It was a stroke of good fortune that I was invited to participate in the 2016 Momentum programme at Edinburgh, as part of the Visual Arts delegation, along with ten colleagues from Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, Colombia, Japan, France, and New Zealand, all of them fellow museum directors and/or curators. The invitation was timely because my mind is presently on what it takes to have a healthy and forward-moving art ecology in a context such as Jamaica and how such ecologies can be mobilized into successful and mutually beneficial collaborative networks, such as those that support the various Edinburgh Festivals.
The Momentum programme was intense, and at times physically demanding, but it was productive to be so immersed with the various Edinburgh Art Festival exhibitions and projects and to be so engaged with our hosts, the other delegates, and the various artists and art professionals we encountered along the way. The programme started on July 28 with presentations on the Edinburgh Festivals and the Edinburgh Art Festival, by the Festivals Edinburgh Director Julia Amour and the Edinburgh Art Festival Director Sorcha Carey, and introductions with key Visual Arts staff members from the British Council Scotland and Creative Scotland. This was followed by short presentations by the delegates, in which we shared our professional practice. In addition to ensuring that we were all suitably introduced to each other, both meetings also set the tone for a programme that was almost entirely based on face-to-face networking, both formal and informal.
We spent the rest of our first day attending the launch of the Edinburgh Art Festival, followed by walking visits to some of the 2016 festival commissions and related exhibitions and, we also took in some of the sights of Edinburgh in the process, including a spectacular view of the city and its surroundings from Calton Hill (the location of the Collective gallery) and a visit to Jacob’s Ladder, a long, narrow, and very steep natural stone staircase that connects this hill to the old part of the city – this challenging descent was aptly described as “unsalubrious” by our hosts and was certainly memorable. On the other days, we had a similar mix of meetings with various Scottish artists, museum and gallery directors and other curators, and visits to the exhibitions, talks, and events that are all part in the Edinburgh Art Festival. The Momentum programme also included a visit to Jupiter Art Land outside of Edinburgh, a country estate with commissioned temporary and permanent outdoor works by major international artists such as Christian Boltanski, Andy Goldsworthy and Anish Kapoor. Our last day, August 1, was spent on a one-day trip to Glasgow, where we also visited galleries and museums and interacted with artists and curators – a good opportunity to compare the art worlds in two cities with related but also fundamentally different histories and social-cultural dynamics: Edinburgh more mercantile and patrician and Glasgow more industrial and working class.
The 2016 Edinburgh Art Festival had several major components. The first consisted of six special art commissions that were located at, and responded to, certain monuments and buildings in the city. The second component, titled Platform, provided exposure to four young artists. The third consisted of a diverse array of partner exhibitions at local galleries and museums, and the fourth consisted of pop-up exhibitions and events at various locations. The final major component was the programming that surrounds the Festival, which includes lectures, artists’ talks, workshops and guided walking visits to the festival components. Visitors were also encouraged to view the permanent commissions that date from previous festivals and have become part of the urban landscape.
The 2016 commissions were presented under the theme “More Lasting than Bronze” – a phrase used by the Roman poet Horace to describe the eternal power of poetry. The commissions engaged with the poetics of the selected public monuments and sites throughout the city, some of which have rather peculiar histories and resonances. The Robert Burns Memorial, for instance, no longer contains the original John Flaxman statue of Burns, which was moved to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and ironically Scotland’s national poet is publicly memorialized by an empty neo-classical pavilion, which was temporarily filled with a Festival commission by Jonathan Owen, who deconstructs marble copies of classical sculptures.
One festival commission had particular resonance with me because of its connection to the Caribbean: the Glasgow-based artist Graham Fagen’s A Drama in Time, a neon-installation located under a large traffic overpass to the side of Jacob’s Ladder and below the Burns Memorial. It builds on Fagen’s earlier work The Slave’s Lament, a multi-channel video presentation which was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennial. Both works explore Scotland’s still largely undocumented role in the Caribbean slave trade and plantation economy, through Burns’s poetry – his poem The Slave’s Lament (1792), which takes an early abolitionist position – and his personal history, which includes two aborted trips to go work on a plantation in Jamaica. We hope to show Fagen’s Slave’s Lament at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 2017, in dialogue with the work of two Caribbean artists, one of them Jamaican, metaphorically taking Burns on his never-realized trip to Jamaica and bringing his reflection on slavery into dialogue with the lived histories of the Caribbean region.
Another commission which captured my imagination was Ciara Phillips’ Every Women, a painted ship moored in the Leith docks that paid tribute to the “dazzle ship” designs of World War I when ships were covered in dazzling abstract geometric patterns to confuse the German U-boats. These patterns were designed at the Royal Academy in London, under Norman Wilkinson, and the artists who were part of this war time effort were women. The dazzle ships played an important role in the early development of abstract painting and modern design and also highlight the still insufficiently acknowledged roles of women in these developments.
The itinerary included many other highlights but three others also stood out to me. One was our visit to the Ingleby’s Gallery, which exposed me to the work of a self-taught artist, Frank Walter from Antigua. Walter, whose work brings to mind that of artists such as Ras Dizzy in Jamaica and Embah in Trinidad and Tobago, has received a fair amount of international attention but is largely unknown in the Caribbean. Another memorable visit was to the Stills Gallery, which is focused on photography and also has studio facilities, and which featured an exhibition of the work of Jo Spence, a photographer who unsparingly documented her life in defiance of middle class norms and her struggle with terminal breast cancer. I was also very inspired by our visit to Tramway in Glasgow, a large gallery and performing arts facility in a former tram terminal building, which represents an inspired and respectful use of a former industrial space. There have been some plans in Jamaica to turn the old Kingston railway station into a multi-purpose cultural centre and Tramway, which also has a beautiful hidden garden dedicated to urban peace, represents a viable model for how this could be done in the Kingston context, where such a facility is sorely needed.
My Momentum experience, in closing, allowed me to reflect how a city can be defined and indeed globally positioned through its cultural events, in a way that provides healthy support and exposure to the local art world while being open to the world, without being myopic or insular. It illustrated that to do this, there needs to be a healthy network of collaborations, between governmental and non-governmental organizations and individuals, and a willingness to work towards a common goal, even when there are significant differences in vision and ideology. One of the striking features of the art ecology in Edinburgh, and in Scotland more broadly, is a very robust and thriving NGO sector, consisting of various artist-run galleries and studio facilities, who can operate because of generous funding support from state organizations such as Creative Scotland but also have their own economic activities, for instance from the operation of cafes or ticket sales to performances.
Given the economics of the Caribbean, it is unlikely that such state funding will ever be so widely available to local NGOs but it is of note that the Edinburgh Festivals, which attract more than 4 million visitors per year, bring significant revenue to the city and help to maintain the state funding systems and the NGO sector’s economic activities alike. In Jamaica, the National Gallery of Jamaica often has to be “everything to everybody,” carrying out functions that would perhaps be better handled by NGO initiatives, and the local NGO sector, while it has grown recently with studio initiatives such as NLS and Studio 174, is as yet too small to represent a viable counterweight and to leave sufficient room for alternative visions. There is one initiative, the annual, informally organized Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) urban arts festival, that involves state and NGO entities into a shared calendar of exhibitions, performances and events. And there are local funding entities, such as the CHASE Fund, which is lottery-funded, and the Tourism Enhancement Fund, which is based on the hotel room tax, which could be more involved in such matters. My Momentum experience left me to consider how these existing and emerging structures (and there are similar possibilities in Montego Bay) could be leveraged to create a more ambitious network of collaborations and events and a more effective, locally rooted by outward-looking local art ecology. And such collaborations do not have to be a national affair: there is significant potential, using the structures that are already there, such as the Tilting Axis platform, to extend these across the Caribbean.