The National Gallery of Jamaica, widely respected as the oldest and biggest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean, has been having problems behind closed doors — and according to blogger and cultural critic Annie Paul, who has written a series of posts about the gallery's challenges, the issues are just now coming out into the open.
Paul, who has close ties with the gallery, having served on its exhibitions and public relations committees over the years, said that the current management has frustrated several employees and caused many talented administrators to leave. She specifically brought into question the management style of the gallery's Executive Director Veerle Poupeye:
I know of no international best practice [...] that recommends that Museum directors manage their human resources by intimidation, fear, bullying and general terror tactics: inappropriately berating members of staff for instance, imperiously ordering that they not meet with each other or have conversations without her permission, demanding that she be consulted before they post personal updates on their Facebook pages, and generally paralyzing them by constant micro-management. Things are so bad staff members at the Gallery have taken to walking down to the waterfront to have routine conversations for fear of rousing the ire of the ED [Executive Director].
Prior to this post, Paul had published a piece “documenting some of the experiences of the former Chief Curator of the National Gallery, Charles Campbell, during his short stint at the Gallery (January to July 2014)”. At the time of the publishing of Paul's initial post, Campbell was on his way out. Out of consideration for him and his exit interview process, she took down the post, but has maintained her position on the “inefficient, autocratic and extremely problematic management style of the Executive Director”. This, Paul says, has caused strife at the gallery — quite unfortunate, considering that its collection of contemporary and modern Jamaican art is quite extensive.
Poupeye has not formally responded to Paul's claims, though the Executive Director was reportedly telling people that Paul took down her initial blog post because of a request from her [Poupeye's] lawyers. Paul took great issue with this claim, saying:
This is patently untrue and further underscores the problems I am trying to bring to the public’s attention. To the list of problematic behavior described below I now add a clear and blatant disregard for the truth.
No lawyer has contacted either me or my lawyers since or before my post went up yesterday. This is simply one of the intimidatory tactics routinely and infamously used by the Executive Director of the National Gallery. It may have been an effective tool in the past, serving to silence others but it has only made me more determined to highlight the untenable situation at the National Gallery of Jamaica. This is a public institution and I am using this medium to raise questions that need to be asked about the management and credibility of its current directorate. I believe that it is in the public interest that I do so.
There is a deep malaise at the National Gallery of Jamaica, an institution I’ve taken an interest in since the mid-90s when my critiques of the Jamaican art scene were first published.
The gallery has also made no official statement, but apparently Paul's name was being “bandied about” as the author of this letter to one of the daily newspapers, which hinted at a gathering storm at the art institution. Paul's response, via her blog, was this:
As my close friends know and my record shows I don’t do anonymous.
That letter first brought many of these matters to light, highlighting, among other things, the fact of Veerle Poupeye’s Belgian birth and her current status as a Jamaican national. To me these are non-issues. If competent local talent can’t be found for a job, whether it be police chief or executive director or Chief Curator of the National Gallery, by all means hire a competent foreigner or naturalized non-native.
Soon after that letter to the editor, the gallery went on a public relations drive. Meanwhile, the focus of Paul's criticism remained solely on the executive director's allegedly abusive behaviour, as she detailed the casualties under her tenure: the former Senior Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson resigned last year without having even served the first year of her tenure; and the newly appointed Chief Curator Charles Campbell resigned last month, “citing systemic management and leadership issues and a hostile working environment”.
In the comments section of Paul's blog, Active Voice, one reader suggested that the gallery needs to revisit its personnel management. Even as an outsider, Deborah Anzinger felt that the gallery was in dire need of trained human resources personnel, asking:
Don’t all int’l standard museums have such a dept? What would it take for the IOJ [Institute of Jamaica, a promoter of the arts under whose purview the gallery falls] to implement this for such a culturally important institute?
Paul agreed that there was “a huge gap between government rhetoric that it realizes the importance of culture and places it front and centre, and the woeful lack of investment in the institutions that mediate culture.”
On Facebook, Dave Rodney called on the government to intervene in the situation:
What I'm reading here is an absolute disgrace. Drama and famous fights are not new to the NG [National Gallery] [...] The IOJ [Institute of Jamaica] and the minister must urgently intervene before the institution becomes a symbol of shame. [...] People across the Diaspora connected with the Jamaican art world have been talking about this for a long time so I know the outrage and the resentments have been brewing. An explosion is inevitable unless the problem is fixed immediately.
Netizens were even discussing the issue on Twitter:
I always wondered how a country so rich with art history is so clueless as to how to engage its stakeholders @anniepaul
— Kesi Gardner (@KesiGardner) July 29, 2014
Has this only become a problem since Senior Curators complained? What about the other, long-serving staff — no ratings? :-s
— Akilah (@akilamantado) July 29, 2014
It may be a case of the straw that broke the camel's back, but the fact remains that the issues have come to light — and those who are concerned about Jamaica's rich art legacy are demanding accountability, Paul says:
Should Boards be held accountable for not performing the oversight function that is their mandate? Doesn’t the long-suffering staff of the National Gallery deserve better management? Should the media continue to fastidiously avert its gaze from these issues? These are merely a few of the troubling questions raised by the recent management problems at the National Gallery of Jamaica.