THINGS THAT MATTER: Where, Oh where - is our National Art Gallery?

The new Minister of Culture, John King, recently announced that we WILL have a National Art Gallery at Block A, the Garrison, which was vacated almost three years ago by CXC. Hope springs eternal to the breasts of artists and indeed the entire populace of Barbados. We hope that this Minister means business, because we all recall statements every six months or so by the last administration. A few samples of many promises will suffice:

June 30, 2015: “The National Art Collection will soon have a permanent home, with the establishment of a National Art Gallery.” This announcement came from Minister of Culture, Stephen Lashley, on Sunday at the opening of the Crop Over Visual Arts Festival. “I’m pleased to advise that a space has now been made available by the Ministry of Housing, Lands and Rural Development … the same location where the CXC (Caribbean Examinations Council) was housed.”

April 12, 2017: “Barbadian art will soon have a home.” Minister Lashley said that efforts are on to create a permanent home for Barbadian art: “A building has been identified, which is part of the Garrison – which is Block A – and we are negotiating the handover of the keys from the Ministry of Housing and Lands …”

December 12, 2017: “The Barbados National Art Gallery will soon be realised. The identified location is Block A at the Garrison.” Minister of Culture, Sports and Youth, Stephen Lashley, made the disclosure as he spoke at the opening of the Celebrating 60 art exhibition held at Barbados Arts Council.

The facts are that “way back when”, long before 2008, the Arthur administration had identified Block A as the future home of the National Art Gallery. It was the perfect site, next to the National Museum and other empty buildings just waiting to be adapted for restaurants and other cultural uses, and obviously another big attraction to bring life into the UNESCO historic site. Being in good relatively good condition, re-design and retro-fitting of the interior would be relatively inexpensive. A no-brainer!

A National Art Gallery is indeed a “no-brainer”. Jamaica’s splendid National Art Gallery is right up there with the famous Devon House and the Bob Marley House Museum as Kingston’s great attractions. London’s National Gallery comes second only to the British Museum of all Britain’s many attractions, welcoming more than six million visitors a year. Barbados needs a National Art Gallery desperately, for a dozen obvious reasons, as proposed more than 40 years ago.

The National Art Collection comprises several hundred magnificent paintings by almost every known artist of fame and merit. The National Art Gallery Committee, which I’ll call NAGCOM) and on which I served briefly in its active phase in the ‘80s, owed much of its success to the late Norma Talma and her friends and colleagues – artists and collectors. In the ‘80s, year after year, it held annual Purchase Award Exhibitions, in which funds were raised to give five purchase awards, chosen by a distinguished international panel of judges. With energetic fund-raising the Committee was able to purchase other important Barbadian paintings, and for a few years there was a National Gallery in a building at the Garrison provided by the generosity of the Barbados Turf Club. A great member and supporter of the NAGCOM’s efforts was Mrs. Nancy Sonis, who has donated her collection of some 70 magnificent works by Bajan artists to the Barbados Museum – and now in storage.

Sadly, the understanding that the Government would provide the building for a National Gallery has been an unachievable holy grail. With every hollow promise the reality drifted further and further away. Items in the collection are scattered across many government departments, while a great many are unsatisfactorily stored in a building attached to the Holetown Police station, with no conservation.

Meanwhile the designated Block A stands empty, growing ferns and moss and weed. There were apparently ladies of the night entertaining in the comforts of the building until several people called me one day (why me?) to alert me to it, and I called the Ministry of Housing. There was a quick response and security was effected before a fire could start, as has been allowed across the Old Hospital site at Jemmott’s Lane by leaving empty buildings with open doors. (Three buildings there have been gutted by fire and two by vandals leaving two to go! That’s why I once described the Ministry of Housing in recent years as the undertaker and not the caretaker of our buildings in need.)

We have some 300 plus practising artists in Barbados, many of whose work can be seen on the web in Arts Directory Barbados by Corrie Scott and Kathy Yearwood, and we have about a dozen art galleries – commercial, new or long-standing, and “pop-up” exhibitions. Best known and accessible are the Pelican Gallery of the Barbados Arts Council in Pelican Village, The Art Splash Gallery in Hastings, the Gallery NuEdge at Limegrove, the Gallery of Caribbean Art in Speightstown, On The Wall Gallery at Champers Restaurant, The Fangipani Gallery, The Earthworks Complex, and the Tides Restaurant Gallery – and perhaps others – occasional and temporary – that I know less well. But these various commercial galleries are no substitute for a National Gallery, which inspires and teaches students, entertains and informs locals and visitors, makes the most eloquent possible statement about our life, our culture, our people and our history, and has all kinds of cultural and economic ripple effects.

The Bottom Line is that we need a National Gallery. Its continuing absence is a national embarrassment, and now is the perfect time for our Ministry of Culture to work in committed partnership with the private sector to transform and adapt Block A to this noble purpose.
Bouquets: to the splendid artists displaying at the Pelican Gallery’s Crop Over Exhibition. I particularly liked Lilian Sten’s miniatures “Spirit of the Goddess” series, Neville Legall’s “Boats in the Careenage”, Angela Burnett’s water-colours and Raymond Maughan’s wonderfully evocative “St. Lawrence Gap at night”.

And a bouquet to myself, as today’s column equals the great Brian Lara’s Test record score of 400 … that’s 400 columns for the Sunday Advocate on Things that Matter!
Tribute: On the passing of Nick Parravicino, the doyen of real estate in Barbados. He had a memory like the proverbial elephant, was kind and generous to a fault, and was considered by everyone he ever met to be the nicest man in Barbados. He will be sorely missed. Condolences to his family and many friends.

(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Website:

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