Inclusion, populism and gatekeeping The National Gallery and the preservation of quality

Inclusion, populism and gatekeeping The National Gallery and the preservation of quality

PETRONA MORRISON

Sunday, January 19, 2020

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The inaugural National Gallery Summer Exhibition 2019, which opened in July and closed in November, invites serious questions about the direction of the National Gallery, and most importantly the future of this major cultural institution.

The exhibition was framed in the context of contentious debates about the continuation of the “invited artist” list, which was initiated decades ago, and which guaranteed inclusion of a selected group of artists to the annual national exhibitions and more recently the National Biennial and Jamaica Biennial exhibitions. This invited list was maintained for the summer exhibition, along with the option for other artists to submit to the juried section, and the exhibition presented works by invited as well as juried artists from Jamaica and the Diaspora, perpetuating the curatorial model the National Gallery had used since the 1970s for the exhibition's predecessors. The summer exhibition 2019, loosely modelled on the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, arguably served as a mechanism to appease those invited artists who strongly opposed proposals to eliminate the invited artists list.

Presented by the current executive director, Dr Jonathan Greenland, as “a new direction”, the summer exhibition was essentially a return to the status quo of the annual national exhibitions and was even described as such by the registrar in a meeting with invited artists in December 2018. It was an explicit rejection of proposals to reform the now-defunct Jamaica Biennial exhibition, making it a completely juried and curated exhibition, which had been presented to the board in 2017 by the former Executive Director Dr Veerle Poupeye and the curatorial team at that time.

The exhibition was nonetheless announced as “an inclusive and diverse showing of Jamaican art”. It was also framed in the context of policy statements by the minister, and declarations by the board chairman that there was a need to “open up the National Gallery”. It is ironic, then, that the retention of the invited artist category is a continuation of an elitist practice which concretises privilege.

The debates about who is included in exhibitions, framed around “inclusion” and “exclusion” are not solely local, and concepts of gatekeeping, inclusion, and exclusion have dominated art worlds overseas. While inclusion is recognised as guaranteeing fair and even-handed access to institutions by diverse groups it does not reject critical evaluation, and the determination of standards. The manner in which the National Gallery's summer exhibition was framed, with statements that were, no doubt, politically popular and therefore rewarding, reflect superficial notions on inclusion, and a lack of concern with maintaining standards. For it appears that the jury, led by the imperative to “open up the place”, decided to not be constrained by critical evaluation in several instances.

The curator who had to turn the work of the invited artists and those that were selected by the jury was left with an unwieldly melange of works: some excellent and innovative works by new exhibitors, emerging and established artists, which would have shone in any exhibition at the National Gallery; a large number of mediocre works; and an equal number of works which should not at all have been exhibited at this level (by both juried an invited artists), which undermined the integrity and credibility of the exhibition. I can immediately hear the vitriol and personal attacks which invariably appear to follow any critique of the recent exhibitions at the National Gallery, but it is critical that the performance of all national institutions be held up to scrutiny.

The National Gallery has had a long history of excellence. With the development and strength of the National Biennial, and then the Jamaica Biennial, the institution was poised for exciting development. The Jamaica Biennial, which included several innovations, such as the inclusion of specially invited artists from elsewhere in the Caribbean and the use of multiple exhibition sites, such as Devon House, was cited by a noted Caribbean art historian and museum director, and former president of the International Council of Museums, as a model for museums in the Caribbean based on its exhibitions, scholarship and incorporation of the participatory and reflexive approaches associated with New Museology. It was a major step forward.

So how did we get from there to the summer exhibition? Despite the flurry of public relations activities by the National Gallery and its board members, it was a fundamentally flawed and retrograde exhibition which did not meet the standard expected from the National Gallery and raises serious questions about its curatorial direction.

National museums are charged with presenting exhibitions which reflect the highest possible standards or levels, whether in those conceptualised and mounted by its curators, or selected by juries, and as such have the responsibility of gatekeeping quality in the sense of ensuring that those levels are maintained. The jury process that was used in the summer exhibitions is, in itself, an acceptance that some degree of gatekeeping is necessary.

It is not in any way elitist to expect that work be selected based on the strength of the ideas, execution, and capacity to engage us and contribute to discourse in new ways, and that all artists should be subjected to the same processes of evaluation. While it is not medium or subject matter that dictates the strength of a work, it is the “level” at which the work is realised. So superficial juxtaposition of materials with no conceptual base, or banality that has no point, or sloppy execution does not make a work worthy of selection. Visual clichés would have to be used intentionally or they become just that. “Bad drawing” is bad drawing if it is meant to be a realist figurative work, while it may be perfectly acceptable if the intention is to distort. And “string art” as a medium would have to transcend beyond the banal, inviting new ways of seeing and engaging with the medium materially or stimulating discussion on its context. Otherwise, it ought to have no place in this exhibition.

The mixed levels of the National Gallery's summer exhibition were a disservice to the artists who had produced strong works, and this is a slippery slope because it both damages the reputation of the institution, and lowers expectations. Framed in the continuation of an elitist practice while exhibiting problematic works under the banner of inclusion, the summer exhibition was a step backward for the National Gallery and an insult to the decades of achievement of the institution and the significant advances presented with the Jamaica Biennial. The National Gallery has done a disservice to the public by presenting an exhibition which is flawed in its selection process, and which does not meet the established standards. If it is to retain its reputation, there can be no capitulation or complicity in fulfilling political agendas based on perceptions of, and expectations of popular support at the expense of artistic integrity.

The summer exhibition was symptomatic of a general decline in the range and quality of new exhibitions and the level of scholarship at the National Gallery over the last two years, and there is also a growing reliance on exhibitions that were curated external to the National Gallery. An examination of the two exhibitions mounted in the last year at the gallery in Kingston supports this observation. Beyond Fashion, which opened in September 2018, was a beautifully mounted exhibition and proved popular with the public. However, its framing, which aesthetisised fashion within the context of “fine arts”, undercut the validity of fashion on its own terms, and ignored the vibrant and subversive Jamaican fashion scene which exists independent of a fine art or gallery space, and which demonstrates the connection of fashion to broader issues of identity, power, gender, and representation. In an area which has been researched by writers and academics outside of Jamaica, the National Gallery did not undertake the level of research and the level of scholarship needed to underpin this exhibition.

The second exhibition was the Summer Exhibition 2019. The National Gallery's next exhibition, scheduled for February 2020, is expected to be a strong exhibition, but is yet another externally curated one which will be re-presented in Jamaica.

In 2017, myself and two other artists had a long conversation with the board Chairman Tom Tavares-Finson about the role of the National Gallery, the shifts in thinking about museums embodied in the New Museology, and the need for emphasis on scholarship and adequate resources in producing quality exhibitions and education programmes. He was quite dismissive, exhibiting very little appetite to engage in discussion on the complex range of issues and challenges that are involved in developing and maintaining an institution that presents Jamaican art at the highest levels. He said that he was focused mainly on increasing the numbers of visitors, which was ironic, as he assumed that the issues raised were irrelevant to increasing and engaging diverse audiences, and he refused to acknowledge that the directions pursued in the preceding five years had, in fact, increased and expanded audiences. At that time, I told him that, based on our conversation, I had deep concerns about the future of the National Gallery. My worst fears have now been materialised.

Policy directions formulated by ministers of government and articulated by boards (which are not intended to play an executive role) of public institutions like the National Gallery must be informed by professional expertise (a position advocated by the current minister of finance), and professionals must ensure that they operate at the highest professional standards. The board, chief curator and executive director must be held responsible for the overall level of the Summer Exhibition 2019, and the absence of rigour in its recent exhibitions. Inclusion must be predicated on equity, where there is a level playing field for all artists, and where all artists are subject to the same rigorous critical evaluation, whether invited or juried.

It is time for the artists who privately expressed dismay at the summer exhibition — including one of our most recognised artists who reported crying at what was being presented — to make their voices heard publicly. The non-participation of a significant number of artists who had participated in the earlier National Biennial and Jamaica Biennial spoke volumes. The National Gallery is too important an institution to remain silent.

Petrona Morrison is a sculptor and media artist, as well as a former board member of the National Gallery of Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or petrona_morrison@hotmail.com.


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