The F.J. Harquail Cultural Centre: 30 years of making culture count

Officially opened in December 1986, the F. J. Harquail Cultural Centre, with the completion of its main theatre, has since been at the forefront of introducing and exposing local audiences to new and established talent from Cayman. It celebrates its 30th anniversary in December 2016, but intends to start the celebrations now by presenting a host of special productions and events over the coming year.


The venue, which includes the 75-seat Harquail Studio Theatre and the 300-seat Harquail Theatre, was designed to encompass a range of community and professional productions. A temple of the performing, literary and visual arts, it has been a bastion of nurturing and promoting much of what is brightest and best in local dance, drama, music, comedy, public speaking, poetry and film. It has also been active in welcoming overseas talent from across the world.

Over the years, Harquail audiences have watched productions by dozens of foreign dance troupes, including ones from Africa, the U.S. and the Caribbean, and listened to at least one Canadian male Welsh voice choir.

“The Harquail Theatre is not just a building,” its artistic director, Henry Muttoo, explained. “It is a creative space in which artists of all kinds can imagine and realize their dreams … that gives us the permission to suspend our disbelief for a moment and venture into unknown or familiar territory. It is a safe space as well as a provocative one.”

Dave Martins is a former Cayman National Cultural Foundation chairman and the creator/past producer of “Rundown,” the local comedy revue, which has been playing to packed houses for more than 20 years. He said the Harquail (as it is fondly known), once built, soon made a significant and lasting impact “partly because it was a more substantial building than anything previously devoted to the arts; the technical equipment was impressive; and it brought more legitimacy for pure theatre than existed before.”

An inclusive forum for arts, the Harquail is a multipurpose community space which has staged dozens of fashion shows, art and photography exhibitions, book launches, film screenings and red carpet events over its 30-year tenure.

Attracting big-name talent

Among the luminaries of stage and screen who have crossed its proscenium stage have been: poet/playwright Derek Walcott; M.A.S.H actress Loretta Switt; Victoria’s Secret model Selita Ebanks; dancer/choreographer Randy James; Empire actress Grace Gealey; film director and inaugural Rising Son recipient, Frank E. Flowers Jr.; and Jamaican poet laureate Mervin Morris.

Managed by the CNCF since October 1984 on behalf of the people of the Cayman Islands, the foundation’s mission, aided by partial government funding, is far reaching. It not only actively promotes the arts and Caymanian culture via the stage, but also through diverse initiatives, including the printing of several publications by local writers and the organization of arts workshops, summer camps, training mentorship, competitions and artistic grants.

Annual events like the Gimistory international storytelling festival, the Young at Arts programs, Rundown, Cayfest, the Cayman Islands Folk Singers’ Concerts and the Travelling Caribbean Film Showcase are integral to the outreach work that both the Harquail and the CNCF provide. Through programs like these, Caymanians and residents gain a greater appreciation of what being Caymanian and from the Caribbean means.

Conserving Cayman culture

According to chairman Martyn Bould, the CNCF strives to ensure that indigenous Cayman culture is at the center of any emerging culture by “conserv[ing] and preserv[ing] Cayman’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage, our language, cultural enactments, music, rituals, paintings, craft and properties, document[ed] through research and publication of journals, play scripts, poetry, prose, film and video and production.”

The foundation was set up following an informal discussion between Bould and theater director Geoff Creswell about how to meet Cayman’s artistic and cultural needs. Once the idea had gained momentum, an independent survey was commissioned and a brief prepared, which recommended building a cultural center.

Convinced by the far-reaching proposals, longtime resident and patron of the arts Helen Harquail donated a 12-acre site and the funds to build the F.J. Harquail Cultural Centre, in memory of her late husband.

Having won a design competition for the arts complex, architect John Doak was commissioned to design and oversee the building work. Once the three-year-long work finished with the completion of the 20,000-square-foot Harquail Theatre in 1986, the $5 million venue was officially opened with a weeklong production of “The Sound of Music.”

During that time, Creswell’s Inn Theatre Company – formed by Caymanians including Bendel Hydes, Dr. Frank McField and Anita Ebanks, who staged West Indian productions – was invited to make the Harquail its permanent base. The group then changed its name to the Cayman National Theatre Company. During the Harquail’s first season in 1984/85, the CNTC staged seven productions.

In 1990, the National Playwriting Workshops and Competition were set up, as well as the CNCF Artistic Grants program and the CNCF Annual Arts & Culture Awards.

With numerous successes over the decades, the Harquail holds such an essential place in the community that it was rebuilt and reopened three years after sustaining extensive damage following Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

An attractive way forward

CNCF’s chairman is convinced that entities like the Harquail have an important role to play in helping to foster cultural retention. He said that with such a diverse population, drawn from more than 100 nationalities, “the key to maintaining our social stability is understanding and developing our Caymanian culture. It is the way we live, eat, worship and express ourselves.”

Add to these demographics an aging local population, decreasing birthrates among Caymanians and expats making up half of the 39,000-strong workforce, according to immigration figures, the issue of cultural retention has never seemed so relevant.

Adding that “[It] is integral to our own development,” Bould pointed to the CNCF and the Harquail’s decades-long passion for promoting and mentoring many who have gone on to become Cayman’s foremost artists. Over the years, he credited the foundation and the cultural centre as having assisted “Miss Lassie’s paintings, Swanky [Kitchen Band]’s music, Al Ebanks’ sculptures, Bendel Hydes’ art, Leonard Dilbert’s poetry, Dance Unlimited’s dancing, Miss Julia [Hyde]’s drumming, Cardinal DaCosta’s singing, Dave Martin’s Rundown, Frank McField’s plays, Roy Bodden’s writings, Radley Gourzong’s fiddle and the Quadrille performed by our youth groups.”

Helped by the artistic director, the center’s managing director, Marcia Muttoo, staff and volunteers, Bould believes that the work of the CNCF and the Harquail have “built an artistic legacy for the people of the Cayman Islands.”

Looking ahead to the future, he said, “We now live in a world of ‘big data.’ The world has become more globalized and so maintaining Caymanian identity continues to drive our work. Linking [it] to tourism is an essential focus we continue to develop.”