– Making connections with the community
A FEW weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kerri-Anne Chisholm (Assistant Curator) and Jessica Ebanks (Education Officer) of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands just days after the conclusion of Tilting Axis 3. During our conversation, we discussed
their engagement as hosts of the conference as well as some of the most memorable experiences that came out of their involvement in the three-day event.
Dominique Hunter: What did it mean to have a conference like Tilting Axis 3 hosted in the Cayman Islands?
Jessica Ebanks: Having Tilting Axis 3 in the Cayman Islands was a pivotal moment. My work in particular is really hands on with a lot of the kids. It gets quite insular, because the focus is on what’s happening here in the community. So I don’t look outside of Cayman very often. Getting a wider context about what’s going on in the region through this conference was a big takeaway for me.
Kerri-Anne Chisholm: Our art history in Cayman is quite young. Sometimes I get frustrated and wonder, “Is it that all of the great things are happening outside of our region?” But having those professionals come in and talk about what is happening in the region [and
realising that] the conversations happening professionally in museums are some of the same conversations happening in smaller ways was really exciting for me. I think that was something that regenerated my focus.
DH: It’s interesting because like you said Kerri-Anne, those conversations are happening everywhere at various levels. It’s always exciting for me to tap into those discussions to hear some of the larger concerns that are being discussed and to really examine the intersections. I was wondering if you could pinpoint some of the larger concerns that you would’ve had going into this project that you hoped would be addressed.
JE: Two barriers we face as an institution are accessibility and relevance within our community. I think those are common throughout galleries and museums in the region, because culturally Caribbean people don’t have a history of museum- going. It’s not a mainstream part of our culture. The museum or gallery might be seen as an elite organisation that is not relevant to the majority of the people in the community. So how do we break down those perceived barriers of class? We work for members of the community. We don’t want to be an ivory tower that seems inaccessible and over the heads of what’s actually happening in the community.
KC: It was also helpful for me to hear about the alternative spaces and how they’re connecting to the community and big institutions. You have museums that are reaching out to the community and doing so effectively. Then you also have smaller alternative spaces that are standing as a halfway point, creating the connection with communities that aren’t going to the museums. [Although those alternative spaces] are separate from the museum, maybe the museum could have programmes that reach people in their spaces.
DH: I’m curious about ways in which the gallery tries to bridge that gap between the gallery as an institution, the community and also how the gallery engages with the artist. What are some of the ways in which the gallery supports those connections between institution, community and artist?
JE: We try to address those concerns about reaching the community through education initiatives. Our admission is free to make it accessible for anyone in any financial position. We offer free after-school art classes for students from primary to high school. We do outreach programming not only in the gallery, but we also have lessons for senior citizens and persons with disabilities. We have art lessons in some of the prisons and the rehabilitation centre. We try to provide as many opportunities for people to come to the gallery. If they were unable to come to the gallery, then we would go out to them and provide art services.
KC: The national gallery is also trying to create more opportunities like artist residencies and exchange programmes, because there aren’t any other spaces that provide artists with those opportunities. I think one of the difficulties is funding. We’ve had artist-away programmes where we sent artists to train in Cuba, but securing funding is difficult. That’s something we’re actively working to change.
One of the things tagged on to the end of Tilting Axis 3 was a one-day symposium called The Business of Art. It was an idea presented by the Director of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, [Natalie Urquhart]. We wanted to have an opportunity for local artists to learn art as a business, because essentially your practice is a business. Now artists and professionals in Cayman have the opportunity to speak and make connections with artists and professionals around the region and in the diaspora.
JE: That was probably one of the biggest takeaways for me as well, meeting people, making those connections and engaging with people who are doing this work. Geographically we are quite isolated from a lot of the region and we do feel like we’re off on our own. So to have people here and have my eyes opened was really great.
DH: What I like is that Tilting Axis developed out of the need to make those connections and create models for sustainable practices, whether curatorial or fine art, and they’ve managed to do so quite well. A lot has developed as a result of that initiative.
JE: I think another big takeaway was not just that Tilting Axis opened up Cayman’s art scene, but it also reminded us that there are places within the region that we could still expand to and connect with. We had a presentation by [Jamaican writer and curator] Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who was doing her fellowship through Tilting Axis. She chose to focus on places in the region that were typically under-represented in the arts world. So she travelled to Barbados, Grenada, Suriname and Puerto Rico, specifically because we don’t hear a lot about what’s happening in those places. I think it was really inspiring to put the spotlight on those historically under-represented places and to shift the conversations into new areas.
[Bahamian artist] Blue Curry told us that he discovered some of the words used in The Bahamas are the same words we use here. It’s interesting how these words have travelled and how we’re connected in a way that we weren’t even aware of. I think it’s amazing to relearn our connections to each other.
KC: And although we’re so close to each other, in a sense, there is this thing that separates us. But having the same history as being from the Caribbean also connects us on a very different level. It crosses those barriers. So having work come out of this melting pot of people and looking at that work will be extraordinary, because it will resemble the people. It will echo their experiences, the differences and the similarities.
Tilting Axis 3 opened on May 18 and continued until May 20, 2017. The three-day conference was hosted by the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and organised by ARC Inc., Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. Members of its core committee included Holly Bynoe, Annalee Davis, Tobias Ostrander, Mario Caro and Natalie Urquhart. Sponsors of the event included Res Artis, Perez Art Museum Miami, the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, the British Council, Davidoff Art Initiative, and Susan Olde, OBE.