Mismanagement, machinations and more at the National Gallery of Jamaica…

In the wake of high level curatorial resignations a discussion of some of the bad management practices plaguing the National Gallery of Jamaica.

Charles Campbell, chairing session at the National Gallery with artists from Anything with Nothing.
Charles Campbell, chairing session at the National Gallery with artists from Anything with Nothing.

Yesterday morning I put up a post 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). I didn’t realize then that Campbell was in the middle of exit interviews with the Institute of Jamaica and that therefore the timing of the post was inconvenient for him. He asked if I would take down the post and I duly did so as I explained on my blog, out of concern for his well being and our continued friendship. This is the sole reason I made the original post unavailable and am now providing an updated version below which doesn’t focus as much on Campbell’s brief and unhappy tenure at the institution but still highlights the inefficient, autocratic and extremely problematic management style of the Executive Director.

I have since learnt that the Executive Director of the National Gallery, Veerle Poupeye, has been informing people that her lawyers made me take down my post. 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. Let me repeat–no lawyer has been in touch with me about this or any other matter. 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. In more recent times I’ve been closely involved with the Gallery, serving on its Exhibitions Committee for the last few years and before that its PR Committee. In these capacities I’ve been privy to some of the internal workings of the institution and have experienced at first hand some of the problems I will be detailing in this post.

The National Gallery of Jamaica was established in 1974 and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Veerle Poupeye has been Executive Director (hereafter referred to as ED) of the Gallery since 2009, having worked there as a curator for many years under its previous head, David Boxer.  Credited with raising the Gallery to international standards, an achievement she certainly deserves some credit for, Poupeye is a talented art historian and curator. Where programming is concerned, choice of themes, raising the frequency of exhibitions, and maintaining a web presence the Executive Director (ED) deserves high marks. The Gallery has certainly become a more active player in the Jamaican and international cultural scene under her leadership.

I know of no international best practice, however, 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.

Nicole Smythe-Johnson at recent KOTE event
Nicole Smythe-Johnson at recent KOTE event

It was this kind of abusive behaviour that caused the resignation of the former Senior Curator, Nicole Smythe-Johnson in 2013 (recently in the news for her very successful curation of the show Trajectories for the law firm Myers, Fletcher and Gordon), less than a year into her appointment (sometime after this post was written there was a rapprochement between Smythe-Johnson and Poupeye but the fact remains that the latter resigned prematurely from the NGJ complaining of micromanagement and power plays by the Gallery’s Executive Director). Earlier this month the newly appointed Chief Curator, Charles Campbell, walked, citing systemic management and leadership issues and a hostile working environment, a mere six months into his contract period of two years. In both cases the individuals concerned had been the ED’s preferred choice for the positions, sometimes against concerns raised by board members and members of the interview committee.

Urged by me and others to put his reasons for resigning in writing for the benefit of members of the board Campbell summarized the situation as follows:

“At issue is not a few small disagreements, it is about a fundamental breakdown in accountability, broken communication systems, unclear, random and constantly changing lines of authority, and what became for me — and is for many staff — a hostile work environment.

“…Many staff also suffer from the larger leadership issues that plague the Gallery, including: a disregard for reporting structures and lack of clear direction, authority and accountability; the inappropriate disciplining of staff; and the inability of the Executive Director to accept criticism or any responsibility when her actions contribute to delays or difficulties at the Gallery.”

Less than a year before this, as I mentioned earlier, the talented young curator and writer Nicole Smythe-Johnson, then Senior Curator, also abruptly resigned. During her curatorial stint she produced solid shows such as Natural Histories and New Roots, the latter co-curated with O’Neil Lawrence. The Gallery’s website benefited from a series of stellar essays authored by Smythe-Johnson, who has continued to write and curate shows since leaving the Gallery. As mentioned earlier, her most recent curatorial intervention at Myers, Fletcher and Gordon, which took place this last weekend has been hailed as a huge success. The opening was flocked by dozens of Kingston’s stylish young professionals, tomorrow’s art buyers thirsty for their taste buds to be tickled. This is a demographic the National Gallery should be cultivating, a missed opportunity they may have benefited from had they managed to retain Smythe-Johnson.

Smythe-Johnson being interviewed by Tanya Batson-Savage at the opening of Trajectories, Myers, Fletcher and Gordon.
Smythe-Johnson being interviewed by Tanya Batson-Savage at the opening of Trajectories, Myers, Fletcher and Gordon.

For me the first inkling there was something wrong with the ED’s management style was when Smythe-Johnson, a close associate of mine, started talking about the problems she was having at the Gallery. The former Senior Curator finally resigned because she got tired of the constant, unjustified surveillance, the quasi-hysterical accusations of holding secret meetings, claims that she wasn’t doing her job, interference in what she posted on her Facebook page and a host of complaints eerily similar to those Campbell would face less than a year later. Feeling that she really wasn’t being ALLOWED to do her job Smythe-Johnson tendered her resignation after explaining her reasons to the Chairman of the Board. Despite this, board members I spoke with represented her departure as being caused by her leaving to take up a better job with the magazine ARC, something I know to be blatantly untrue. The assistant editor job with ARC was a part-time one, would have taken 8 hours a week and only paid US$400 a month. Smythe-Johnson had applied for it as an additional job to gain experience and didn’t actually get the assignment until after she had resigned. Yet board members seem to have been told that this was the reason she left the gallery.

As mentioned earlier I serve on the Exhibitions Committee of the National Gallery and have witnessed at first hand the high-handed tactics of the Executive Director on more than one occasion. In fact the previous chair of the committee, Tina Spiro, resigned from that position complaining that she wasn’t interested in chairing a “rubber-stamp committee”. The lack of agency of the committee was manifested again at a recent emergency meeting of the Exhibitions Committee ostensibly to discuss the postponement of In Retrospect, an exhibition in celebration of the Gallery’s 40th anniversary.

Citing a list of problems topped by the unpreparedness of the catalogue for publication in time for the show the ED basically threw the Chief Curator, whose responsibility it was to curate this show, under the bus. She completely neglected to mention her own failure to deliver her catalogue essay by the deadline required in order to meet the publication date. In refuting the allegations made against his competence to deliver a “compelling exhibition” Campbell pointed out that his exhibition proposal had originally been presented to the ED and the committee on Feb 11. Despite ongoing meetings to update the ED and obtain her feedback which was provided over the next few months, without warning on May 28th the ED did an abrupt about turn and rejected the plans provided by the CC, now at a very advanced stage.

The plans were pulled apart and the CC ordered to go back to the drawing board, completely disempowering him as a curator and giving him less than two months to re-conceptualize and deliver the 40th anniversary show. Keep in mind that this was not the only show the CC was responsible for. He had successfully mounted the Japan: Kingdom of Characters show which opened on May 11 with its accompanying, groundbreaking Cosplay party and was in the process of curating the urban street art show Anything with Nothing which subsequently opened at the end of June. The CC was also working on selection of artists and plans for the upcoming Biennial scheduled for December. In the midst of all this he was now expected to produce a completely new proposal for a major 40th anniversary show, all of this in his first 6 months at the Gallery.

Was this a realistic expectation on the part of the ED I asked at the meeting. Surely sbe had miscalculated the amount of time needed to put on the kind of revamped 40th anniversary show she was now demanding from the CC? Surely she needed to acknowledge and take some of the blame for the delays rather than shoving it all onto the shoulders of the CC? My interrogation of the flimsy excuses provided by the ED was met with hostility by her supporters on the committee who rushed to her defense insisting that the CC was solely to blame for the postponement.

This is merely one example of the kind of tactics used by the ED to convince the board and committee members of the incompetence of the CC. Switching the goalpost on upcoming exhibitions, placing obstacles in the CC’s path by rejecting a proposal more than 3 months after it was submitted rather than in a timely manner, neglecting her own failure to deliver her essay by deadline, and the final nail in the coffin– the imperious announcement–“I am not satisfied that we have a compelling exhibition.”

The emergency meeting itself was simply a rubber stamp gesture for a decision the ED had already taken, a familiar modus operandi that had forced the previous chair of the committee to resign in protest. The example I have presented above and the numerous resignations of staff suggest that where staff management and executive direction is concerned the ED is completely out of her depth–not surprising considering that her skill sets are in curating and art history–not management of any sort.

In closing I would like to say that I have never been afraid to proffer trenchant criticism under my own name as and when it becomes apparent to me that I should do so. In this instance the fastidious refusal of the Jamaican media to investigate the quagmire at the National Gallery, a public institution funded by taxpayers money, has forced me to speak for I believe that it is in the public interest that such matters be brought to its attention.

I am forced to speak also because it has come to my attention that my name is being bandied about as the author of the anonymous letter to the editor that appeared in the Gleaner on July 19, titled Crisis at National Gallery of Jamaica. 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. But institute a proper search committee to identify qualified individuals instead of relying solely on advertising to fill such positions. Such a search committee should include top flight Jamaican art professionals in the diaspora like Head of the Curatorial Department at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam Wayne Modest, art consultant Rachael Barrett, curator and former director of Deitch Projects and Pace Gallery Nicola Vassal, Karen Harris of the Rhode Island School of Design and many other internationally connected and high level professionals of Caribbean or Jamaican origin who would be more than happy to help find the right person. Headhunting is the name of the game not passively waiting for people to apply.

The field of candidates should never be restricted to locally available talent; it’s a myth that the salary offered isn’t capable of attracting top talent from outside. Such individuals aren’t always drawn only by the money offered. The National Gallery of Jamaica is an institution with a rich history that many exciting talents looking for something off the beaten track would be attracted to. There are also qualified members of the Jamaican diaspora who ought to be considered.

Certainly in Jamaican visual art with the tragic, untimely death of Petrine Archer-Straw in 2012 the field of competent individuals locally available for such a job has been vastly reduced, making Poupeye a prime candidate for the post of Chief Curator. The position she occupies however, is a different one, that of Executive Director. To my mind the issue is not Poupeye’s nationality or race, but her incompetence at heading a national institution as evidenced by the resignations of the Senior Curator and Chief Curator in quick succession and the numerous other problems that have plagued the institution under her leadership. Due diligence will show that Poupeye also ran into trouble when she taught at the Edna Manley School in the 90s.  Her students actually took out a petition demanding her resignation because of numerous problematic interactions they had with her in her capacity as their instructor.

It seems then that questions can and should be raised about Veerle Poupeye’s ability to optimally discharge her functions as Executive Director. Should the public demand accountability from those the government puts in positions of such enormous responsibility? 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.