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A Call to Action for Haitian Art

By Candice Russell

What can I do for Haitian art today? It’s the question that comes to mind for me, as I ponder the subjects to write about on my Facebook page – Candice Russell’s Haitian Art – and for my weekly entries on my blog and longer monthly essays on my web site – www.Haitianna.com. As one avid collector who became an art dealer to share my love of Haitian art, along with being an independent art curator of museum exhibitions on the subject, I can only do so much.

This leads me to my impassioned plea to other collectors, even modest ones just getting started with Haitian art, to put their collections in display in public forums. It’s not that hard to do, as I will explain.

There are significant benefits of getting involved to this extent. One cannot deny the good karma of spreading the word about the wonders of Haitian art to other people. The second benefit is increasing the value of your own Haitian artwork as you disseminate information and educate others. The more you learn about the subject, the more you want to share that knowledge and the excitement of knowing becomes contagious.

I understand that some people don’t want others to know what they own – a decision to preserve their privacy that I respect, even though it saddens me. I know one collector in South Florida who has an outstanding collection of Haitian Vodou (voodoo) items, including Vodou flags, bottles, and mixed-media doll constructions. A room of her large home is even devoted to several elaborately decorated altars – a hushed and reverential space worthy of a Vodou temple in Leogane, Haiti. But she didn’t want me to photography any of her cherished pieces for my book, “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” Nor has she ever put these pieces on exhibit in a museum.

More generous collectors all over South Florida and elsewhere very kindly did share their private Haitian paintings, Vodou flags, and other items with the world through my book. I am grateful to them, as they have advanced the cause of Haitian art. But the next step for them and others is to increase the profile of Haitian art in their communities, no matter where they are. Large cities are gold mines of potential venues. Even small-size cities have one art museum and perhaps also a college or university with an art gallery. They also may have community centers, city halls, and hotels with lobbies as possible venues for a Haitian art show.Having been a professional journalist most of my life, writing for newspapers  and magazines, I know the value of getting publicity and the difficulty of doing so, especially when newspaper staffs are shrinking along with the space devoted to visual arts coverage. So, people approaching museums and other facilities aboutdoing a Haitian art show based on their collections need a news hook to get people’s attention.

Here’s the news hook: February is African-American History Month, when public facilities like museums scramble to book relevant exhibitions. May is Haitian Cultural Heritage Month, which is well-known in Miami, Florida, with its large Haitian expatriate population. Then there is June, honoring Caribbean Cultural Heritage Month.

Telephone the museum or other institution and ask to speak to the curator or director. If unavailable, get that person’s email and make contact that way. Follow up with a phone call to determine interest in your proposal to present a Haitian art show. Don’t be afraid that you have to supply all the written material yourself, from wall signage under each piece to the essay in a brochure or hand-out to visitors. That’s why most museums have a curatorial staff.

Since most avid Haitian art collectors already have their works photographed, either digitally or otherwise, for insurance purposes or a desire to keep track of and organize their collections, sending off key examples of Haitian artworks through the email system or the post office is usually an easy process. Include a cover letter, explaining your reason for wanting to showcase this fabulous art, and the importance of recognizing its value for your community. Follow up with the recipient of your communication about whether the materials were received and what the response is to your proposal. The final answer could be quick in coming or, more likely, it could take a few months, once the director or curator meets with the staff to review multiple ideas for programming. Your Haitian art show may not be presented for a year or more, but that just gives you more time to refine your ideas about the show and what information about Haiti you may want to provide.

Do you need to have hundreds of paintings and wood sculptures or other objects to approach a museum? No, not if you have 25 exceptional examples. That small number may be enough to fill a small gallery of a large museum or the walls of a civic center. 

Having a large Haitian art collection may make choosing more difficult, especially if you have art in different media, from canvas to glass. Pick a theme. If you have an abundance of one genre of Haitian art, like paintings from the Saint Soleil school or artists from Cap-Haitien, that may be the route to go. Or, if your taste runs to fantasy, choose a selection of jungle animal paintings from Haiti, with giraffes, tigers, and elephants recalling the ancestral homeland of Africa.

Getting a show in a public facility doesn’t have to be an intimidating process or something just left to scholars and academics. It can be a liberating experience, not only for collectors of Haitian art, but for the visitors to shows who have never seen anything like Haitian art before. Many of those people will be exposed to it for the first time.

Who knows? Some of them may become Haitian art collectors, too, as the result of your generous efforts.