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.

Belisario - Koo Koo Actor-Boy
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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Political Ownership and the Cultural Sector

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At the opening of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Summer Exhibition, July 28, 2019

It’s a well-know dilemma: the support of the State is almost always needed to establish and maintain cultural institutions, irrespective of whether these are part of the public sector or privately initiated, and of whether they are publicly funded, in full or in part, or merely get in-principle support and blessings. In Jamaica, public cultural institutions such as the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the National Gallery of Jamaica might not have existed if there had not been a timely intersection of the cultural sector with State politics and some of the personalities involved.

But this history of State involvement is also the Achilles heel of the Jamaican cultural sector, especially as we live in an era when the business of government appears to have been turned into an ongoing campaign in preparation for the next elections. And in which some politicians appear to be increasingly driven by ego and a desire for personal glory, in ways which stray far from the foundational principles of equitable and selfless public service.

The threat of inappropriate political interference is ongoing and cultural institutions in  Jamaica, by virtue of their inadequately protective legal statutes, are acutely exposed to this. But an equally detrimental threat is the ever-growing desire to establish political and personal ownership which is evident in the actions of certain politicians — of wanting to attach one’s name, image and legacy (and one’s next election victory) to any initiative that is likely to have significant public appeal and visibility. In the cultural sector, it is certainly evident in the commissioning, unveiling and signage of new public monuments, in which the political patrons get almost as much attention as the figure honored and certainly more than the artist. This is of course not unique to the cultural sector, or to Jamaica, but it sure illustrates what our politics have come to, and it represents a deep and fundamental failure.Read More »

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

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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 quite incredible claimed record of more than thirty-five curated exhibitions in what has been a curatorial career of just about ten years, part of which was as Assistant Curator. 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, which is a history and ethnography museum, 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 more effectively 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.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part I

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Laura Facey – Heart of a Man…

This is the first of a two-part post on the National Gallery of Jamaica Summer Exhibition. Part 2, which takes a closer look at the exhibition itself, can be found here.

Having worked in curatorial positions in a museum context, at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), for the better part of my thirty-five years in Jamaica, I understand all too well how protective curators tend to be of the projects they work on, as I have been there myself on many occasions. The NGJ staff works very hard, and is highly committed, and that has always been one of the institution’s greatest assets. What they do involves long hours of challenging work, sacrificing personal time and work-life balance, and engaging deeply with the material on view. The resulting protectiveness is not unlike how most artists feel about their own work and that certainly deserves our respect.

So when I read the curatorial essay by the lead curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, of the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, which opened on July 28, I know perfectly well where she is coming from. Her determination to serve as an advocate for the art works and the artists in the exhibition she curated is commendable and shared by most curators, and is in fact part of the professional ethics attached to the field. Nonetheless, I also have reason to be concerned about the overly defensive, legitimizing tone of the essay, which appears to leave no room for any critical engagement. The coyly dismissive references to “vitriol” and the “big, bad critic” and cryptic declarations such as “I do not believe that this is the moment for maintaining demarcations based on opinions of achievement” do not bode well in that regard. If a curatorial project is to be successful, there must be room for healthy and diverse critical engagement, from within and without, and this should be welcomed and even solicited rather than feared, resisted or dismissed.

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NGJ Summer Exhibition – installation view of central gallery, with work, from left to right, by Jordan Harrison, Bryan McFarlane and Esther Chin

Perhaps the defensiveness of the essay is unconsciously pre-emptive, and really an implied acknowledgement that there are, in fact, serious problems with the exhibition, for the Summer Exhibition is not even close to the level that we ought to expect from the NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum. My expectations were admittedly not very high, given the self-limiting manner in which the exhibition was framed, but I am still shocked at its plodding, uninspiring, and dramatically uneven quality. There are some outstanding and interesting works, but the bulk of the exhibition ranges from disappointingly average to, in several instances, totally inappropriate for the NGJ. And I am not the only one to have these views, which are shared by far more observers than the NGJ may care to acknowledge.

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