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by John Beale
American Nancy Kupchan Sonis and her husband, Richard Sonis, lived at their home in Sandy Lane for a few years before returning to the USA. Nancy first began visiting Barbados within the Nineteen Sixties together with her first husband, S. Morris Kupchan. She was a loyal 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 he or she donated 75 paintings to this cause which she hoped would sooner or later change into a reality. Unfortunately, and sadly her dream was not realized during her lifetime.
She lived a brief distance from the Barbados Embassy in Washington and I met her several times once I was the ambassador and I discovered 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 ascertain a relationship with their “Caribbean brothers and sisters” reached out to a few of the CARICOM Ambassadors. Consequently, the Ambassador of Trinidad & Tobago and I attended a charity gala on the famous Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) which is a world-class art museum, with over 65,000 works and ranked the ninth best museum within the US. The occasion was to honour the primary Black Director of General Motors who had donated US$1 million to the Black Arts section of the DIA.
Nancy thought that Barbados must have a painting of a Bajan artist displayed on the DIA and he or she immediately contacted Barbadian artist Wayne Branch, whom she knew and who quickly responded. Consequently, I used to be in a position to take to Detroit a 48 x 41 inches “Huckster’s” painting by Wayne Branch which may now be seen on the DIA.
I displayed Wayne Branch’s painting on stage on the gala and the honoree asked me if he could buy it for US$50,000! Our gesture, (together with some Mount Gay) led the honoree and senior members of the FAAAA to say that they would really like to go to Barbados and promote entrepreneurship and assist in the creation of a BNAG. I believed they might be helpful each for raising funds and forging lasting relationships within the art world. Furthermore Graham W.J. Beal who served the DIA as director, President and CEO said he would assist the BNAG with their expertise and experience.
Consequently of the gift, the Board of Directors of the DIA accepted it with deep appreciation and I used to be later made a member of the Tannahill Society. Unfortunately, the federal government of the day didn’t show any interest and there was no follow-up.
Whither a Barbados National Art Gallery?
Nonetheless, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been upset given my experience of several years working on the project of a BNAG. I give full credit to Sir Trevor Carmichael who did nearly every part possible to get the project began, 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 previous CXC constructing on the Garrison because 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 could be possible to lift the funding (probably within the vicinity of US$3 million) for a BNAG. Although the federal government appears to have designated the old CXC constructing; until it formally vests it within the BNAG, there isn’t any probability of the private sector contributing the funds to deal with the BNAG. In truth, many consider this a condition precedent to draw funding. Nobody of their right senses will contribute meaningful amounts to a BNAG based on a “promise” made repeatedly by successive governments.
As a way to succeed it is crucial for the federal government to facilitate – ideally with an initial grant -but then they need to get out of the best way. The various unsatisfactory experiences of our state- owned enterprises and the distressing reports
of the Auditor General needs to be enough to discourage or disqualify the federal government from managing such an entity.
Likewise, the government’s politically and bureaucratic appointed committees haven’t resulted in much progress over a few years.
I believe it could be fitting to have the Barbados Museum have an exhibition of Nancy’s collection on the museum in her memory. Her generous act of philanthropy would function a catalyst and stimulus for support. Moreover,
when the BNAG is being implemented it might be appropriate to have a special room – The Nancy Sonis Room – to display her collection.
I don’t know the way much could be raised but I think that Nancy’s family and friends would willingly contribute to a serious initiative of the creation of a BNAG. It surely could be a catalyst and if successful, it might be a lift for Bajan artists and Nancy could be smiling from above!
John Beale is a former Ambassador to the US and the OAS for 7 1/2 years.