“All Access – A Journey through the National Gallery Permanent Collection,” the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands exhibition that opens July 13, offers the public a glimpse of the inner workings of an art gallery.
The selection, organization and exhibition of works of art and historical artifacts is only one part of any museum or gallery’s work. These institutions are also responsible for the care and conservation of every item in their collections – and this summer the gallery is sharing this process with visitors.
“All Access” will bring the entire permanent collection of the National Gallery – some 90 works of art – out of storage and on display across the two levels of exhibition space. At the same time, the gallery will be transformed into a research center, and a team of curators will go about the vital task of photographing, documenting and updating condition reports for each piece.
“This is something we do every couple of years, but this year we thought it would be a great learning opportunity to actually do the research in public,” said curator and NGCI Director Natalie Urquhart. Visitors will be able to learn about the evaluation process and talk to the curators as they go about their work.
A different format
More than 70 works of art from the museum’s permanent collection, which are usually kept safely in storage, including some that have not been exhibited before, will be displayed in the lower exhibition hall.
Unlike the usual display style, where individual works are arranged on the walls with ample space between them, these works will be presented in a more informal “visible storage” format, with multiple works stacked together as they would be in a classic museum storeroom.
Large interpretive panels will provide background on the permanent collection and information about how collections are cared for, how new works are brought into the collection, and how the gallery ensures the collection is made accessible to the public.
From there, visitors can continue to the upper exhibition space, where the history of Caymanian art continues with an additional 20 works of art on formal display.
What is the Permanent Collection?
The Cayman Islands’ National Art Collection is jointly owned by the National Museum, the Cayman National Cultural Foundation and the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. The part owned by the National Gallery is referred to as the Permanent Collection.
The gallery’s collection was formed in 1997, following the National Gallery’s inauguration, with a few donated paintings by Caymanian and Caribbean artists. Lack of funding and limited storage at the time, however, meant that the collection was slow to grow, and in its first 10 years it numbered just 77 works.
The collection expanded significantly after 2010, when funding was secured to purchase key works by local artists, along with important works from major NGCI exhibitions.
Today, the collection comprises a total of 180 artworks and represents more than 100 artists. Among them are internationally acclaimed artists such as Bendel Hydes and Davin Ebanks, self-taught visionary painter Gladwyn “Miss Lassie” Bush, and Cayman’s Native Sons, Randy Chollette, Nasaria Suckoo, Gordon Solomon and Nickola McCoy.
The works, which date primarily from the 1960s to the present, span a wide variety of media, from painting and sculpture to film, photographs, traditional thatch and contemporary crafts.
“It is a remarkable cultural resource for our country and serves to illustrate both the ordinary and the extraordinary aspects of life in the Cayman Islands, as interpreted by our artists,” Urquhart said. “[The works] provide the record of a growing country – from the mythic to the common place, the harmonious and the dissonant – as it defines itself in a rapidly changing world.”
Artwork can be easily damaged by a number of factors, both environmental and human, especially when on display. Excessive heat and humidity can cause paintings to swell and warp, while too little humidity can cause them to become brittle and crack. Light can lead to bleaching, fading and discoloration, and pests can wreak havoc on unique pieces of art. The moving and handling of works of art can also result in damage.
Curators are therefore entrusted with regularly assessing the condition of each and every work, identifying any damage or flagging areas of potential deterioration. Although the gallery does not have a professional conservator on staff, this process allows them to identify any concerns, which can then be rectified or restored by a conservator who is brought in biannually. Caring for collections correctly is vital to ensure they will remain available to the public now and in the future.
Visitors will also be able to watch two related documentaries during the exhibition. The first, “Caymanian Art: A New Frontier,” by young local filmmaker Ernst Jacob Olde VI, is a 20-minute documentary that traces the development of the gallery’s permanent collection and explores its diverse range of artists. The film will be screened on a continuous loop throughout the exhibition.
The second is a documentary that follows conservators working at the Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian Institution, one of the world’s top arts institutions, and will be available for viewing throughout the exhibition.
The exhibition will also include educational activities, such as mock-up artworks and conditions reports for the public to try their hand at. A number of additional events, including a Family Day, Special Lecture, and Late Night Meet & Greet, will also be hosted during the course of the exhibition.
“All Access” runs from July 13 to Sept. 3, with extended hours. Exhibition space will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday.