‘The NAGB’s Eleutheran Adventure’: Rethinking Access

The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas is locally known as the NAGB; however, many people make the mistake—in speech and print—of calling us the “Nassau” Art Gallery. Perhaps this slip is well-deserved: with attention focused on the preservation and management of the historic building that houses the NAGB (Villa Doyle); the National Collection itself of over 350 art pieces, needing continual care and maintenance; and the busy rotation of exhibitions (up to 14 in a single year, not including talks, events, book launches, film screenings, and other programming), there is plenty to keep us busy.

We are well aware, however, that the “N” stands for national and, in the last few years have been making a push to reach the Family Islands, both virtually and in person. First was the weekly radio show, “The Blank Canvas” which airs on Guardian Talk Radio 96.9FM every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and covers Bahamian art and culture and can be heard throughout the archipelago. More recently, the NAGB’s newly revamped website has comprehensive and in-depth information on our exhibitions, including texts and images, as well as news items on other art activities. Our Vimeo page, meanwhile, lists all of our artists’ talks and programming events, so even if persons cannot attend, they are still able to tune in and engage.

Eleutheran School children engaging in ‘Paint Like Amos’ workshop in parish hall.

Still, as wonderful as many of the new virtual technologies are, there is still no substitute for experiencing artwork “in the flesh” and we felt it was an important part of our mandate to share the National Collection with more Bahamians throughout the islands. The challenge is always the fragility of the artworks; pieces in the National Collection are precious and provide an archival slice of history of a certain time and place in The Bahamas. As the collection grows, the artworks also inevitably age and must be handled with extreme care. Changes in temperature and humidity can adversely affect them, being knocked as they move around; insects or moulds can also cause damage.

Therefore, the first and most important elements of taking pieces from the collection out of New Providence is to find a location that is secure, well-maintained, central and, of course, open the public. While some hotels have made the offer to hang pieces from our collection, unless a space is willing to host all members of the public during regular opening hours, including school groups, and guarantee the safety of the works, we must decline.

Our first major endeavour was a trip last March to Grand Bahama. On the invitation of the director of the Sir Charles Hayward Library, Mrs. Geneva Rutherford, we were asked to produce a small show. As the director, the safety of the works is my first concern, so a list of works was drawn up that I felt confident could travel safely on the Mail Boat, and we settled on two seminal artists: Amos Ferguson and Max Taylor. Ferguson was a house painter long before he was a “fine artist,” so he used basic materials: cardboard and house paint.  While they can also become fragile over time, they are light and fairly hardy, as house paint is quite tough. Max Taylor’s work can be fragile—printed on paper which is always difficult to manage in high humidity — but at the NAGB we have the works well framed and matted with acid-free paper and glazed with “museum glass” that protects the work from UV rays and many environmental factors.

Eleutheran School children engaging in ‘Paint Like Amos’ workshop in parish hall.

Once we had decided which artists were possible to move easily, Assistant Curator Natalie Willis, from our curatorial team, went to work. A curator’s job—aside from actually caring for the collection (the word “curator” comes from the Latin “curare” meaning “to take care of”) —is to tell stories, to find a hook that will engage an audience and lead them through an experience. Natalie reviewed all the works we had at her disposal—25 Amos Fergusons and over 60 Max Taylors—and, along with Abby Smith, our Community Outreach Officer, selected pieces that told the story she wanted to develop. The title of the exhibition was “Max-Amos: A Tale of two Paradises” and this exhibition examined the various ways Bahamian artists portray their country and the different realities that exist throughout our nation.

Next up to the plate in the development of our travelling show was Abby, who – as her title implies – implements different strategies that will give more Bahamians access to our collection. She worked diligently with schools and teachers to coordinate visits to their locations but also hands-on workshops, in which the children would be introduced to the artists’ images but also learn about their different techniques and how to execute them. We always also include a public lecture, open and free to all locals, and give a full set of our exhibition catalogues to the schools and libraries that participate. After the huge success of our Grand Bahama experiment, it was clear the NAGB needed to do this more often, and therefore we have implemented a policy whereby we will make at least two family island trips per year.

Eleuthera was identified as our next stop since a patron offered us the use of a secure and air-conditioned, centrally-located commercial site rent-free, which helped us organise quickly to re-stage the show. With the assistance of the Haynes Library—and wonderful space that does so much toward education for the local community in Governor’s Harbour and beyond—and other donations by local patrons, such as assistance to bring the NAGB van and artwork over on Bahamas Fast Ferries, we were on our way.

Since our collection should only be handled by Curatorial staff, who are trained in how to carry, pack, handle and install artworks, Richardo Barrett, the Assistant Curator, lead the charge, to receive and install the show. Myself along with the gallery Registrar, Darchell Henderson, whose job it is to record where all our pieces are located and evaluate their condition, came out shortly after that to finalise install and prepare for the opening night, on Saturday 10th. The evening was a rich experience for us and saw a generous turnout from the local crowd, which pleasantly surprised us all!

Installation view of ‘Max/Amos’ in former Old Pyfrom Liquor Store space.

Abby and Darchell then set to work preparing for the school visits and student workshops on Tuesday 13th; after giving students a tour of the show in the gallery space, they were given the opportunity to participate in a workshop. This had been planned to take place at the Haynes Library, but due to its immense popularity and the number of teachers and students who attended, it was relocated to the adjacent St. Patrick’s Anglican Church parish hall.

Schools came from all over the island and included students and teachers from Tarpum Bay Primary, James Cistern Primary, North Eleuthera High, Central Eleuthera High, Samuel Guy Pinder All Age School (Spanish Wells), Deep Creek Middle School, and Preston Albury High. Not one to stop when she is on a roll, Abby also gave a free public lecture the same evening at the Haynes Library.

The next three days put the team through its paces as Richardo and Abby visited as many schools as possible, to talk about the NAGB, showing other works in our collection, and speak about their jobs and opportunities for young Bahamians in the cultural industries.

Wednesday 14th they visited Deep Creek Middle School, Preston Albury, Rock Sound High School and Tarpum Bay Primary; Thursday 15th saw them at Emma Cooper Primary, Central Eleuthera High School, Governor’s Harbour Primary, James Cistern Primary, and North Eleuthera High School, while Friday 16th saw their attendance at Samuel Guy Pinder All Age.

This huge undertaking is always worthwhile, the positive feedback the NAGB team gets from local communities is enough to fuel us to keep on with our vision to visit every inhabited island and—one day—to maybe even have a small annex of the NAGB in these communities.

Finally, the visits are also an important way for us to understand the needs: in many conversation with Family Islanders, it became clear that most do not visit Nassau on the weekend, when we have our FREE SUNDAYS, but rather come during the week, to shop and visit the doctor, and this important piece of information has lead us to declare EVERY DAY a free day for any Family Islander visiting the capital. Just show us something with your address, and you will be welcomed, any day of the week, into your NAGB!