Sunday 18 August 2013

Relocating NGA to strengthen art appreciation, preservation

By Tajudeen Sowole

The recent announcement, by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation over the planned redevelopment of a land space within the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos may have generated controversies. But the ministry’s plan of relocating the National Gallery of Art {NGA} to give way for part of the purported re-development could bring a better breathing space and functionality to the government agency.

According to a statement from the ministry in March this year, three government agencies, including NGA, have been directed to find alternative space to allow for the redevelopment of the affected stretch of land. Responding to the emotion, which the directive generated, the ministry had stated that “what was given to the organizations concerned was not a quit notice, but a simple directive to embark on temporary relocation, consequent upon previous communication, pending the completion of the project”. It was therefore assured that “they will all be accommodated eventually in line with the master-plan which Government is determined to implement”.

While the National Assembly appeared to have intervened by diffusing the tension raced, it appears that the directive is still subsisting, currently, so suggests the continue search, by NGA for an alternative space. “We are yet to get another directive to the contrary”, a member of staff disclosed anonymously few days ago. However, “temporary relocation” of NGA is relative than reality: returning to its current space after the re-redevelopment would be impossible and unnecessary, given the oddity of its unsustainable status within the National Theatre area.

Carved out of the National Council for Arts and Culture {NCAC} via Decree No 86 of 1993, the NGA has the responsibility to “serve as a repository of for Nigeria’s creative spirits and to promote the appreciation” of the country’s art by “acquiring and collecting Nigerian works of art”. But NGA is currently obscured and conspicuously absent where it’s most needed. The inability of the NGA to adequately serve its purpose within Lagos is largely due to its current location – the Iganmu axis is completely shut out from the art hubs of Lagos. Were the NGA to predate the National Theatre complex as the National Museum, Onikan was, it would have been situated on the Lagos Island, observers have argued.

Given its importance to the development, appreciation of art, and by extension, enhancing the promotion of tourism, the NGA, currently, is arguably the most neglected government agency, particularly in Nigeria’s quest for tourism development.
Situated beside its sister agency, NCAC – with a gallery space that rarely functions and a permanent exhibition inside the National Theatre main building, NGA’s Aina Onabolu Building, even by minimum standard, within Africa, is a mockery of a national gallery. 
D-G, National Gallery of Art (NGA), Muku Abdullahi.

In modern and developed economies around the world, tourism is energized by the volumes of human traffic - foreign and domestic visitors - generated by traditional museums, galleries of art, museums of contemporary art, among several other culture outlets. For example, The Louvre Museum, Paris, France gets a yearly visit of between 8.7 to 8.9 million in the last three years while the British Museums, U.K; The Met Museum, New York, U.S and others on the list of top 20 museums around the world get visitors in millions each year. The economic contributions of such visiting to the countries are best imagined.

Over the years, concerned artists, art connoisseurs and other interest groups have agitated for a proper national gallery or museum of contemporary art edifice – not just an administrative office - that will adequately accommodate and preserve collections from the vast creation by Nigerian artists. Critics note that countries that know the value of art, keep their best collections in the local contemporary museums. For Nigeria, reverse is the case: best of the country’s art are daily being sold and taken away from the country. And that such collections are not antiquities that could be stopped by the subsisting laws, coupled with the inability of NGA to collect – there is no national gallery of art to keep and display them – artists and dealers are not restrained from controlling or selecting the categories of work being flown overseas.

During the heated debate over the redevelopment of the National Theatre, a source from the NGA disclosed that a temporary place has been identified among the abandoned or disused buildings of the Federal Government in Lagos Island.  NGA, the source added, will take possession of the building as soon as all protocols of acquisition have been completed. The new space being envisaged “will be a bigger structure that should have adequate exhibitions and storage rooms for collections”, he said. 

However, the mismanagement of information and other related strategies in the controversial redevelopment of the National Theatre’s land space seemed to have brought silence over relocation of the government agencies, including NGA.  With or without revisiting the controversial redevelopment of National Theatre’s stretch of land is an alternative, but temporary space for NGA on Lagos Island still on the table of government? “So far, no directive has been received to discontinue the process of relocation,” another senior member of staff of NGA confirmed. In fact, the search for an alternative space, he disclosed may have come to an end. A disused federal government building situated between the Tafawa Balewa Square and City Mall, in Onikan, he said, “will most likely be the new NGA building”. 

Indeed, a higher volume of art related activities such as exhibitions, commercial and non-commercial related art events take place within Lagos and Victoria Island axis. And given the fact that these two areas are the central business districts that daily attract local and foreign business transaction, and by extension leisure such as tourism via culture patronage, a national art gallery or museum of contemporary art, it has been argued should be located within such areas for proximity to potential patronage. And that NGA’s biggest art event in Lagos, the International Art Expo Nigeria has been holding yearly in Onikan, Lagos Island {inside the National Museum} confirms the islands as Nigeria’s art hubs. 
During the opening of the 2011 edition of Art Expo, for example, one of the nation’s top art collectors, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi used the event to revisit the quest for a befitting gallery of art. He advised the government to convert one of the disused buildings in Lagos Island to a temporary use of NGA while the proposed Abuja edifice, which has not even taken off, is being awaited.

Gbadamosi’s concern was perhaps a sign of frustration that the lack of a proper contemporary museum of art or national gallery does not encourage private donors of art to boost national collections. A higher volume of the best of Nigerian art is in private collections. More worrisome, most of the top collectors are aging; raising anxiety over the future of their vast collection in the hands of family or managers of their estate after death. For example the fear of losing collection to poor management after the death of a patriarch was confirmed last year during the memorial art symposium and exhibition organised for late renowned artist, Akinola Lasekan {1916-1972}, by his family. Out of over 15 works of Lasekan displayed during the exhibition, less than six were original paintings; the rest were wither printout from the internet or reproduced photographs. In fact the exhibition also exposed gross mismanagement of collection by past government agencies. Sources disclosed that only two out of the eight of the artist’s works donated to government for the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture {FESTAC ‘77} survived the inadequate management of collections under the government agencies.
President, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Oliver Enwonwu

Apparently, the disadvantage of inadequate museum of contemporary art or  national gallery has already started causing irreparable damage. A visit to the former temporary, but rented building of NGA in Abuja few years ago showed that indeed, the agency lacked the resources to keep collecting art: works were stacked in a highly non-preservation friendly space.    

For Gbadamosi and others who look forward to a befitting national gallery edifice in Lagos, they are probably unaware of another angle to the delay: t was gathered that a national gallery building in Lagos could stop the proposed NGA headquatre being planned for Abuja.

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