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.