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Caribbean Review

Art & Money
Posted on October 31, 2010October 30, 2010

“Lack of money is too facile an explanation.” —C.L.R. James, The Artist in the Caribbean (1959) art

As 2010 grinds its way to a weary end, I feel compelled to throw in my two cents on the debate on Art and funding for Art in Trinidad and Tobago. Three recent events warrant attention: (1) the pre-budgetary presentation by the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT); (2) the symposium on Visual Art and Design at the University of the West Indies on 6th October; and (3) the 101 Gallery Exhibition.

As my uncle and governmental financial consultant would say, we are really in Guava Season right now.  So with money in short supply, why invest in a luxury commodity like Art?  Of course, for someone like me trained and educated in the Arts, such a question would be sacrilege.  But for most, Art is a luxury when basic material needs such as food, clothing, health care and sanitation are still beyond the reach of large sections of the population.  So yes, Art can inspire and provide mental and spiritual sustenance, but we are physical beings living in a material world that requires all of us to pay our way, in cash or kind. So, instead of asking what has the Government done for Art, mightn’t we ask what has Art done for us lately?  From where I sit, Art hasn’t done much for us recently.

The main thrust of the Artist Coalition’s pre-budgetary presentation was that the Arts (which collectively include Visual, Music, Theatre and Film) is a multi-billion dollar global industry from which T&T could benefit with the right investment.  The ACTT proposal offered a comprehensive wish list of state-funded initiatives to the value of around TT$1.2 billion over the next four years.

It was a passionate presentation which, ultimately, yielded little more than budgetary  mention of the ACTT and a promise of support for a couple of minor projects. The more elaborate proposals such as a theme park honouring late greats throughout the Queen’s Park Savannah and a scholarship programme in fields such as Museology and Film Production got no traction. Still, for many in the ACTT, it was a step in the right direction.

Which brings me to the UWI symposium.  Shastri Maharaj’s comment that not enough money is given towards education in the Visual Arts is a noteworthy statement.  However, in making the case, it would help if the visual arts community were to take itself as seriously as the State is being urged to do. A good start would be for our artists to see themselves as part of a community with common interests. Instead, the Visual Arts community in Trinidad and Tobago has been cursed with the dilemma of excessive taxonomy.  No doubt there are artists diligently at work on creating Art, but faction and friction in the historical quest for competitive advantage has made it easy for Governments to mamaguy some while ignoring many, in the classic strategy of divide and rule.

The consequence is a community comprised of hustlers on one side, and alienated, withdrawn minds on the other. Because it is high profile and noisy, the hustling has come to define  and stigmatise our artists as petty, narcissistic and gimme gimme instead of as serious creators of Art who light the walls of our souls, identify us as a people and carry the nation’s spirit.

However, even if all our artists were to find common ground, and the community were to represent itself at its best, there remains the problem of a lack of policy, infrastructure and enabling environment to support the development of Art as sustainable industry and economic endeavour.

In principle, the U.W.I. Visual Arts programme remains a thorough and holistic grounding in the Visual Arts, but the best education in the world cannot be useful to our budding artists if no viable enterprise awaits them.

This brings me to the final point.  Writing in the Trinidad Guardian under the headline “T&T Art Market Alive and Well”, 101 Art Gallery’s owner Mark Pereira offered marvellous accounts on how money spent on paintings yields fantastic returns compared to regular financial plans.  Just try getting 100% interest on a money market fund in just seven years!  It’s a compelling point, but in a market that has historically under-appreciated art, it is debatable how convertible these assets are when an owner needs cash.

“At The Standpipe,” M.P. Alladin...sold for $19,000


"Old Time Carnival Characters", Ken Morris... sold for $95,000


"Por De Sol", Sybil Atteck.... sold for 52,000


As Pereira rightfully points out, art in Trinidad and Tobago is woefully underpriced.  Market size is probably the key factor affecting price; whatever the reason, the result is that quality art is carted out of this nation to sit in the galleries of foreign collectors because we place so little value on our art.  Moreover, I agree with Pereira that the work of some of our greatest artists of bygone eras will be forever lost.  In the global world of art, it might be pointed out that it will just be gone from Trinidad and Tobago forever.

As a people, the loss of cultural heritage should haunt us; as artists, however, foreign sales indicate a breakthrough into the potentially lucrative international market.

It’s worth repeating CLR James who made the point in 1959’s  “The Artist in the Caribbean”, that it is only when our Art is able to connect with everyone the way that the Mighty Sparrow did in the early stage of his career in the 1950s , that, as artists and as a people, we would have “truly arrived”.