The wide consensus at the recent Stakeholders’ Forum organised by the National Gallery of Art in Lagos seems to tilt in favour of building a befitting edifice for the gallery and while downplaying a grassroots-driven gallery culture. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Just when exactly the quest for a befitting National Gallery of Art edifice became its leadership’s recurrent mantra is no longer so certain. But any no iota of doubt that it has become the current Ebeten William Ivara-led management’s predominant pheromone should have been dispelled by recent events. First, in an interview published in the gallery’s in-house magazine Artivity, Ivara deplored the nonexistence of an edifice for the National Gallery of Art – which is often abbreviated as NGA – in the federal capital. “We urgently need an edifice to showcase the creative genius of Nigerian artists,” he was quoted to have said. “The [National] Gallery of Art is very important. We have to think about building a gallery edifice, a house of arts where the works and creativity of those prominent persons in the field of art will be displayed and properly kept to attract tourists.”
Months later during the Stakeholders’ Forum, which was held on Friday, November 26 at the NAN Media Centre in Iganmu, Lagos, his recurring emphasis on this quest seemed to inflame the smouldering passion of cultural activism in many. “On my appointment and eventual assumption of office, I made the building of an edifice, a cardinal part of my agenda,” he disclosed in his brief welcome address.
Thus, he left no one in doubt about his resolve to make this quest the focal point of that penultimate Friday’s stakeholders’ meeting, which was the third edition. “No country worth its salt can do without a world-class structure for its Gallery of Art,” he added.
Talking about the Stakeholders’ Forum itself, there could have been no better choice as a guest speaker than the renowned art collector Omooba Yemisi Shyllon. Shyllon’s credentials as possibly African’s largest collector and the financier of the Pan Atlantic University-based Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art – known as YSMA @PAU – made his choice for this task the right one. Hence, the event’s moderator Mufu Onifade, to whose lot the duty of reading his citation fell, found much of his job made much easier.
As for the title of the lecture (“Gallery Edifice as a Major Drive for Diversification of Nigerian Economy”), few stakeholders have been as passionate about it as this Abeokuta prince. Besides, the fact that he is also a fellow of a handful of professional bodies – namely, the Nigerian Society of Engineers, the Chartered Institute of Marketing of the UK, the Chartered Institute of Stock Brokers, the Nigerian Institute of Management, the Institute of Directors – Nigeria and the National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria – and a member of one – the Nigerian Bar Association – further burnished his oratorical integrity.
The polymath, who is not known to sugarcoat facts, went straight for the jugular as soon as he took his place behind the lectern. “Since its establishment in 1993, our NGA has failed woefully to fulfil its primary vision of becoming a world-class gallery and global tourist destination, particularly its failure to organise and position a permanent exhibition space for its collection in creating a national edifice for fulfilling the main purposes of its establishment,” he blurted out.
But this was only a prelude to the actual bombshell. And this was how his offer three years ago to the NGA’s leadership to contribute to the birthing of a virtual gallery in the absence of the needed support of its parent ministry was turned down. According to him, he had as a member of the National Heritage Commission and Endowment for the Arts – instituted by the former president Goodluck Jonathan – offered to lead the private sector to build an edifice for the NGA. This was on the condition “that such a national gallery shall be led and controlled by the private sector with government as [an] only minority stakeholder.” But, his offer, he said, was “dead on arrival in acceptance.”
Perhaps, the most worrisome fallout of the NGA’s cardinal sins – gleaned from Shyllon’s speech – is the potentially huge revenue loss caused by the absence of this edifice. And one of these alleged NGA’s cardinal sins – being stuck in a time warp – frustrated the guest speaker’s inability to display his table of “Comparable Statistics for National Galleries In 10 Countries”, which was sourced from the World Bank, Wikipedia, Forbes and Indexmundi.
Trust the guest speaker – almost legendary for his gift of gab – to have practically everyone in the audience eating out of his hand. And that could be why the fact that he harped on about Nigeria’s loss of a potential annual income of $56 billion earned him the listening and concurring ears of many in the audience.
Seated among this audience, by the way, were such eminent artists as the one-time Guild of Fine Arts president Edosa Oguigo, the Society Nigerian Artist’s Lagos State chapter’s former deputy chairman Dotun Alabi, the University of Lagos lecturer Dr Bolaji Ogunwo and the Universal Studios of Art chairman Bunmi Babatunde and gallery owners like Signature Art Gallery’s Rahman Akar and the Mydrim Gallery’s Sinmidele Adesanya.
Among the guest speaker’s notable proposed way forward are the creation of a national gallery in compliance with the digital world, the creation of programmes and activities aimed at sustaining a continuous symbiotic relationship with artists and the exploration of new areas for national collection growth. Of course, there is also the inevitable setting up of a committee of stakeholders as well as the continuation of discussions on the value of art and making the gallery more accessible to Nigerians.
Perhaps, what should be deemed the most important feature of his list of recommendations, which sounded mostly didactic, if not sometimes pontifical, is the need for such a longed-for and much-sighed-over edifice to be preceded by a thriving grassroots gallery culture. The subsequent speakers, swept along the tide of his opinion, were too intent on making the NGA take the flak that they seemed to downplay this ground-up possibility. Curiously, with their sights set on a brand-new edifice, no one – except for the NGA’s director-general Ivara, during his interview with Artivity – thought about exploring the use of any of the abandoned public edifices as a stop-gap measure to house the estimated 5,000 artworks in the national collection.
Undeniably, the need for a gallery edifice is imperative, as virtually everyone at the Stakeholders’ Forum agreed. Ditto to the recommendation to make it a private sector-driven initiative. Still, a lot of work needs to be done in a bid to carry along huge swathes of the artists’ population, which exist in the oblivion of either the NGA or even the SNA.