New NAGB Director Aims To Create International Dialogue
It’s a new era for the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB). Under the directorship of Erica James, the national institution set the bar for Bahamian art, stretching the boundaries of the Bahamian cultural imagination and establishing Bahamian visual art within a historical context at home.
Yet with a new staff and new director Amanda Coulson at the helm, NAGB will take an exciting step in a new direction – establishing itself as a national institution in the eyes of the globe.
“Culture needs to be a dialogue between nations, and while we should protect our own cultural heritage, it is totally valid to have conversations,” she says. “I would like to see international art coming down here and Bahamians making a splash internationally.”
Such is the goal by the enthusiastic and tenacious woman who for years has made strides in the global art world, whether through her critical eye and voice or through her wildly successful venture, the annual art fair Volta – taking place both in Switzerland and in New York – which for eight years has been giving voice to emerging artists and galleries.
Yet Coulson, who has lived, studied and worked in major cities around the globe including New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, Milan, as well as in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and in Germany – where she’s lived for the past decade with her husband, a German art gallery owner – has Bahamian heritage. With a Bahamian father hailing from the Farrington family and an American mother, Coulson spent many of her formative years taking extended visits to The Bahamas while living with her mother in the United Kingdom.
“I’ve worked in many places because these opportunities came along, and I was always coming down and trying to see what was happening down here but there wasn’t really an opportunity at the level that I was working,” she says.
“When this opportunity in The Bahamas came along, I jumped right on it. People always asked why I never lived in The Bahamas, but what would I do to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and my professional drive?”
Art and society
Indeed, she’s been able to witness the rapid growth of the art world since the inception of NAGB, even finding challenging contemporary work that she wanted to share with viewers outside of The Bahamas. In 2006 she curated the exhibition
“Funky Nassau”, which took nine contemporary Bahamian artists to exhibit their work at the Nassauischer Kunstverein gallery in Wiesbaden, Germany. But only now has she finally found the right time to marry her skills and desires with the cultural temperature and needs – especially in the arena of cultural tourism.
“When I tell people I got this job they say, ‘Oh really? There’s a national gallery there? Really?’ I think we need to make a splash internationally, not only for our pride and how we’re perceived as a nation overseas, but also frankly, for our economy,” she says.
“What’s very important and what I’m not sure our nation has exactly figured out yet is that there is a whole sector of the tourist industry which is cultural tourism. People go on vacation and they don’t want to lie on the beach; they want to go see art. Those people are in a much higher income bracket than the tourists we generally are advertising to,” she points out. “Cultural produce is something we can trade on and we are not attracting cultural tourists right now because they do not realize there is a valid system of museums and galleries and practicing artists down here they can discover.”
One of the ways she plans to raise the international profile of the institution is to draw from her extensive list of contacts she’s made through her travels and invite them to visit and practice here – enabling them to spread the word about Bahamian art once they travel back home. She hopes also to hold shows by international artists at NAGB to bring it into focus.
Though many people may protest exhibitions by non-Bahamian artists, believing funds are not being spent on our own people, Coulson points out that NAGB would be going the route which many esteemed art institutions worldwide take – that such featured countries may reciprocate.
Besides, she also would like to invite international and regional artists to exhibit alongside Bahamian artists, allowing them to hold conversations about issues relevant to society. For the upcoming retrospective on Amos Ferguson, for example, she plans to hold a second exhibition at the same time that explores intuitive art. Such an exhibition will provide context for viewers as well as an avenue for international artists. All of these moves will give NAGB global status and praise, and in turn elevate Bahamian art on a global level, creating viable avenues for cultural tourism.
“I feel very strongly that nations are judged by their culture. Of course when you visit somewhere, it’s nice when the roads work and there’s fresh drinking water, but nations aren’t judged historically on their transport system,” she points out.
“What we portray abroad is that we’re a country of beaches and partying and maybe Junkanoo. We’re not known for our culture and I hope to change that – I think our culture is something we should be really proud of.”
A new vision
At the same time, Coulson is aware that the gallery has been inactive in the wider Bahamian community for some time and plans to look inward as well as outward.
“Unfortunately I think our location and architecture continues the mythology that we’re a bunch of over educated people in a big house looking down on people, and that’s not what this gallery is about,” she says. “I want it to be an open-door situation.”
One of the ways she hopes to bring more Bahamians into their national art gallery is to explore holding a free gallery day like many international institutions do so that anyone can walk in free of charge and learn something new. She also hopes to hold shows dedicated to Bahamian craft rather than shows that are perceived as inaccessible or ‘too intellectual’ by the wider public. Right now, for example, the gallery is holding a call for work by local amateur artists for a special one-night-only exhibition of Bahamian amateur art – something that will definitely reach out to the wider community and make the gallery less intimidating and polarizing as an institution. Indeed, for both the artistic and wider communities, she wants to work towards NAGB’s motto, “It belongs to you”.
“I’d like to make the gallery a hub of ideas and a support system for the community here,” she says. “I want to start supporting other art institutions like Popopstudios, that will bring Caribbean artists in and send Bahamian artists away so that there’s a cultural exchange and of course communication, taking the news of what’s happening down here outward.”
Coulson also plans to continue to make education a big part of NAGB’s mission, bringing back academic talks, tours, and workshops all designed around current exhibitions. Already as part of Kendal Hanna’s retrospective, the institution has been showing films and holding workshops that explore abstract art as well as the relationship between mental illness and art making. In the future she plans to include global thinkers, artists and academics in these discussions and workshops, really allowing local artists to contextualize their work and stop practicing in a vacuum.
Indeed, National Art Gallery of The Bahamas is undergoing major change that promises to be exciting and challenging. But with all of her global experience – and with her degrees in various specializations of art history – Coulson is the perfect person to be its director, bringing to NAGB a fresh perspective with a thoroughly experienced eye and a list of international contacts that will help her put the national institution on the map.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see things from the inside, to see with outside eyes what’s going on or what needs to be changed,” she says.
“I think that’s the one good thing in having someone fresh come from outside because I’m able to look at things in a fair way without any kind of emotional impact about prior relationships and what’s expected, and with a new amazing team we can build upon Erica’s foundation,” she says. “It’s a bit of a tabula rasa, but it’s exciting.”
The Nassau Guardian
Arts & Culture Section
Published: Thursday, December 19, 2012