The relationship between art and life is central to The National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. Since its birth in 1997, the gallery has been at the forefront of Cayman’s artistic scene; it represents the culture and people of the islands, while, at the same time, making art accessible to the public. Through countless exhibitions and events, the gallery has showcased many up-and-coming local artists, and provided a Caribbean platform for international artists. It has, in short, brought art to the islands.
Director Natalie Urquhart, who has been at the helm of the gallery since early 2009, believes art is the perfect window to Cayman’s unique and distinctive culture. Although she says Cayman is a young nation in terms of heritage, particularly in comparison with such culturally-rich places as Europe, Natalie stresses the importance of preserving and promoting Caymanian culture, a mission the gallery has long championed.
While Natalie represents a dynamic future for the National Gallery, she is one of the many directors who have helped to shape the local institute into what it is today.
Leslie Bigelman, the founding director, created the idea for the gallery, along with Carol Owen MBE, Bendel Hydes, John Doak and Martyn Bould, during a series of meetings at Government House in 1997. Under Leslie’s direction, the gallery went from strength to strength. It held exhibitions by Caymanians, Cubans and Ukrainians, with paintings, sculptures, computer-generated artwork and even a photographic exhibition of tattoos. The aim was to present art that challenged the perceptions and senses of the public.
Leslie also instilled the ethos that a gallery should take art into the community. With this belief, the National Gallery developed a number of projects, including Art Flix, featuring art history films and documentaries, Art Magnet, which focuses on at-risk teens, and The Blue Dragon Project, which, in association with the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, led to the colourful creatures that now pepper the island.
Following Hurricane Ivan in 2004, during which time Nancy Barnard was director, the gallery continued to develop its mission statement. In the aftermath of the storm, the staff visited local shelters, using art to entertain the children and keep their minds off the surrounding destruction. The National Gallery expanded its community reach with Inside Art at Northward and Fairbanks prisons and Outreach Programs at HM Eagle House, Bonaventure House, Caribbean Haven and Francis Bodden Home for Girls, helping the disadvantaged to access art.
Over the years, the gallery has continued to encourage this love of art across all levels of society, with Continuing Education classes; Late Night at the Gallery; lunch-time lectures; and school tours.
The position of director was passed to Natalie in March last year. With more than 20 exhibitions to her name, and an evident love of all things art, Natalie was the perfect person to continue raising the gallery’s profile and instill a passion for art in the community. And, after occupying every position in the company including volunteer, Natalie knew the ins and outs that the job of director demanded. She believes making art, in its many forms, available to the public is “the only way to challenge the skeptics that doubt [our heritage’s] existence”.
With Natalie in charge, the future looks bright for the National Gallery. After a somewhat nomadic existence, the gallery will soon move into a new home on Harquail Bypass, where it promises to house larger exhibitions and functions. It will have a studio, available on a monthly rotation for local artists, and an expanded education centre. And, of course, the gallery will continue to showcase talented local and international artists with myriad exhibitions across all art forms. With the National Gallery enjoying a growing profile, it seems Natalie’s wish to make art more accessible is coming true. The relationship between art and life in Cayman is destined to thrive.