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.

Take the most recent virtual Last Sundays programme, on August 30 which, it was announced, would feature a musical performance by a young singer, Tori Love, as well as yet another selection of the social interviews that were conducted at the opening of the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition. The recording of the lengthy musical performance did the hardworking and, no doubt, talented musicians no favours, as the sound quality was horrible and the camerawork uninspired. The announced interviews were not seen but that may have been a blessing in disguise, as these interviews are, by now, quite stale. In any case, they were always of limited relevance to the sort of public engagement programme a public museum of any substance should put on to accompany its exhibitions. The August 30 Last Sundays programme was a poor production, in terms of form and content, and there was little to hold my attention but I checked in a few times on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel. The last time I did, late on Sunday evening and hours after the actual virtual event had ended, there had been only 31 views, of which at least three were my own. Clearly, public engagement had been practically non-existent.

The August 30 programme conformed to the “minimal effort” Last Sundays virtual programming template the National Gallery has been using since May – yes, it took them almost three months after the pandemic arrived in Jamaica to get some virtual programming started! There was one exception, on July 26, in terms of programming that was more meaningfully related to the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition on Jamaican music history which is, presumably, still on view at the National Gallery. The film Children of Babylon was screened online, followed by a brief discussion. For the other editions, the same recipe was followed as on August 30, a performance, combined with excerpts from those same, mostly rather vacuous social interviews. After more than eight years of Last Sundays, and given the different demands and opportunities created by the virtual medium and current situation, it is time for a serious rethinking of how this programme is conceived and presented.

I must say that I find the lack of effort, and inspiration, that is evident from these virtual events to be very troubling and disappointing. The Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition, which is the first comprehensive exhibition on Jamaica’s music history and which had opened just before the pandemic lock-down started, could easily have been translated into a virtual experience, for instance a curator’s tour video. Such a video, which would have been quite easy to produce, could have been a lasting audiovisual document on the exhibition, which could have reached new audience and engaged existing audiences in a different way. And there could have been active virtual programming, webinars, online panel discussions etcetera, involving local and overseas speakers, but nothing of the kind has been done.

Very little else of any substance has come out of the National Gallery since the start of the pandemic. There was a multi-part blog post with information that is normally shared in the annual Writivity workshops, which seek to prepare CSEC art students for the journal they have to produce. This was commendable, and will remain as a resource for some time, but it would have been much better if it was accompanied an interactive programme, such as an online workshop or webinar that would have provided participants with a more wholesome learning experience and the opportunity for feedback. National Gallery West, in Montego Bay, which appears not to have any exhibitions right now, virtual or actual, at least made the effort of having a simple online summer workshop for children, which consisted of a series of art assignments, with a competitive element for the best submission. There was however no such initiative in Kingston. The National Gallery offered two thematic blog posts for Emancipation and Independence Day, which were interesting although neither provided any new insights. Earlier on there were a few feeble attempts at contributing to the Covid-19 awareness campaign, by using a few works from the collection that illustrated isolation and boredom in ads that encouraged folks to maintain social distance and good mental health. One of these actually caused contention and had to be withdrawn, as it involved a portrait of a close relative by a living artist, who had apparently not been contacted for permission. The ill-advised use of this very personal image not only raised intellectual property rights and permissions issues, but also the ethics of using the image of a recognizable, living individual, without that individual’s knowledge or permission, in a public communication related to a disease which has been surrounded by social stigma in Jamaica. The question also arises whether it is good museum practice to associate the interpretation of a work of art with issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with the artist’s intent. Perhaps the NGJ should leave public health announcements to the specialized entities.

The National Gallery’s lackluster performance during the pandemic, which adds to a general decline in the quality and frequency of exhibitions and programmes which has been evident for a while now, stands in embarrassing contrast to the energetic, inspired response of other cultural institutions and organizations, in Jamaica and the Caribbean region. I am thinking of the very active, high-quality programme of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, which has been an almost daily presence on social media, with, among several other things, a series of well-made virtual artist talks that have featured practically all artists in the Cayman Islands. These virtual talks will be part of a lasting archive and online information resource on the subject. Or the current CATAPULT programme of Fresh Milk and Kingston Creative, which provides grants and various development and exposure opportunities designed to offset the negative impact of the pandemic on the Caribbean artistic community. Or the very timely, stimulating online panel discussions on monuments and decolonization that were put on by the UWI Museum here in Jamaica. I could go on, also with private initiatives such as Marcia Pearce’s Quarantine Conversations with various Caribbean artists.

What these examples have in common is that these organizations and individuals have not wallowed in quarantine lethargy, but recognized their obligations towards the moment, while capitalizing on the unexpected opportunities that have emerged. Because for all the misery that 2020 has brought, the critical debates in the cultural sector have been energized, with a renewed and in many ways unprecedented focus on race, decolonization, and representation, and how these issues are embodied in public monuments and museums. Because of the move to virtual engagement, these debates have had an unprecedented, transnational reach and have brought together persons who might otherwise not have been able converse publicly. The National Gallery of Jamaica should have been in the forefront of these discussions, which are imminently relevant to the Caribbean and furthermore represent a much-needed opportunity for the Gallery to re-imagine itself, its curatorial practice, its programmes, and its governance. Instead, all we have heard from the National Gallery on these issues is the proverbial crickets.

The point is that things cannot continue like this at the National Gallery, which must be awoken from its present hibernation, with stronger, more visionary and energetic leadership, unless there is some intention to scale down or dismantle the institution. While the National Gallery has always been a work in progress, plagued by many shortcomings and controversies, it is also in many ways a miracle and a unique and valuable institution, which is the result of the vision, commitment, persistence, and hard work of many. It is painful to have to stand by helplessly to witness the current decline.

Some 48 hours from now, the outcome of Jamaica’s general elections will be known. I can only hope that, whoever wins the elections and forms Jamaica’s next government, will recognize the problem, take judicious steps to neutralize the toxic politics and intrigues that have hamstrung the institution, and put in place the enabling mechanisms to restore the National Gallery of Jamaica to the level and quality of activity that is required from such an institution, if it is to fulfill its role in the local and regional cultural ecology. The National Gallery of Jamaica has to keep again!

[Updated with a few changes and edits on September 12, 2020]

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