We continue the publication of the text panels in In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica, with the text panel for the first section of the exhibition, which looks at the earliest beginnings of our collection:
When the National Gallery opened its doors in 1974, a significant part of the Institute of Jamaica’s art collection was transferred to the new organization. According to our records, this comprised 237 paintings and drawings and 25 sculptures which thus became the Gallery’s foundational collection.The initial transfer consisted of modern Jamaican art only, starting with Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused (1935), but a group of pre-twentieth century works was later also transferred, in 1976, which now forms the core of the National Gallery’s historical collection.
The artworks that were transferred to the National Gallery in 1974 not only says a lot about how the Institute of Jamaica went about its exhibitions and acquisitions—and most acquisitions were from exhibitions that were held at the Institute—but also helps to explain how the early National Gallery was conceptualized. Negro Aroused (1935) had been acquired by public subscription in 1937 as the first modern work of art to enter the Institute’s collection—its acquisition can be seen as the symbolic beginning of what later became the National Gallery. Before that, the Institute had acquired art mainly for its historical value, for instance for their portrait gallery, and furthermore made those decisions from a decidedly colonial perspective. This was challenged by the nationalist intelligentsia in the late 1930s, who pressured the Institute of Jamaica to become receptive to the emerging modern Jamaican school, and it is the resulting change in policy direction which generated the art collection that was eventually transferred to the National Gallery. The articles of association of the National Gallery mandated it to exhibit and collect the art that had come out of the 1938 uprising, which was a narrow and ultimately untenable mandate that was, as we will see in the next section, quickly challenged and expanded by its Director/Curator David Boxer, but it was consistent with the context in which its core collection had come about.
Generally speaking the Institute of Jamaica’s art collection was quite conservative and focused on representational art with iconic Jamaican themes but there were some exceptions that suggest that the Institute was in fact responsive to new developments in Jamaican art, such as the highly abstracted Eugene Hyde Croton in this section. It is also of note that the initial collection consisted mainly of painting and sculpture, as well as a few drawings, even though there were already well-recognized practitioners in other media, such as the ceramist Cecil Baugh and photographers such as Maria LaYacona. That these media and artists were not included in the foundational collection illustrated that the National Gallery was established with a conventional ‘fine art’ bias, which as other sections of this exhibition will illustrate was also subject to challenges and course corrections later on.
This section features some of the masterpieces that were part of this transfer, including Edna Manley’s famed Negro Aroused. Works that were transferred at that time are also featured elsewhere in this exhibition, since they were included in some of the National Gallery’s key exhibitions, and are labelled as such.