Provocations: A Crisis in Museum Governance?

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National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. (image credit: Wikimedia)

Art museums have, for quite some time now, been under intense critical scrutiny over the ideological content of their exhibitions and programmes, and over how they relate to audiences, in terms of who they speak to and for. More recently, the critical gaze has shifted, initially to museum boards, and the socio-economic and political interests and power structures these typically represent. And now they have shifted again to the inner workings of museums, to the politics of the leadership and staff. It started, quite predictably, with sexual harassment allegations, as has happened in almost every industry, and now it is about allegations of racism and toxic work environments caused by dysfunctional leadership, as well as more general calls for greater diversity and inclusion in the museum world, especially at the leadership level. The Black Lives Matter movement has added further urgency to this.

Arising from this, there has been a string of high-profile resignations and firings in North American and European museums, recently, as well various open letters and campaigns, many of them targeted at individuals in leadership positions. One of the latest and most poignant instances has been a public letter denouncing a longstanding “culture of racism” at, quite ironically, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, with calls for the resignation or removal of its long-serving deputy director and chief curator. These incidents have received significant attention in the specialized and general press as most of the persons fingered are prominent, highly accomplished figures in the museum and art world.

It is part of a crisis that is long in the making, a long-overdue reckoning and, hopefully, there will be a balancing of the scales that will turn museums into more socially relevant, responsive, equitable and well-managed organizations. However, I have some reservations about the present spate of firings, resignations and denouncements. One is that female museum professionals are disproportionately targeted, and that often the removals often involve women who were among the first to ascend to leadership positions in their museums. As most, if not all of the professionals in question are white, it raises questions about how white women are positioned and interpreted in the present debates about race and social justice. And, even more importantly, it raises questions how these white female museum professionals have positioned themselves in the racial dynamics of their organizations. But something appears to be off and I cannot accept that white female museum professionals, who are still a minority in senior museum positions, are somehow more racist than their male counterparts, or that their leadership style would somehow be more problematic and toxic.

Like many in the museum profession, I am aware of several instances where male museum leaders, of various racial backgrounds but all card-carrying members of their local Boys Clubs, have engaged in deeply toxic, even outright abusive behaviour (including sexual harassment and multiple affairs with junior staff) but they have only rarely been called out or held to account over it. So, racial dynamics aside, it appears that the present reckoning is an asymmetrical one, and that women are, once again, held to different, much more exacting standards than men in terms of their professional conduct and management styles, and still resented if they ascend to positions of leadership. I would rather see a situation in which any inappropriate professional conduct from museum leaders, or for that matter, any other staff members, is reported, denounced and resolved or penalized, irrespective of who they are and without perpetuating the culture that this is somehow to be tolerated from powerful, well-connected “eminent” men.

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Desmarais Pavillion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal (image credit: <a href=”http://By Thomas LedlOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Thomas Ledl, Wikimeda)

Another concern is that the present reckoning may inadvertently open the door for opportunistic moves and intrigues that have nothing to do with what is purportedly at hand. At least one of the instances that recently reached the international press, with accusations about what may well have been toxic and dysfunctional professional conduct, appears to have been compromised by an agenda to further a nepotistic appointment. I am referring to the firing, with immediate effect, of Nathalie Bondil, who had led the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for many years, in a context which seems to have been mired in board and succession intrigue and which is now subject to an official Quebec government investigation.

If a museum professional is genuinely and consistently problematic, by all means, discipline or fire, but now is not the time to push aside highly accomplished and performing museum professionals over personal grudges, vendettas, and other self-serving agendas, or to make way for individuals who just happen to be well-connected, accommodating of meddling boards, or good at playing the current politics, but who may have less to offer, professionally. If there is to be greater exclusivity and justice in the museum profession, the integrity of the present reckoning cannot be muddied by pandering or opportunistic agendas, and professional merit and performance must remain the key criteria for appointments and promotions.

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Preserving Jamaica’s Artistic Heritage

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Jamaican Taino – Figure with canopy (facing left) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This post is adapted from the paper I have recently presented at the “Regional Workshop on the Conventions on the Illicit trafficking of Cultural Objects”, which was hosted by the Jamaican Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. This workshop was held at the Jamaica Pegasus, from March 2-5, 2020. Among the topics for discussion were: Jamaica’s restitution claims, the steps required for Jamaica to become signatory to the relevant treaties and conventions, international best practices, and measures to mitigate the illicit trade and any other inappropriate or undesirable export of cultural goods. These measures include the proposed establishment of a Register of Significant Cultural Goods which would be subject to certain restrictions with regards to trade and export.

In my presentation, I moved away from customary focus on antiquities in discussions on illicit trade and restitution, and focused instead on modern and even contemporary art. You may ask, why bring up contemporary art in such a discussion, as this is a field where cultural and market values are still being negotiated? History has shown us that this may happen very quickly and that a lot of what has been lost in terms of already recognized cultural heritage occurred because its value was not recognized in its own time and the necessary steps were not taken to protect it then. Discussions about cultural heritage preservation cannot neglect the present or, for that matter, the future. It must be informed by a keen eye on changing cultural dynamics and new developments in creative production, so that wise, well-informed decisions are made about what will be the Significant Cultural Objects of the future.

My focus in this paper is on the issues that surround private art collecting in Jamaica, and some of the activities, services and problems that surround it, particularly the fraught dynamic between private art collecting and public cultural preservation. While most of our discussion in the MCGES workshop was, by virtue of its focus on international conventions and treaties, concerned with cross-border transactions, I spoke mainly about domestic dynamics. My position is that we cannot discuss legal and policy frameworks, restitution issues, and ethical standards with regards to the international trade in cultural property, without considering the problems that occur on the domestic level, as the two are deeply connected. Given certain recent events and developments here in Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, there is some urgency there.

A significant part of the problem in the Jamaican context, and in much of the rest of the Caribbean, stems from the informality of the local art market, of which a significant part is entirely off the record and undocumented. This means that much of the trade in art falls outside of the tax net, which is an issue in and of itself, but the secrecy that surrounds the art market in Jamaica also means that proof of ownership is often lacking and that it is very difficult to establish and document provenance, let alone to keep any tabs on how Jamaican art circulates locally or in the international market. This lack of transparency leads to the potential loss of important works of art for Jamaican public collections and makes ventures that may help to mitigate any illicit international trade, such as the proposed Registry of Significant Cultural Objects, very difficult to implement.

Needless to say, this informality also opens the door wide for all sorts of other art market problems, such as art theft and forgeries, and also facilitates the potential involvement of money laundering activities. While the latter is hard to substantiate, it is well documented that art theft has occurred on a number of occasions in Jamaica in the last two decades. It has involved the theft of work by certain well-recognized, up-market artists, in heists that were obviously carefully planned and deliberately targeted, but also more random and pedestrian motivations, such as the scrap metal trade. Forgeries have in recent years also occurred with some frequency in Jamaica, although it is not clear whether they originate locally or are created elsewhere – I suspect that it is a combination of both. From what I have seen recently I have good reason to believe that high quality forgeries of the work of certain major Jamaican artists are again circulating, locally and potentially also internationally. If there is no practice of producing and expecting proper provenance documentation, such fraud becomes a lot easier and is much harder to control.

None of this is in the interest of the preservation, reputation, and good management of Jamaica’s cultural heritage, of course, or of the general health and welfare of its art world. There is an urgent need for formalization, documentation, and judicious regulation of the local art market, without lapsing into prohibitive over-regulation, as well as education about why sensible documentation is beneficial. Artists, for instance, often resist the notion that they, too, might have to pay taxes but fail to understand that it is much harder to insist on intellectual property benefits, such as resale royalties, if first sales are not on the record. Art collectors, on the other hand, typically take the view that their holdings are a strictly private matter and that making such holdings available in the public domain is discretionary. That their holdings may be part of the collective cultural property of Jamaica is only rarely a consideration – there is a difference between moral or cultural and legal rights here, but both matter.

Ironically, it is impossible to sell any real estate or even the cheapest, most run-down second-hand car without a proper title, and these are mechanisms that are quite well-regulated in Jamaica, but works of art that sell for prices that may rival those of the country’s omnipresent luxury cars change hands without any documentation of the transaction or the new ownership – it is privileged knowledge to those few who might know, which is not good enough for art works of significant importance. It might be helpful to introduce a formal titling system for duly authenticated art works over a certain value, without which no property transfers could take place, and that such titled art works should also be subject to the sort of export permitting similar to what for instance exists in Cuba and other countries that take their cultural heritage seriously, with a provision for a right of first refusal for the relevant public collecting institutions in the case of permanent exports.

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Isaac Mendez Belisario – Koo-Koo, or Actor Boy, from Sketches of Character, 1837-38

As Kevin Farmer, Deputy Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, pointed out in the workshop, the Barbados National Gallery Act, which provides the legal foundation for the establishment of such an institution, includes a provision to control the export of Bajan art. Unlike Barbados, and the other countries that have such institutions in the region, however, Jamaica has no National Gallery Act – the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) falls under the general provisions of the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ) Act, in which the NGJ is not even mentioned and its functions only most vaguely outlined. There is no provision in the IoJ Act for any controls on the export and local private sale of Jamaican art, for the preservation of significant art works, of the work by a particular artist, of particular categories of art, or of private collections that may be of national import (or for any other cultural objects, for that matter). For now, such powers reside solely with the JNHT, which is preoccupied mainly with monuments, sites, and archaeological artifacts, and only theoretically with the visual arts.

Legal reform is surely needed to address these gaps, whether this is through the JNHT, the IoJ or a proper NGJ act, which is the route I would prefer, as I believe that a specialized approach is needed for the visual arts, as this involves (or should involve!) specialized skill sets. The NGJ is in fact the only such institution in the Caribbean region that is not supported by its own statute and, in my view, this anomaly should have been corrected years ago, as it is detrimental to the institution and its governance, and potentially, even its long-term survival. The institution can cease to exist, or be merged with another museum, with the proverbial stroke of the pen – an earlier post on this subject can be found here.

The informality of the local art market is also a major problem for NGJ acquisitions, although the majority of these have in recent years been from living artists. The ICOM Code of Ethics provides quite clear guidance on the standards that are applicable to museum acquisitions, in terms of the need for title, but it is difficult to enforce this in a context where provenance and ownership documentation are more often than not non-existent. The lack of transparency and any specialized regulatory framework in the Jamaican art market also has other consequences and there is a difficult subject I need to broach here: namely the conflicts that arise from the way in which the NGJ has been interacting with private collectors, which goes well beyond the normal practice of cultivating good relationships with collectors for loans and as potential donors.

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Provocations: What about the Kingston Biennial?

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Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

Some time in late 2018, the National Gallery of Jamaica decided to cancel the Jamaica Biennial, of which two editions had been held, in 2014 and 2017. The Jamaica Biennial was the re-conceptualized successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National Exhibitions. While still hamstrung by the expectations and entitlements that had been generated by its predecessors, the Jamaica Biennial was widely recognized as groundbreaking and poised for further developments that would be beneficial to the Jamaican and Caribbean art worlds. The exhibition was opened up to the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, it was shown at multiple locations in Kingston and Montego Bay, and it included special projects that invited a more in-depth look at some of the featured artists, instead of the customary one or two works.

The idea (and for the sake of disclosure, it was a project I directed) was that the Jamaica Biennial would become a fully curated exhibition, with a changing cast of guest curators, although I had hoped that there would still be a call for submissions, so that the inclusion of new artists would be encouraged. I strongly felt that the “invited for life” system that had existed since the 1980s was elitist and counterproductive to the inclusive development and exposure of Jamaican art, and needed to be abandoned. This was however resisted by the board, who were concerned about the fallout from prominent and well-connected artists, as there had been some such rumblings. Whether there should have been another exhibition to accommodate these “legacy artists” was a matter for discussion, although I was doubtful that this would reduce the pressure, as being included in the Biennial would no doubt still be regarded as an entitlement by many of these artists.

Already in 2018, I had expressed concern at the National Gallery of Jamaica’s failure to make any public statements on this reversal in its exhibition programme, when it came to my attention that only the “invited list” artists had been invited to a meeting to discuss the way forward, instead of having a public forum with the entire artistic community. In my view, this discussion, which was furthermore attended by only about ten artists, illustrates the extent to which the National Gallery continues to feel beholden to a particular cohort of “inner circle” artists, and a particular social cohort, as it is widely recognized that the invited artist list is uncomfortably aligned with Jamaica’s class and power hierarchies.

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Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 2

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Gabriel -Vital Dubray – statue of Empress Josephine (1859), La Savanne, Fort-de-France, Martinique (decapitated in 1991) (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part post. Part 1 can be found here.

The Caribbean is replete with statues that represent similar ideas about White Supremacy and Colonialism. Some of these statues date from the Plantation era but others, such as the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo, which was unveiled in 1992, are of more recent dates and are associated with oppressive political regimes in the postcolonial era. Calls are mounting, as the present upheaval inevitably and necessarily resonates in the Caribbean, to remove several of those.

There is a long-standing campaign, in Barbados, for instance, to remove the statue of Lord Nelson, which stands on what is now called National Heroes Square (formerly Trafalgar Square) in front of the Parliament building and more recently there have also been calls to remove the Queen Victoria and Columbus statues in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Some are of the view, however, that such statues are part of the region’s history and should therefore remain, while others suggest that they should be moved to museums, where they can be more easily contextualized and interpreted. For the latter is one of the problems with public art, in that it is more difficult, without significant interventions, to present such works in a frame that provides a critical context which counters their original, and often still quite effective, propagandist messages.

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Errol Ross Brewster – Exploring Victoria’s Secrets (1981) – all rights reserved by the Artist

There is a fairly long history of protest actions against such statues in the Caribbean, including removal and defacement, which has usually occurred at times of socio-political upheaval. In Georgetown, Guyana, the Queen Victoria statue was dynamited in 1954. As Nigel Westmaas has documented, its head was subsequently re-attached and the statue remained in place until 1970 when Guyana became a Corporate Republic (the country had become independent in 1966). The statue was moved to the Georgetown Botanical Gardens, where it remained for many years. A 1981 photograph by the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster captured a group of children playing and clambering on the statue, with one girl quite irreverently seated on its head, in what was surely an inadvertent but potent anti-colonial statement in and of itself, as it suggests that the Empire the statue once represented had lost its hold over them.

The dynamiting, which only partially damaged the statue – blowing of its head and left arm, along with the scepter and orb – was a protest action against colonial rule, at a time when Guyana was going through a period of leftist political radicalization which was countered with active repression by the colonial authorities (the specific trigger was the 1953 election victory of the radical, anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party). The marble statue, which dates from 1894 and was made by the English artist Henry Richard Hope-Pinker, was restored and reinstalled in 1990 in what may have been a way to suggest that Guyana had moved past its radical phase and was again “open for business” and foreign investment. Its re-installation generated its own debates, but the statue remains in place today, although it was, according to Westmaas, in 2018 splashed with red paint.

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Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 1

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Edward Colston’s statue being tossed into the River Avon , Bristol, June 7, 2020 (Image source: Wikimedia)

This is the first of the two-part post. Part 2, which can be found here, examines the implications for the Caribbean.

As an art historian and curator, I am supposed to be beholden to the preservation of art and my response to any incident whereby an art work is deliberately damaged or destroyed is expected to be abhorrence and denouncement, with appeals for more conservative approaches such as removal to a museum. There are, however, moments when the destruction, alteration or violent take-down of a work of art has significant symbolic potency, particularly when it involves public art, and may in fact be called for. And in some cases, such interventions become symbolically powerful, performative creative acts in and of themselves, which is the main reason why I am interested in them.

Public monuments, because of their collective symbolic value, their fundamentally propagandist nature and association with power, and their visibility and accessibility in the public domain, often serve as a lightning rod for the social and political frictions that trouble the societies in which they stand. And, irrespective of their historical value and artistic merit (which varies significantly as public statues are often among the most uninspired and conservative works of art), many are indeed very problematic representations that publicly propagate oppressive and obsolete ideas, historical narratives, and power structures. Such monuments are a form of symbolic and representational violence, that is met with retaliatory counter-violence when they are defaced or torn down.

A number of racist and colonialist public statues have been forcibly removed or defaced in recent days during the increasingly widespread Black Lives Matter uprising. Initially, the protests were limited to the US, where several Confederate and colonialist statues have been targeted, but the take-down of such statues has spread to other parts of the globe along with the unrest. Along with the forcible removals, there are also numerous new and revived campaigns and petitions to have certain problematic statues removed and replaced. This widespread iconoclastic fervor — and I do not see that in a negative light — suggests that we are presently dealing with epochal, potentially revolutionary changes. In such contexts, symbolic actions matter a great deal and careful attention has to be paid to what is being said and negotiated in the process.

By far the most publicized and visually eloquent of these take-downs has been the dramatic removal, on June 7, of the statue of the pioneer slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, England, which was taken down from its base, splashed with blood red paint,  rolled down the streets, and dumped into the River Avon by a group of protesters — as several observers have noted, this hauntingly paralleled the manner in which ill or rebellious enslaved persons were thrown overboard on slave-ships, resulting in a kind of symbolic justice.

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Follow up: My April 24, 2018 Letter to Kei Miller

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Two years ago, on April 28, 2018, I posted to this blog an open letter to Kei Miller (it is linked here for easy reference). The letter was written as my critical response to an essay by Kei, “The White Women and the Language of Bees”, which had been published a few days earlier in the inaugural issue of the online Pree Lit Magazine. Kei Miller’s essay caused quite a furor on social media, with sometimes heated discussions in which Kei and myself both participated, and in various other forums (Bocas Lit Fest was in progress). The controversy reached the Guardian newspaper (linked here), in which my letter to him was referenced and quoted. The essay was withdrawn from Pree Lit, at Kei’s request, and subsequently republished but in a revised from (linked here). My response was to the original version. I understand that the essay will also be published in Kei Miller’s forthcoming book of essays, as he recently announced.

Yesterday morning, Kei Miller made a long post on Facebook (which is linked here) in which he reflects on the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations and their implications in Jamaica. He also comments on the lessons he claims he learnt from the debate about his “The White Women and the Language of Bees” essay. He itemizes those “lessons” in a list of ten points. My letter and I are the subject three of those ten points, point 3, 4 and 5. Although I am, curiously, not mentioned by name, most people who read his post would have known perfectly well that he was referring to me, given the public attention my letter had received.

Under point 3 of his list, Kei accuses me of not having published his response to my blog. He writes:

3) I learnt, fortunately or unfortunately, to be less trusting. When one particular white woman living in Jamaica wrote a public letter to me, I decided to engage. No – she wasn’t at all on my side, but I don’t expect everyone to be. That is arrogance. I still appreciated the attempt at some form of dialogue. I took the time to write out a response to that public letter, but she chose not to publish it. For weeks I checked and my response just withered there on her blog, hidden, ‘waiting approval’, even though she approved other supporting comments that came after. Eventually I just gave up and never even called her out on it. I learnt from that what every writer should learn: to be careful about whose hands we put our voices in. And I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors now – but the very hands that profess they are opening a door for you, would sometimes prefer, given half a chance, to put those hands over your mouth instead – to stifle you or just shut you up.

To be absolutely clear: I am the “white woman living in Jamaica” and I would have preferred to be referenced by name, instead of being alluded to, as I had also called for him to do with the white female writers he similarly alluded to in his “Bees” essay. And for the record, I did not personally know any of these women writers when I wrote my open letter to him, although two were distant acquaintances, and I was speaking solely on my own behalf.

Yesterday morning, when I became aware of Kei Miller’s Facebook post, I sent him the following note via FB Messenger, which speaks for itself (I have corrected one typo for the sake of clarity):

“Dear Kei,

I just read what you wrote about me on Facebook, without mentioning my name although my identity must be clear to a lot of your respondents, as they would have been aware of my letter. If I would have received the response to which you make reference, I would most certainly have published it, and if you were concerned that I was trying to suppress or ignore you in any way, you knew where to find me, on Facebook and via email. I am generally speaking very easy to reach and responsive. I did not in fact receive any comments to that post — what I published are links to other publications where my letter to you was referenced. It is unfortunate that you should represent me in this manner, two years later and without any verification with me, as this matter could have been easily have been cleared up and dealt with in its time.

Best regards,

Veerle”

I am aware that Kei saw my message fairly soon after it was sent, but he has not reacted or responded to date, at least not to me. I then decided to post an earlier version of this blog post to Facebook, in which Kei was tagged. To that, too, there has been no response.

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