National Art Gallery promises to maintain international standards

GIS Feature By Sheleeza Baksh
Guyana Chronicle
June 17, 2001

GUYANA'S National Gallery of Art, known as Castellani House, has about 700 pieces of artwork created and crafted by renowned Guyanese artists for over three generations.

The 19th century four-storey, rectangular-shaped wooden structure was constructed in 1879 by Italian Roman Catholic priest and architect, Caesar Castellani as the residence for the Government botanist and Superintendent of Gardens, Mr. George Jenman, who moved into the premises in 1882. He worked in the compound experimenting and cultivating plants, trees and saplings, while assisting in the enhancement project of the Georgetown area.

In the 20th century, the building was briefly used as a public administration office. However, it is known more as the official residence of the former Prime Minister and President of Guyana Mr. Forbes Burnham. During that time - late 1960's to early 1080's - it was used for entertaining visiting dignitaries, particularly Prime Ministers and Presidents. The lawns were often used for official functions.

According to Curator, Ms. Elfrieda Bissember, Castellani House, which is located on Vlissengen Road and Homestretch Avenue in Georgetown, has undergone extensive renovation and interior transformation between 1997 and 1999, and intends to meet and maintain international standards.

Ms. Bissember, who studied painting and art history in England, reported that in 1993, the Government of Guyana decided that the National Collection should be managed by Castellani House which was then converted into a professional art gallery. At that time, the collection was housed and administered in fairly restricted conditions at the Department of Culture building on Carifesta Avenue, now the site of the Burrowes School of Art.

The former Bishops' High School student said the key mission of the National Art Gallery is housing, exhibiting, preserving, documenting and promoting the National Collection which is of historical importance. It also functions to promote contemporary Guyanese artists and execute several public events yearly including art exhibitions, lectures and book launchings.

As time progresses, she told the Guyana Information Services (GIS), the institution intends to build up a strong educational base which can be incorporated into programmes of various educational institutions. Students can then use the gallery as a worthwhile learning environment to explore related aspects of art such as self-expression, poetry and language and develop an increased appreciation for the arts.

Ms. Bissember, who pursued art history at the post graduate level said the management committee of the gallery is appreciative of the frequent response of large numbers of school children and teachers, from as far as Taymouth Manor on the Essequibo Coast, visiting the gallery especially during May, February, October and December.

She explained that Guyana, like the rest of the Caribbean, is trying to establish a public appreciation for museum and gallery as a recreational facility where hard working Guyanese can spend some of their leisure time. "The institution aims at entertaining, stimulating, educating and providing a service to the Guyanese community," she reiterated.

The Curator, who began working at Castellani House in August 1996, stressed that after years of laying the foundation, there is evidence of progress and promises of numerous expansion projects and facilities for Guyana's National Art Gallery. These include creating a web site, organising tours for visitors, installing a reference library and making archival research materials available to youths from the art school, the University of Guyana and other institutions.

There are also numerous requests for a shop, found in most international galleries, where interested persons can purchase authentic art and craft and a caf where persons can have a snack and relax. "These proposals are in the pipeline with the aim of making the gallery amenable to visitors," said Ms. Bissember.

Castellani House is managed by a nine-member committee including Chairperson, Mrs. Janet Jagan, and Deputy Chairman, Mr. Albert Rodrigues, a professional architect.

Ms. Bissember, who is Secretary of the Committee, explained that members decide on policies and programmes for the art gallery. The committee has an acquisitions policy based particularly on quality and historical significance of the art works that becomes available for purchase. It operates as a semi-autonomous body within the administration of the Office of the President.

The National Collection is made up of mainly Guyanese artworks. However, the committee sometimes accepts pieces from foreign artists. Whether donated or purchased, all works are examined by the committee before acceptance into the collection.

Regardless of their financial status, any artist can approach the art gallery for an exhibition, but their work must be of a professional standard. Paintings and sculptures must - be completed and request for dates must be made at least six months in advance.

Ms. Bissember pointed out that Castellani House, through the Office of the President, funds every aspect of an exhibition including press releases, catering, printing of invitations and takes only a minimal ten per cent commission on sales.

"This shows total and complete support by the Government of Guyana for art practices in the country since the art gallery is entirely Government funded. We have also established welcome links with corporate sponsors who fund our biennial competition, and with others in the business community who are willing to help whenever possible," she added.

At present, the institution has a staff of nine, including office, gallery and cleaning staff and a qualified technician who recently received training in conservation practices from a team of conservators, and who is tasked with technically "hanging" the exhibition.

The Curator is responsible for overseeing art content, research and organisation of exhibition, maintenance of the collection, placement of artwork, maintaining and updating historical records and for day-to-day administration of the gallery.

The gallery possesses paintings and sculptures by eminent Guyanese artists such as Denis Williams, founder of the Burrowes School of Art in 1975 and the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology in 1977 and whose 1950 painting 'Human World' was the first piece purchased for the collection. It also features artist and art teacher Edward R. Burrowes, a painter and sculptor who taught many now famous Guyanese artists, and Philip Moore, creator of the famous 1763 monument and a series of tributes to Guyana's cricketers, among others.

Ms. Bissember acknowledged many prominent women artists including Agnes Jones, Marjorie Broodhagen, Bernadette Persaud and Stephanie Correia who promoted the art of ceramics, and the younger generation including Maylene Duncan and Merlene Ellis.

A former Tutor in Art History, Painting, and Drawing at the Burrowes School of Art, Ms. Bissember advises young prospective artists to nurture their love for sculpturing, drawing, painting or ceramics, which provides lifelong personal satisfaction.

She said: "Weigh all the options before making decisions; be prepared to make sacrifices. Develop other skills because art is not monetarily rewarding. Do not neglect school and read, for the best artists are often habitual readers who are stimulated by books, by literature, the arts and what is taking place in the world."

She emphasised the commitment of the National Art Gallery for progress, expansion and improvement and for the enhancement of an awareness and love for art and culture in the school system.