Musing from the Milking Parlour – Sustainability and the Visual Arts

March 2011 Article for Barbados Today

Annalee Davis

Is living and working in the Caribbean as a contemporary visual artist a viable aspiration?  How is it possible to maintain the integrity of your practice while being economically viable?  Although not unfeasible, it’s quite an accomplishment if you can. And although this is a challenge for most contemporary artists all over the world, it is a small wonder that we still have practitioners in the Anglophone Caribbean who continue to make their work despite the difficult terrain. More importantly, why is this the case?

Charles Avery, Facets of Infinity

Contemporary visual artists who live in cities where there is an infrastructure to nurture the arts can access networks which make it possible to sustain production, find support in intellectual circles and earn a living.  It’s not easy anywhere to function exclusively as a Visual Artist, and more often than not, it’s fiercely competitive.  Comparatively, it’s very difficult in the Anglophone Caribbean because we don’t have branded (i) galleries, (ii) dealers, (iii) collectors (iv) prizes (v) fairs (vi) MFA or PhD degree programmes in the Visual Arts (vii) curators (viii) critics (ix) residencies, or (x) auction houses.

There are stamps of approval or markers that denote value in every field.  For example, a Mercedes Benz car or Luis Vuitton bag denotes worth. It’s the same in the world of contemporary art.  There is recognition, respect and added financial value for your work, if, for example, you’ve won a Guggenheim Grant, the Turner Prize or if your work is in a major private or corporate collection, such as the Charles Saatchi or JPMorgan Chase corporate collection.

Imagine if Rihanna, the global icon as we know her, stayed in Barbados.  How successful would she have been?  Her name would not be the household word it is today.  We have chosen not to develop or support excellence…we are more interested in maintaining a democratic approach towards the arts…Crop Over keeps us happy.  But if you’ve won Pic o’de Crop nine times…where do you go next?  You’ve hit the glass ceiling.

Rihanna on the Red Carpet at the Grammys in 2010

I draw these references because the readership will be more familiar with Red Plastic Bag and Rihanna than they will be with the world of contemporary visual art…but I want to draw a comparison with the ‘glass ceiling’ problem.  The National Cultural Foundation is interested in development – to a certain level – and the Festival experience.  But there is no existing state institution with the vision to take the talent any further and put it on the world stage.  Many of my colleagues in the region have been building impressive resumes over the past two decades and showing work internationally, but ask them if their work sells?

Dr. Keith Nurse spoke about “Cultural Policy and Cultural Industries” at a forum held on February 25th at UWI, Cave Hill campus.  He outlined that even though the world has changed, the Caribbean still functions as though it’s in the industrial era.  He gave the example of the sugar industry – the conceptualization and development of which happened in Europe, leaving us to provide the labour.  But the world has changed and now, for the first time, we are supposed to develop our concepts and take them to market.  This requires a paradigmatic shift for which the region has not been prepared – to manage our own company, on every level, and to go global is a daunting task.  The alternative, he suggests, is underdevelopment.

It is not that we lack the raw material, the intelligence, or the ability.  We simply have not been coached throughout our history to be anything other than labourers in the agricultural field and more recently how to work in the service industry in hotels. We are not taught to build our own chain of hotels, but to make up the bed in someone else’s hotel chain.

It’s the same in the contemporary visual arts arena.  There is endless talent and out put, nourished largely by an active regional informal network.  Sadly, the formal institutions function, as Dr. Nurse says, in an outdated way and have not kept abreast of the needs of the practitioners. I have become interested in figuring out what needs to be done to change the landscape.  What if a regional entity like the Caribbean Development Bank hired a curator and developed an outstanding regional collection of work?  Or corporate Caribbean bodies chose to build collections. Even the Embassy of the USA has a collection of work by artists from the Caribbean.  This is not a new idea. Deutsche Bank began acquiring work since 1978 and has one of the most comprehensive corporate art collections in the world boasting 55,000 photographs, drawings and prints worldwide.  The bank’s aim is” to support living artists, benefit local communities and create an energized work environment.”  The Deutsche Bank’s mandate is not about acquiring art for investment purposes, “rather, the primary objective is to display quality works that embrace and reflect their time.” 1.

 Now that’s refreshing!

End notes

  1. http://www.db.com/us/content/en/1097.html

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