By Lindsey Turnbull
A unique exhibition is currently on show at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and runs for a good many months until 28 May, an amazing showcase of the evolution of Cayman’s incredible art museum – the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and the wonderful and diverse art that it holds within its collection.
Fifty pieces of artwork take viewers on a journey from the Gallery’s humble beginnings 25 years ago, all the way through to a temporary location in Harbour Place, and finally, to its very own home where it has been situated for ten years.
William Helfrecht is the Collections Curator at National Gallery. He explained: “We wanted to take this opportunity because, coincidentally, it was our 25th anniversary this year as we were founded in 1997, and this exhibition opened to the day on the tenth anniversary of this new building opening, so it was a retrospective moment,” he said.
At the same time, the Gallery wanted to look ahead, to the future of the Gallery and especially how it had evolved since the pandemic during the last couple of years.
The exhibition highlights the Gallery’s exponential growth of 240% in its collection over the last ten years, brilliantly show cased in the exhibition gallery space which continues upstairs in the permanent collection gallery.
“We’ve actually got around 40% of the entire collection on display currently, which is pretty unusual,” William confirmed.
They named the exhibition The People’s Collection in a bid to reflect on their role in Cayman and how it fitted into the cultural landscape.
“We considered what is our mission and, doubly so, in this pandemic moment. We were thinking about the role of museums more broadly and what they offered to society. Its title is about the sense of collective ownership and pride we’ve always had. We’ve always had free admission and that is core to the values of the National Gallery, in terms of accessibility,” he advised.
William said admission was obviously a barrier during the pandemic and so they had been addressing this issue really well over the past few years, not just with exhibitions, but also with their education programmes and also via digital access.
The People’s Collection is a 25-year cultural legacy that they considered carefully how to present in a new way.
“You think of a collection perhaps as a static body of objects, but it’s actually very dynamic because even if you’re displaying some of the classics, some of our most iconic pieces, when you put them into this new context, you frame them in a different light and experience them differently,” William advised. “We went with a chronological presentation, so the artworks are arranged more or less faithfully in the order in which they were acquired. So, as you walk through, you are seeing the collection grow before your eyes.”
First corridor, 1997 to 2010
A piece by Jan Barwick was the first piece acquired by the National Gallery and this begins the artistic journey, with work from Charles Long, Miguel Powery, Joanne Sibley and Miss Lassie, to name but a few.
“The exhibition is not simply a show about the artworks; in fact, it’s almost telling a story of the institution through the artwork,” William explained. “You will see a lot of text on the wall. That really helps visitors understand what they are looking at and why we displayed it in this way.”
All of the labels have a QR code which is scannable, and they recorded, with the assistance of interns, audio in English and Spanish, to be more inclusive.
“If you want to find out more, you can scan the QR code and it takes you to the website where you can see the collection online page. This allows you to view the collection in its own right and, if you want to find out more, it’s all there for you,” he said.
In such a way, the viewer is brought on a journey through the Gallery’s own institutional history and through landmark exhibitions. A good example of this is a sculpture by Karoly Szucs produced from the detritus in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Very soon after the hurricane, the Gallery wanted to put on an exhibition as a community project to show resilience, so they held a show called Emergence. The piece was shown at that exhibition, making it very iconic, William explained.
Second corridor, 2010 to 2017
This location begins with pieces from the exhibition 21st Century Cayman which was held in 2010 ane which paired contemporary artists with local crafters. It moves through to items from a show called Revive which was in 2017.
“Revive was another exhibition on contemporary Caymanian and we have taken some selections from there to really show the diversity and eclecticism of the type of work we have been collecting,” William said.
The juxtapositions of traditional and abstract modern pieces are a reflection of how the Gallery conscientiously makes an effort to represent the full spectrum of creative practice in Cayman, he added.
Part of the exhibition was also about explaining who the Gallery is in terms of being a non-profit, statutory authority of the government.
“Not everyone knows, but we haven’t had a standing acquisitions budget. A lot of the collection has been supported through philanthropic donations and corporate support,” William advised.
The final space represents recent acquisitions over the last four years.
“This is full of very strong work, that has come through support from the Ministry of Youth, Sport, Culture and Heritage and also through people like our chair Susan Olde, who was instrumental in supporting the Bendal Hydes Retrospective,” William said.
In here there is a diverse representation of artists, including many pieces from Native Sons artists and also up-and-coming young artists. From the very start, the Gallery wanted to recognise young emerging artists who might someday become more established, with work from 21-year-old Brandon Saunders, as well as work by Simon Tatum and John Reno Jackson featured. A final piece is the only work not owned by the collection, a fine piece of ceramics by Yonier Powery which William calls a very important piece that pays homage to the local art scene that has embraced him, the artist’s personal tribute to Cayman’s artistic forefathers. The Gallery is trying to buy this for the collection and has launched an art fund for this purpose.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show and how it differs from previous exhibitions is the showcase of their digital programmes. Read more on this in upcoming editions of the Caymanian Times.