When you pull off the airport bypass road (Esterly Tibbetts Highway) and follow the longish driveway past the water feature up to the sculpture in the shape of an enormous red question mark, you have arrived at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and you know you have entered an aesthetic realm. This 2-story modernist building has an open feel with clean lines that seems the right size and shape to display art on an island.
The permanent collection is upstairs, and it starts in the stairwell where the walls are decorated with very old sandals made of tires and thatch. You won't want to miss it. (The relatively small size and compact design allows you to see all the art here.) Primitive, spiritual, historic, and contemporary pieces provide a sense of the diversity and uniqueness of the aesthetics of the Cayman Islands. My favorite is a sculpture by the youthful, local artist Davin Ebanks. A tall column of sea-green cast glass titled, "Blue Meridian 80 degrees West, Old Isaac's" stands at the top of the stairs to the left and appears as if a segment of the sea has been solidified and stands before your eyes. An ink wash titled, "Coral Sea by Night," presents a bright, colorful underwater landscape and a starlit night sky, both incongruously sharing the same canvas in a fanciful view that captures the magical atmosphere an island can offer. The work of legendary Caymanian artist, Gladwyn "Miss Lassie" Bush, whose house has been preserved on the South Sound, can also be found on these walls.
Downstairs, visiting exhibitions rotate every two to three months with curated selections that feature local and international art relevant to the island and its neighbors in the Caribbean. Most follow the gallery's general curatorial philosophy, which seeks to include works in a variety of media, styles, and genres, and also pieces by both formally trained and self-taught artists. International shows usually include some well-known masterpieces and other quality works of equal significance that have not received the same level of exposure.
The National Gallery, directed by Natalie Urquhart, has brought a sophisticated and significant art presence to the island, which includes curated displays in conjunction with discussion panels that include local artists, curators, and writers, and a variety of programs for children and the public alike. The new Dart auditorium, a stand-alone circular theater next to the gallery provides a space for public slide shows and a Cine Club for film enthusiasts. The gallery has also developed an Artist Trail Map with the Department of Tourism and can facilitate studio tours on the island. Check the website for details, special programs, exhibitions, and events.
An art shop in the gallery sells limited edition prints and custom jewelry and bags. A new Art Café, scheduled to open in 2014 in the education center overlooking the gardens, will offer sandwiches, salads, and pastries.