A REAL WYBE: Bahamian cultural opinion leaders call for restructuring of cultural sector

A REAL WYBE: Bahamian cultural opinion leaders call for restructuring of cultural sector
Actors on stage for Love’s Labour’s Lost, presented by Shakespeare in Paradise, at Fiona’s Theatre, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB).

Former director of culture and film festival director cite lack of autonomy and identity

“I want culture to be an entree rather than an appetizer, you know?”

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — The trajectory of the Bahamian cultural sector has often been shrouded in uncertainty, with creative artists and the wider society alike speculating that the sector has received little funding, development and support from the government over the years. 

In an interview with Eyewitness News, Dr Nicolette Bethel and Leslie Vanderpool, opinion leaders in the Bahamian cultural sphere, both expressed the need for a structural shift in the cultural division, citing a lack of autonomy and identity amongst other issues to be found in the cultural sector.  

Bethel, former director of cultural affairs and festival director of Shakespeare in Paradise, revealed that the department cannot even function on its own. 

Dr. Nicolette Bethel, former director of cultural affairs.

“The problem with the [cultural] division is that it is not a fully-functioning, self-sufficient department, so if people talk about the ‘department of culture’, they’re dreaming,” said Bethel. 

According to the daughter of Bahamian cultural legend E Clement Bethel, the lack of autonomy for the cultural division lends to another major conundrum — the division can use neither donations received nor profits earned to fund its own costs. 

“Right now, what happens is if you are a part of the government, and you are following the Constitution, all money that you bring into whatever agency you’re in has to go into the public purse,” she explained.

“It has to go into the consolidated fund for the government.”

Calling the policy “problematic”, Bethel stressed that it does not work for the cultural division. 

 “Culture can generate its own funding, can bring in its own patronage, can raise money through advertising. It can do all of that,” she insisted. 

She recounted an experience in which the division hosted a benefit concert for national cultural entities, only to be told by the Ministry of Finance that they were prohibited from using the proceeds. 

An image posted on social media showing the name of the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture with the word “culture” in fine print at the bottom, indicating the community’s sentiments that it is often brushed aside.

She also used the National Centre of The Performing Arts as an example, saying that there was no line item for that entity. 

“You couldn’t paint it; you couldn’t repair it; you couldn’t do anything because there was no line item, no account to do anything with that,” Bethel said. 

“The Center of The Performing Arts was being rented and was bringing money into the consolidated fund. The same thing with the national dance school, which was closed down under the Minnis administration. Same thing with the National Arts Festival.

“They all bring money in, but they don’t get that money back out of the consolidated fund because somebody else from the Ministry of Finance decides what allocation is going to be taken out.”

Leslie Vanderpool, founder and executive director of the Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF), echoed a similar sentiment concerning the cultural division’s lack of structure and proposed the idea of the government forming a task force aimed at developing and managing the cultural affairs of the country. 

Leslie Vanderpool, founder and executive director of the Bahamas International Film Festival.

“[The cultural sector] is non-existent; it doesn’t have a platform to really express and expand,” she said in an interview with Eyewitness News. 

“I feel as if we, as a collective, need to have a task force to continue to make our voices heard.

“We need to have people lobbying. We need to treat culture, or the lack of it rather, like we face the pandemic.”

Vanderpool, who boasted that BIFF has showcased over 82 Bahamian films and started the careers of over 52 Bahamian film directors since its inception, also hinted at a lack of cultural identity in the country. 

“I want culture to be an entree rather than an appetizer, you know?” she said.

She also asserted that Bahamian culture should inform its tourism industry — not the other way around. 

“We need to really reinvent the way that tourism is presenting itself and the ministry of culture is presenting itself,” Vanderpool said.  

She said: “We rely so much on ‘heads and beds’ and ‘butts in seats’ that we’ve kind of pandered to those people who have those mega resorts telling us what culture is.

“If you have a tourism entity that is constantly ‘mandating that or working towards that’, on a daily basis, they’re not necessarily concentrating on what the content is for these people to come down to The Bahamas. 

“They’re coming down to come and see The Bahamas, and if they were given some kind of content, you would see people returning.”

Written by Eyewitness News Intern Gabrielle Sterling