Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by John Beale
American Nancy Kupchan Sonis and her husband, Richard Sonis, lived at their home in Sandy Lane for many years before returning to the USA. Nancy first began visiting Barbados in the 1960s with her first husband, S. Morris Kupchan. She was a devoted and enthusiastic admirer and advocate of Bajan art and artists. Nancy was also a staunch supporter of the creation of a Barbados National Art Gallery (BNAG) and she donated 75 paintings to this cause which she hoped would one day become a reality. Unfortunately, and sadly her dream was not realized during her lifetime.
She lived a short distance from the Barbados Embassy in Washington and I met her several times when I was the ambassador and I found her very enthusiastic to do whatever was required regarding anything related to promoting Barbados art.
In June 2011, the Friends of African and African-American Art (FAAAA) from Detroit, in an effort to establish a relationship with their “Caribbean brothers and sisters” reached out to some of the CARICOM Ambassadors. As a result, the Ambassador of Trinidad & Tobago and I attended a charity gala at the famous Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) which is a world-class art museum, with over 65,000 works and ranked the 9th best museum in the US. The occasion was to honour the first Black Director of General Motors who had donated US$1 million to the Black Arts section of the DIA.
Nancy thought that Barbados should have a painting of a Bajan artist displayed at the DIA and she immediately contacted Barbadian artist Wayne Branch, whom she knew and who quickly responded. As a result, I was able to take to Detroit a 48 x 41 inches “Huckster’s” painting by Wayne Branch which can now be seen at the DIA.
I displayed Wayne Branch’s painting on stage at the gala and the honoree asked me if he could buy it for US$50,000! Our gesture, (along with some Mount Gay) led the honoree and senior members of the FAAAA to say that they would like to visit Barbados and promote entrepreneurship and help in the creation of a BNAG. I thought they would be helpful both for raising funds and forging lasting relationships in the art world. Moreover Graham W.J. Beal who served the DIA as director, President and CEO said he would assist the BNAG with their expertise and experience.
As a result of the gift, the Board of Directors of the DIA accepted it with deep appreciation and I was later made a member of the Tannahill Society. Unfortunately, the government of the day did not show any interest and there was no follow-up.
Whither a Barbados National Art Gallery?
However, I suppose that I should not have been disappointed given my experience of several years working on the project of a BNAG. I give full credit to Sir Trevor Carmichael who did just about everything possible to get the project started, including getting the international tax lawyer Bruce Zagaris in Washington to create the mechanism (501C3-Broken Trident Benevolent Corporation) for US tax payers to contribute to this project.
Sir Trevor and I met several times with government ministers who “promised” to designate and formalize the former CXC building on the Garrison as the home for the BNAG but nothing materialised. In June 2020 I wrote an article “After 60 Years Still No Art Gallery!”
I maintain that it may be possible to raise the funding (probably in the vicinity of US$3 million) for a BNAG. Although the government appears to have designated the old CXC building; until it formally vests it in the BNAG, there is no chance of the private sector contributing the funds to house the BNAG. In fact, many consider this a condition precedent to attract funding. No one in their right senses will contribute meaningful amounts to a BNAG based on a “promise” made repeatedly by successive governments.
In order to succeed it is important for the government to facilitate – ideally with an initial grant -but then they should get out of the way. The many unsatisfactory experiences of our state- owned enterprises and the distressing reports
of the Auditor General should be enough to discourage or disqualify the government from managing such an entity.
Likewise, the government’s politically and bureaucratic appointed committees have not resulted in much progress over many years.
I think it may be fitting to have the Barbados Museum have an exhibition of Nancy’s collection at the museum in her memory. Her generous act of philanthropy would serve as a catalyst and stimulus for support. Additionally,
when the BNAG is being implemented it would be appropriate to have a special room – The Nancy Sonis Room – to display her collection.
I do not know how much can be raised but I believe that Nancy’s family and friends would willingly contribute to a serious initiative of the creation of a BNAG. It surely would be a catalyst and if successful, it would be a boost for Bajan artists and Nancy would be smiling from above!
John Beale is a former Ambassador to the US and the OAS for 7 1/2 years.