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Crisis at National Gallery of Jamaica

Published:Saturday | July 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM

The National Gallery of Jamaica is a key institution in the area of high art culture and its communication locally and abroad. The Gallery preserves art, educates children and adults, and researches and produces brochures and catalogues for publication that have accompanied its exhibitions over the years.

All is not well. A crisis is looming.

First, Jamaican governments have not understood the power of the fine arts and, to this day, they are unable to connect different cultural experiences. So, for instance, 'Tourism' is understood as visitors coming to a Jamaican 'gated' hotel on the north coast to swim, snorkel, eat, drink and to give themselves sunburns, while the definition of 'tourism' has undergone change. Educated visitors want to experience mountain climbing, ecotourism (Jamaica has rare species of ferns, orchids as well as birds), fine art at museums and galleries, and to participate in popular reggae, dancehall musical concerts.

Second, after Independence, 'Culture' was tied to the Office of the Prime Minister. Both the late Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, who is still alive, understood the role that the fine arts and material culture could play for the nation and for diplomacy. Since then, prime ministers have not taken the same interest, and 'Culture' has often been allied with 'Youth' or with 'Sports'. Experience shows that one ministry will always have the attention of that minister at the expense of the other. Rather than a double-portfolio Ministry of Culture and Sports, or Youth, I should like to recommend a minister for culture alone.


Third, there is a problem with budgets. For years, the NGJ has been beholden to budgets provided under its umbrella organisation, the Institute of Jamaica. Allocated budgets to the NGJ have been falling. Lessening budgets affect the quality and number of exhibitions that are mounted in a given year as well as the psychological environment.

Fourth, there is now a crisis among staff at the Gallery and it is within this area that the NGJ's critical impasse is most apparent.

Since, the problematic and insensitive way in which Dr David Boxer, Jamaica's first academically trained art historian and the National Gallery's first director-curator and most recently its chief curator emeritus was eased out of the institution, the Gallery has experienced an unusually high number of resignations from members of the curatorial and non-curatorial staff, including two directors of administration and finance, two senior curators, three graphic designers, and now the latest high-profile resignation of Charles Campbell, a Canadian of Jamaican origin, recruited only six months ago from Toronto to fill the role of chief curator.

In most cases, these individuals have had differences with the current executive director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, Belgian by birth and only recently in the height of the conflicts with Dr Boxer, a hurriedly, naturalised Jamaican. These resignations will continue as long as the board of the NGJ and, by extension, the minister, remain indifferent to the crisis.

The NGJ's board members need to ask themselves why they were chosen to sit the board. Why have they not responded to events? Are they being manipulated? Do they blithely approve of the executive director's every decision? The morale of present staff, I am told, is extremely low.0

The board needs to acknowledge the crisis and not to turn a blind eye to the situation. They need to consider why the resignations have been offered, depriving Jamaica of talent that the country can ill afford to lose at this stage of its development.

I beseech the minister of culture and the board members of the NGJ to live up to their duty and save the institution.