The National Gallery at Forty

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is the oldest and largest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean and opened its doors, originally at historic Devon House, on November 14, 1974 and the Gallery will thus be celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Much has happened since the Gallery first opened and the fortieth anniversary provides us with an opportunity to remember and celebrate; to reflect on what has been achieved, and what is left to be done; and in doing all of this, to plot the most productive future trajectories.

Devon House was a beautiful and popular location but the National Gallery quickly outgrew these premises, because of its expanding collections and exhibition programme. The Gallery thus moved to its present, much larger and modern premises on the Kingston Waterfront in 1982 and while there have been plans for a new National Gallery building, our present location has become our de facto long term home. We are about to start a programme to develop our present building to current museum standards and recently, we have also added an extension in Montego Bay: National Gallery West, which opened on July 11 at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre on Sam Sharpe Square.

The National Gallery’s early exhibitions focused mainly on mapping out the story of Jamaican art, as was done in the first major survey of Jamaican art, Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1976), and the even more influential Jamaican Art 1922-1982 exhibition, a more definitive survey of Jamaican art history which was organized with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and which toured the USA, Canada and Haiti from 1983 to 1985. The process of articulating the stories of Jamaican art continues today, for instance by organizing retrospective exhibitions to honour major artists, such as Barrington Watson in 2012, although the curatorial emphasis has shifted to include exhibitions that provide exposure to young and emerging artists, for instance in the Young Talent exhibition series, the most recent of which was Young Talent V (2010) and last year’s New Roots exhibition. Initially focused on the traditional “fine arts” – painting and sculpture – the Gallery has also widened its interests to include a variety of other media and art forms, including installation art, video, performance, graphic design, popular visual culture, and, most recently, street art in the Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica exhibition.

This widening scope has also been evident in the development of the National Gallery’s collections, which started with two hundred paintings and thirty sculptures that were transferred from the Institute of Jamaica Collection. Today, the collection comprises just over two thousand works of art in a wide variety of media and genres. Most of it is arguably Jamaican, in the sense that it is made by artists who have been active in Jamaica or who have lived elsewhere but are of immediate Jamaican descent, and a significant part of it addresses themes that are directly relevant to Jamaican history and culture. Over the years, the National Gallery has depended heavily on donations to develop its collections and these have come from artists, collectors and corporations. Some of the most significant donations have been: the A.D. Scott Collection, the Edna Manley Memorial Collection (to which several individual and corporate donors contributed), the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, and, most recently, the Guy McIntosh Donation.

The Gallery has an active education programme that consists of regular services, such as guided tours and research assistance, and special programmes, such as lectures, film screenings, panel discussions and Saturday Art Time, a free, gallery-based Saturday art workshop for children, held on Saturday mornings during the school year – this programme is funded by CHASE. The Gallery is also the main research and publication institution regarding Jamaican art and visual culture and publishes print publications such as exhibition catalogues and contributions to journals and online publications such as its widely read blog, at <nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com>, and National Gallery West now has its own blog at <nationalgallerywest.wordpress.com>. The Gallery, and National Gallery West, also keep a lively presence on Facebook and Twitter.

In developing our exhibitions and related programmes, we have also placed great emphasis in widening its audiences and into removing the social barriers that have caused the Gallery to be seen as an elitist institution. Our active social media presence is part of those strategies, as are new programmes such as its increasingly popular Last Sundays, whereby the Gallery is now open every last Sunday of the month, with free admission, free tours and children’s activities and special events such as concerts or dance and drama performances. One other area of development we are working on actively is to reach out more actively to the Jamaican Diaspora and to have a more visible presence in the Caribbean region, as was illustrated by overseas exhibitions such as the Circa1962/Circa 2012 exhibition at the Mississauga Art Gallery in Canada, on the occasion of Jamaica 50 in 2012, and the more recent Jamaican Art from the 1960s and 70s exhibition at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands.

While there is much to be proud of, especially in terms of the quality of the collections and exhibitions, the Gallery must constantly re-evaluate and re-invent itself to ensure that it meets the changing needs of its audiences and other stakeholders. The programmes we will be presenting to mark the 40th anniversary are presented in this spirit. The first major event will be the exhibition In Retrospect, scheduled to open on August 31, which will present a review of the NGJ’s history, in terms of the main exhibitions, acquisitions, other key events and, not to be overlooked, the personalities that have shaped its development. The second major exhibition will be the expanded Biennial, rebranded as the Jamaica Biennial, which is scheduled to open later in the year and will have a more international focus than before. There will also be other events, such as a special fundraiser on November 14 – our actual anniversary day – and a public awareness campaign, designed to expand our reach to our various audiences. And, while it was not presented as an anniversary event, the recent opening of National Gallery West is perhaps the best birthday gift we could have received (and it was fully funded by the Tourism Enhancement Fund), since it is entirely in keeping with our drive to reach to new audiences, in this case the population of Western Jamaica and the many visitors to that part of the island.

The National Gallery of Jamaica is a division of the Institute of Jamaica and falls under the Ministry of Youth and Culture.

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