How to turn a storm in a teacup into an opportunity for national progress

Let it be known from the outset that the ultimate purpose of this essay is a desire to promote a fuller understanding of the word “national” and the challenges, obligations and opportunities the designation presents to organizations, which incorporate the word in their titles. In these times when The Bahamas is still developing and financially tried, public institutions dedicated to the promotion of creativity have an especially vital role to play in stabilizing and growing the country’s economy. Given the genius band of creatives with which our islands have been endowed, the creative industries, producing trillions of dollars globally, could well become a third pillar of the Bahamian economy.

Officially opened in 2003, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), though still very young, is well placed to make a considerable contribution in this regard from its globally visible platform. Thus far, it enjoys that rarity of being the only public institution of this kind into which government has made so large an investment. The National Museum and the National Library have yet to emerge and the Performing Arts Centre is a travesty.

Nevertheless, NAGB will not realize its rich potential, if its leadership is not possessed of the highest integrity and is unsure of where its loyalties lie. Leadership quality and effectiveness will decline, if squandered in tribalism and egotistical defence at every wind viewed as unfavourable to its self-consequence.

In the first week of August 2018, two comments on Facebook regarding processes at NAGB put these leadership issues to the test. Time and tide will decide the glorious fitness to lead, a pass or an abysmal fail. The questions asked were:

  1. Why was the Gallery commissioning graphic design work from an artist 1,449 miles (2,332 km) away in Trinidad and Tobago?
  2. Why was a single person the gateway for the receipt of the applications for participation in the 9th National Exhibition, dubbed “NE 9” in the manner of past expositions?

With this inquiry, the poser of the questions, whom I shall designate “Firebu’n”, (a good old Bahamian term for hornets’ nest stirrer), brashly flung open a door that has been too long shut by self-satisfaction and internal colonialism. Many of less courage have tended to hide their concerns in hope that, by keeping silent, they might someday be rewarded with a thrown bone.

The questions were easy enough to answer and graciously so, if there was nothing to hide, and especially in the milieu of the art world, whose heartbeat is supposedly high intellect, sophistication and style. Instead, to this writer’s great surprise, those questions excited a hissy fit, a metaphorical fitness demonstration and Cirque de Soleil acrobatics—much jumping to conclusions, climbing the walls, flying of the handle, going off the deep end, stretching the truth, and deep-knee-bending of credibility and general running round in circles like headless chickens. Let’s not forget the religious element—supplicants and acolytes genuflecting before the altar of Bahamian art and heaping fervent praises on its high priests.

Sadly, the respondents took recourse to one of the most primal instincts of humankind from hunter/gatherer days—Fight or flight. The first blows in the “fight” sequence came in the form of a defense of NAGB’s commissioning of a Trinidadian graphic artist to design two or three NE catalogues. One comment negatively referenced the right of the “older generation” to have a say in NAGB affairs and represented, as “insularity”, the concern about the exporting of jobs talented Bahamians could have done with excellence. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, that sally was withdrawn. Obviously, in an “oh, oh”, cooler moment, came the realization that when one is truly dedicated to fight bigotry, as one believes the commenter to be, one must be careful of committing that very sin in a moment of heat.

The next and most telling advance came from the NAGB’s chief curator. I take the liberty of quoting from that submission:

Given the rampant corruption, nepotism and all else that plague our countries and our institutions this is a very valid question. But the role of the Chief Curator, me, as the administrator of submissions, shouldn’t raise red flags, it is just that. If there are comments about my competency at return responses or acknowledging submissions then, you would be the first person to mention this. As I have administered the pool of works in the past and respond to inquiries beyond what my role calls for. In the past, this was also the case and this is how the NEs have been managed. I am in the fortunate position of this being my 3rd National Exhibition and therefore, I can say that it is the most productive way to go about dealing with submissions from an institutional standpoint.

The curator’s first sentence was excellent. It gave me hope that the initial circling of the wagons, and the NAG Beehive behaviour was about to cede centre stage to transparent and admirable leadership. After all, this St Vincent & The Grenadines native would have had direct experience of the “rampant corruption, nepotism and all else that plague our countries and our institutions,” and the consequent smallness of opportunity in the land of her birth. I felt sure that this daughter of a Caribbean nation would have had intimate experience of the ugly racial, colour and class-based legacies of slavery and colonialism, subjects of which she writes frequently. Moreover, I felt that such a well-educated woman would surely have read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, which speaks so cogently of the many pitfalls of exclusion that hallmark such societies. And what greater promise could there be than her early acknowledgment of the validity of the first question posed by the person who fueled the storm in the teacup, now threatening to reach gale force and spill from the vessel.

Hope took a bitch-lick in the very next sentence: “the Chief Curator, me…”. Incredible! This good woman replied instinctively and personally with songs in the key of me, a paean of self-justification and praise. In another Facebook post, she alluded to the heavy burden of cleaning up the “inheritance” of the NAGB past, which she and other members of the NAGB administration have had to bear. One would hope that this was not an egregious attempt to impugn the contributions of the first director and the board members, curators and volunteers who served before the present imperium. As a founding, now former member of the Gallery board, I have firsthand knowledge of the dedication and sacrifices that went into laying the foundation.

The curator sidestepped altogether the burning question of why NAGB was exporting a plum job to T&T, lending covert support to her defender’s dismissive claim of the insularity of the person who dared to question. My curiosity prompts me to ask what other jobs are being exported to Trinidad and elsewhere to the disadvantage of qualified Bahamians, a dubious move well-camouflaged as “internationalism”?

Secondly, the curator, with a flood of high-flying verbiage, obscured the issue of whether we can be sure of the transparency and probity of the NE selection process in “a small place”. History provides ample evidence that both virtues are severely challenged where there are no degrees of separation, where everyone is connected either by blood, marriage, friendship, partnerships fair and foul and, sorrowfully, often influenced by gossip, malice and a taste for throwing people one doesn’t like under the bus.

The substance of this essay is that the challenges should have been seen as an opportunity to expand and increase the quality of NAGB’s community relations and shore up belief in its inclusiveness, surely?

In this vein, my answer to the first question would have been an apology for shortsightedness and sending work out of the country unnecessarily. Why? Because I am supremely conscious of the fact that the Bahamian economy is currently balanced on the head of a pin and, as a result, unemployment is still too high. Furthermore, I know that The Bahamas has a goodly number of highly talented Bahamian graphic designers, who could have used the commission and the fervent praise the curator heaped on the Trinidadian. Lastly, I would have been careful to avoid an accusation of nepotism.

Now regarding the question of the fairness of the application process for having work chosen for the National Exhibition: My response would have been informed by the knowledge that we live in a fishbowl, where it is so easy to fall into the netherworld of exclusion from whatever bounties that arise, and where “free flow” of thought and opportunity is often stopped in the constipated societies of “small places”. I would have been overwhelmingly conscious that the fear of scarce opportunities encourages hoarding and exclusion, retarding equity and growth in our beloved homeland and elsewhere. I would have known that the same people tend to turn up on boards, exchanging prejudices until a Trumpian wall is erected to keep out upstart migrants with artistic pretensions. I would have begun immediately to think of ways to open the perceived age-old phalanx to a fresh wind of clarity and, if needed, change.

I would have allayed the fears of the questioner—not by sending him to a foot-long URL on the Web as a member of the NAG Beehive did. I would have proposed a conversation—a face-to-face dialogue, and invited suggestions for greater transparency. The chief curator spoke of a jury—yes, but remember the handcuffs that bind objectivity—the mindsets and inclinations of the inhabitants of “small places”.

To ensure justice, judging must be “blind”. All those who have taken part in any respected competition know of that unimpeachable safeguard against favoritism—as much anonymity as possible. Judges of the Templeton Laws of Life Essay Competition see essays that only bear a number—no name. As regards, the national art exhibitions, aficionados may recognize a style, but they would not know for certain. Better yet, it is common to human beings to have unique combinations of taste and prejudices regarding subject matter. The search for “international judges” should make a determined effort to go beyond intimates of NAGB personnel. Why not dare to include one or two Bahamians who are not art ‘experts’.

Before this discussion goes any further, one must ask—Where is the director of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas in all this pregnant exchange? Why is she ceding the floor to her chief curator in a matter of national import? Is this a case of pre-retirement leave or forced consumption of accumulated vacation entitlement? Given the way information that should be in the public domain is hoarded like the gold of Fort Knox or hidden in forgotten recesses like Nazi-stolen treasures, the truth is likely to fall on our heads like bits of concrete from poor construction.

Something all who occupy, aspire or pretend to leadership must accept is that the first law of its lofty heights is presence and engagement. The second is the understanding that higher climbs entail greater exposure to questioning, demands for transparency and, above all, accountability. Good leaders are deserving of good benefits, but must always be prepared to take the sour with the sweet, toughen your armour to endure the slings, arrow, and yes, the questions that will come. Questions, even of yourself and your practice, should be welcomed.

As human beings, we run the risk of becoming too full of ourselves, admiring our deeds in personal mirrors that Photoshop our warts away and offer the most flattering views. Questions are the mirrors that others hold up to us. A good leader should never be afraid of questions or criticism; they are often the tools—the wrenches and screwdrivers, that help us to recalibrate our compasses to ensure that they keep pointing to the north that is our humanity and our faithfulness to calling and duty.

The minute those designated leaders begin to think their decisions unimpeachable and their actions exempt from questions and criticism, the ground is ploughed, seeded and fertilized for an inevitable dictatorship to bloom and produce fruits of caste creation and exclusion.

Honest self-examination, accountability and integrity are excellent shelters in the rough weather all leaders endure at some point in their tenure. Leaders worthy of the name welcome challenges as opportunities for growth, which ought to be embraced and not repudiated in a fit of defensive pique or vengeance.

I defend art as a vehicle of creation and deconstruction. Interrogation is a vital function of creation. Art should be the champion of a larger view of life and should admit a multiplicity of viewpoints. Art and institutions promoting art should champion truths, even when they are inconvenient.

My national outlook is not jingoistic. It is not incompatible with heartfelt regionalism and internationalism. I believe in cross pollination and I have truly appreciated the chief curator’s initiation of the NAGB’s “Double Dutch” series that invites artists from the region to exhibit with Bahamian peers to a common theme. I applaud the recent “We Suffer To Remain”, which embraced the works of three Bahamians and a Scottish artist.

First and foremost, however, I am a Bahamian who has the obligation to praise what is good in my homeland and equally denounce its bigotry, factionalism and other wrongs. As I noted earlier, “national” implies or should imply a distinct and inviolable nation-building mission. The Gallery’s shareholders—all the people of The Bahamas (including “Firebu’n) and art lovers everywhere, must be assured of NAGB’s integrity—that is, the institution’s ability to rise above “small place” politics. Furthermore, the institution has a role to play in the preservation and enhancement of the human and planetary patrimony. I challenge the National Art Gallery and its people to emerge from self-defense, recrimination and spite to seize the glorious, transparent and just future that awaits its taking.