Provocations: “The National Gallery Nah Keep Again?”

At the opening of the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition

“The National Gallery nah keep again?”, said one artist scathingly; another quipped if “the National Gallery had been postponed?”; and yet another marveled how a postponement announcement could also be a museum’s first public announcement about a particular exhibition.

They were all responding to the National Gallery of Jamaica’s announcement last week, on its blog on August 25, that the inaugural Kingston Biennial had been postponed until December of 2021. No mention was made, in that post, of what had originally been planned for the biennial or what would happen in the interim, in terms of other exhibitions and programmes. Nor was it stated if and when the National Gallery would reopen to the public. Other than some very brief and vague mentions of the new exhibition plans in the announcements, opening speeches and catalogue foreword of last year’s inaugural Summer Exhibition, last week’s postponement announcement was indeed, and bizarrely, the very first public statement from the National Gallery on the inaugural Kingston Biennial, a much-anticipated exhibition, which has already caused much speculation and concern in the Jamaican art world, fueled by the lack of information. It was the first time the National Gallery has provided any kind of detail on who is curating the exhibition (David Scott, with Wayne Modest, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, and the National Gallery’s acting Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence) and what is being planned, in terms of the exhibition theme (“Pressure”). No artist list was however disclosed, nor was the curatorial selection process clarified, and the question of whether artists can submit work for consideration by the curators, which has been raised by many, thus remains unaddressed. The shoddy public communications about this exhibition do not add much credibility to the National Gallery’s boast that the Kingston Biennial will bring its biennial exhibition in line with international biennial standards.

I have on two occasions expressed my concerns about the poor public communications regarding the Kingston Biennial on this blog (these posts can be read here and here) and I have little else to say on that count. I am more concerned, at this stage, about what this belated first public announcement of the Kingston Biennial says about the state of affairs at the National Gallery of Jamaica – Jamaica’s national art museum, a foundational and defining part of Jamaica’s cultural ecology and one of the most prominent and influential such institutions in the Caribbean region. Because when I consider the handling of the biennial, the lack of information about any other forthcoming exhibitions, and the National Gallery’s lethargic and decidedly uninspired online programming during the Covid-19 lock-down, I must indeed ask whether the National Gallery of Jamaica “a keep”? The once very active and in many ways groundbreaking exhibition programme appears to have dried up to a trickle, and even the Summer Exhibition, which should next be held in 2021, appears to have dropped off the radar screen.

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