We could not let the year come to a close without acknowledging that 2009 marks the 35th anniversary of the NGJ. This post is based on a press release we have sent out to mark the occasion and provides an overview of the NGJ’s key achievements and activities.
The National Gallery of Jamaica was established in 1974, as the first national art gallery in the Anglophone Caribbean. National galleries have since been established in Guyana, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and soon also in Barbados but within the Caribbean region, the National Gallery of Jamaica is second only to the art museums of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in terms of the size of its facilities and collection and the scope of its operations.
The National Gallery was originally located at Devon House but moved in 1982 to its current home in the Roy West Building on the Kingston Waterfront, a large modern building originally designed as a department store. The move was initially meant to be a temporary one, while the construction of a new building was being considered. Another building may eventually be constructed to house all or part of its operations but the National Gallery is now well established as a Kingston Waterfront institution and committed to its important role in the revitalization of Downtown Kingston as a vibrant culture and business district. The Gallery already serves as a cultural tourism attraction and holds an important place in the current efforts to reposition Kingston as an urban tourism destination.
Moving from Devon House meant losing the guaranteed visitorship that came with that centrally located historic site and tourist attraction but at the Roy West Building, the Gallery gained approximately 30,000 square foot of temporary and permanent exhibition space. This allowed for the expansion of the Gallery’s temporary exhibition programme and the permanent display of parts of its rapidly growing collection. Aided by the Gallery’s active efforts to attract new audiences, visitor figures have been increasing steadily and now amount to about 18,000 visitors per year, a significant portion of which are Jamaican school children and students. The Gallery reaches countless others through its publications, its involvement in overseas exhibitions of Jamaican art, and, increasingly, its active presence on the Internet.
The National Gallery is a division of the Institute of Jamaica and its mission is: “To collect, research, document and preserve Jamaican, other Caribbean Art and related material and to promote our artistic heritage for the benefit of present and future generations.” This mission statement focuses on the Gallery’s role as a repository and showcase of Jamaica’s artistic heritage and its mandate to make this heritage available to local and international audiences.
At the time of its establishment, the National Gallery inherited 200 paintings and 30 sculptures from the collection of the Institute of Jamaica. Today, the National Collection consists of more than 1,700 works of art and can rightly be called the premier collection of Jamaican art. In the absence of a regular capital allocation for acquisitions, the Collection has grown mainly by means of donations by means of donations by collectors and artists and from alternative sources of funding such as corporate sponsorship and the Gallery’s own fund-raising activities. The most significant donations to date are the A.D. Scott Collection and the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, both of which were donated by major Jamaican collectors.
The National Collection provides encyclopedic coverage of Jamaican art from the Pre-Columbian era to the present and by traditional, self-taught and formally trained artists, ranging from the anonymous artists of the Jamaican Taíno to well-known Jamaican masters such as Isaac Mendez Belisario, John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Barrington Watson and Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds. The Collection reflects the remarkable variety of Jamaican art production: it includes the conventional and the experimental, the representational and the abstract, and popular and outsider art and conventional fine art, in diverse media and formats such as painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramic, textile, original print, photography, installation and assemblage. About 350 works from the National Collection are, on average, on view in the Gallery’s permanent exhibitions which provide a comprehensive overview of Jamaican art history.
The Gallery is currently refurbishing its permanent exhibitions, to make the exhibits more engaging and up-to-date, an exercise which started in 2008 with the historical galleries Art in Jamaica, circa 1,000 to 1900 AD. In October 2009, the new Edna Manley Galleries were completed and the reinstallation of the remaining galleries, including the main permanent exhibition on modern Jamaican art, will start shortly. The refurbishing project will culminate with the re-opening of the Kapo Galleries during the centenary of Kapo’s birth in 2011, when a major new donation of Kapo’s paintings will be integrated with the National Gallery’s other Kapo holdings. Since the Gallery did not want to deprive the public of its Kapo collection until then, a temporary gallery with selections of his work has been put in place and will remain on view for most of 2010.
In addition, the National Gallery stages an average of five temporary exhibitions per year. Most of these exhibitions are curated in-house or by specially commissioned guest curators and focus on Jamaican and, occasionally, other Caribbean art. The exhibition programme typically also includes one touring exhibition per year and has thus far included exhibitions from the USA, England, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Columbia, Mexico, Spain and, most recently, the Czech Republic. The Gallery’s exhibitions of Jamaican art seek to strike a balance between exhibitions that document aspects of Jamaican art history, such as artist’s retrospectives, and those that expose and encourage new developments. The latter include the annual National Visual Arts Competition and Exhibition which is staged in collaboration with JCDC; the National Biennial; and exhibitions that are specifically designed to promote emerging talent, such as the Young Talent series which showcases the work of promising artists under forty. Exhibitions that are currently in preparation include the Young Talent IV exhibition for April 2010 and a major Barrington Watson retrospective for April 2011.
The National Gallery’s core functions of collecting and exhibiting Jamaican art are supported by its research, publications and education programmes and visitor services such as a gift and coffee shop. The Gallery is at present the main source of publications on Jamaican art, through its own publications, especially its exhibition catalogues, and its contributions to other publications such as Jamaica Journal. The Gallery’s active education programme offers guided tours, library and documentation services, lectures, panel discussions and film screenings, children’s art workshops, and outreach visits to schools and community organizations. These support services allow the Gallery to reach and cultivate new audiences and play an increasingly important role in how the National Gallery serves its stakeholders in the 21st century.