The Growth of the National Gallery

In the
heart of Seven Mile Beach, a project that has been years in the making is
starting to take shape. The new National Gallery and Education Centre,
scheduled for completion in late 2011, will be the islands’ cultural hub, the
premier venue for Caymanian and international art, education and scholarship.  

In
1995, just before Michael Gore ended his term of office as Governor of the
Cayman Islands, his wife Monica made a memorable statement about the future of
the National Gallery. She picked a seed from a tree in the garden of Government
House and handed it to Premier McKeeva Bush, then Minister for Culture, with
the words, “This seed represents the beginning of a National Gallery for the
Cayman Islands.  Please will you make
sure it grows?”  

In the
wake of significant artistic landmarks, such as Cayman’s involvement in the
world-wide travelling exhibition Carib Art and the birth of the Native Sons
collective, Monica’s vision was timely. When John Owen succeeded Michael Gore
as Governor, his wife Carol, an artist, picked up the gauntlet. Together with a
task force that included founding director Leslie Bigelman, they formed the
National Gallery. 

The
idea of a permanent home for arts education in the Cayman Islands was
envisioned shortly after the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands’ official
inception in 1997. The organisation had developed rapidly, outgrowing its
temporary home at Alexandra Place. The team began searching for a suitable
location and a site was settled when Helen Harquail gifted the organisation
with four acres of land, adjacent to Harquail Theatre Complex. An island-wide
competition was held for the design of the building. Architect Danny Owens, of
OA&D Architects, was awarded the project.  

Several
years’ later, after extensive planning and fundraising, construction has begun.
As the National Gallery has continued to grow dramatically during the interim
period, the new development addresses an urgent need for infrastructure.  

“We run a busy schedule that includes weekly school visits,
25 education programmes a month, and eight exhibitions per annum, as well as
housing extensive learning resources and managing part of the National Art
Collection,” says Natalie Urquhart, director of the National Gallery. “Our
current space limitations prevent us from exhibiting the National Art
Collection, most of which is in storage, and limits access to our extensive
library and cultural database, which are essential learning tools for our
students.” 

The new
building will encompass the first permanent home for the National Art Collection, an increase in temporary exhibition space, a
state-of-the-art learning centre and art studio, an auditorium, and community
gardens.  

“As part of the National Gallery’s
long-term strategic plan, a retail shop, café and multi-purpose events space
have also been incorporated into the design to broaden the uses of the site and
to help generate revenue,” Natalie adds. 

Given
the duration of the project, Danny’s original design has evolved over time. The
architect has worked extensively with the National Gallery Building Committee
to create a structure suitable for the gallery’s mission, operations framework,
and budget. The team also engaged in a project consultation programme with artists,
teachers, students and conservation groups to ensure the final space was
suitable to their needs.  

“Our proposal for the development of the National Gallery
was to provide a building fitting for our National Art Collection as well as
creating a series of flexible spaces to support the wide range of activities
undertaken by the gallery,” Danny says of the project. “The current design
involves two freestanding buildings to house the different exhibition and
education areas, linked by a covered walkway. It also includes potential
additional phases, which will be highly adaptable to the gallery’s changing
requirements over time.” 

This
first building houses the two gallery areas, one for the permanent collection
and another for temporary exhibitions. The exterior of the galleries are
expressed as a perfect square, topped with a pyramidal roof that will allow a
shaft of natural light to permeate the upper gallery without damaging the
artwork. The interior was conceived as conventional space, based on a square
within a square, in order to maximise flexibility for curators and maintain the
environmental control necessary to house travelling exhibitions and the
gallery’s collection.  

“The
emphasis is not on the building as image or spectacle, but on people’s engagement
with the artwork,” Natalie explains. “We loved that the architecture’s
deliberate simplicity complemented the collections rather than competed with
them.”  

The
interior will have an industrial finish with white walls, gray concrete
flooring, and exposed ceilings.  

Fittingly,
the education centre is more playful, with an expansive curving wall that runs
along the building’s eastern side. It will house the lecture theatre, art
studio, learning centre and library, along with the administration offices. The
rooms have been designed to be fully accessible with multiple entrances to
allow for heavy traffic.  

“Our
school tours have to accommodate approximately 30 children per visit,” Natalie
says. “After visiting the galleries, students can come into the learning
centre, lecture hall or art studio for a follow up lesson or to enjoy related
art activities, before having lunch in the sculpture garden.”  

The
flexible areas will accommodate conferences and meetings while the adjoining
grassed area will serve as an event space for wedding and large galas. In
addition, a cultural tourism programme, aimed at both cruise ship and stay-over
visitors, is in development. 

There
is no doubt that initial seed planted at Government House is bearing fruit.  

The new
National Gallery promises to be an engaging and inviting arts centre, where
visitors of all ages and backgrounds can experience culture and contemporary
art. 

“On
completion, the new National Gallery of the Cayman Islands will be a wonderful
resource for the entire community,” Natalie says. “Ultimately the complex will
be a place where artists can exhibit the very best of our cultural production,
where students and visitors can learn about the arts and culture of our islands
firsthand, and where families can spend quality time in a creative, informative
and inspiring environment. A community space where we hope everyone will feel
welcome.” 

  

The next
issue of
InsideOut will focus on the National
Gallery’s sustainable development initiatives and follow the construction schedule
as it nears completion.
   

  

The team began searching for a suitable location and a
site was settled when Helen Harquail gifted the organisation with four acres of
land, adjacent to Harquail Theatre Complex.  The architect has worked
extensively with the National Gallery Building Committee to create a structure
suitable for the gallery’s mission, operations framework, and budget
 

  

The growth National Gallery

The project’s lead and major donors gather to celebrate the groundbreaking.