smythe-Johnson, have also contributed original and pioneering scholarship. The National Gallery used to be the go-to place for cutting edge, expert knowledge on Jamaican art, as it indeed ought to be. The question arises whether that is still so today, and whether that is even recognized as a problem by the current powers-that-be.

This unfortunate obituary raises serious questions about where the National Gallery is at, in terms of the quality of its scholarship, research, critical engagement and writing. I have also seen text panels and catalogue essays recently that were seriously deficient in research, analytical depth and sound argumentation, to the point of incoherence, or that merely regurgitated old and dated research and ideas. Lapses in basic scholarship and research, such as those that are evident in the Hugh Dunphy obituary, are not minor mistakes, that can just be glossed over, but suggest serious deficiencies. The current leadership must be held to account for this sad state of affairs. Quality does matter in museums, and is in fact a very big deal.

If it turns out that the National Gallery of Jamaica is no longer a leading institution of public scholarship in the Caribbean art world, if it is no longer driven by sound intellectual and critical underpinnings, by passionate, in-depth and responsible scholarship and ongoing research about Jamaican art, and by a relevant, innovative and well-informed curatorial vision, then its future, purpose and relevance would be seriously in doubt.

2 thoughts on “The National Gallery and Public Scholarship

  1. The obituary on Hugh by the NGJ was comprehensive & provided solid information on his contribution to Jamaica. The omission of important biographical information, son Damian & his mother Pat Byer, need not make the occasion of his death a controversy. The scope of Hugh’s involvement in Jamaica’s cultural life is remarkable on its own. The overarching problem is that in the course of his life here both The Institute, NGJ (in your time too) never awarded recognition. I believe the NGJ with David Boxer did issue a certificate of appreciation. The thing is Kingston should celebrate Hugh’s life- here’s to the shows books, friends, art at Bolivar.

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    • Thank you for your comment. However, you are misconstruing the main point of this post, which is the overall issue of scholarship and professional standards. Also, the NGJ had a positive relationship with Hugh Dunphy and I do not understand why, while objecting to this post, you are now trying to suggest otherwise. But the point I am making here is that scholarship is the life blood of a cultural institution such as the NGJ and that standards must be maintained, in this obituary and in other publications and exhibitions. If the artistic community does not recognize that, we have a serious problem on our hands.

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