The international profile of Caribbean art has been rising significantly. Barbados has incredible talent on the island and across the diaspora. To capitalize on this, there is a need to consider how the commercial sector can meaningfully participate in the growth and sustainability of the visual arts in Barbados.

As a Barbadian-born Deputy Artistic Director of a visual arts charity in London committed to the professional development and visibility of artists and curators from different diasporas, with a significant focus on the Caribbean, I know the commercial sector can sometimes feel like the other side of the coin in our industry. However, when we think about the realities of sustaining a career as an artist, finding a balance between participating in exhibitions with notable and critical institutions like museums, while generating income and market recognition from sales and acquisitions is essential. And there are important examples of artists and artist-led initiatives in Barbados striving to build their own local, regional and international networks, and leveraging pots of funding to deliver programming and undertake projects overseas.

We also need long-term financial investment in the work of local artists, and the development of commercial spaces that are adeptly engaged with the international arts landscape. This would enable our Barbadian arts practitioners to capitalize on this critical moment and participate fully on the world stage.

There is potential – through dialogue with artists and consideration of successful models functioning in the region – to imagine what a productive and astute commercial gallery could look like in Barbados. Supported by a network of patrons and local and international investors, such a gallery could properly represent the creative and business interests of artists locally, regionally and internationally.

Barbadian artist Sheena Rose spoke to me about her experiences of engaging with the commercial sector. Using social media as a vital tool to disseminate her work and foster new professional connections, Sheena has exhibited with international galleries including De Buck Gallery in New York and Johansson Projects in California. She recognizes the support, consistency, and visibility that gallery representation can provide to an artist, especially if that gallery is willing to invest in an artist’s development and journey. Sheena also acknowledges the role that commercial galleries can play in establishing a market value for an artist’s work. There are also the benefits of the financial backing that galleries can provide towards undertaking impactful showcasing opportunities overseas, such as participating in Biennials and art fairs.

Sheena Rose

The inclusion of artists from the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora is notable across multiple major art fairs and collateral events in the United States, however the number of Caribbean-based galleries holding booths at these fairs remains low. Initiatives like the Atlantic World Art Fair are utilizing online commercial platforms like Artsy to showcase work by Caribbean artists represented by Caribbean galleries, but the financial and logistical demands of presenting work in international art fairs does continue to restrict that representation on the ground.

Let’s look at what others in the region are doing. TERN, a contemporary art gallery in the Bahamas, is part of the cohort of galleries engaging with these online spaces, while presenting exhibitions of artists from the Bahamas and the wider Caribbean and supporting these artists as they undertake significant international projects. One example is Blue Curry, a Bahamian artist living in London whose engagement with commercial galleries in the Caribbean only began recently when he started working with TERN. Blue remarked that

“historically there have been only a handful of serious commercial galleries in the islands but their scope was limited to their specific local market… and the artists they represented weren’t being pushed properly internationally. This meant that most artists, like myself, had to look outside of that limited system to get ahead.”

This is a challenge across the Caribbean.

Blue sees TERN’s model as “a real game changer” in its specific attention to talent from all over the region while investing heavily in securing international exposure for those artists. He continued,

“They still show their artists locally in Nassau and have a strong sales base there, but they know that the international art fairs are now how artists’ careers are made and correct market prices for their work established. What TERN is doing raises the profile of Caribbean art overall by making our art and artists more present and relevant internationally.”

Sheena also paid mention to the industry knowledge that the TERN team has and advocates for local investment in similar initiatives in Barbados which could nurture understanding of contemporary art globally and build skills to navigate the business side of the art scene.

This includes expertise around arts management, marketing and PR, organisational development, as well as knowledge around artwork transport and customs, the international art market, and leveraging financial investment relevant to and aligned with the local context. A new example where Caribbean artists are combining a local initiative with an art fair format is the inaugural FUZE Art Expo as part of the 2023 Bahamas Culinary & Arts Festival, which took place in October 2023. Barbadian artists Akilah Watts, Kia Redman and Versia Harris presented work at the festival, with Redman and Harris’ work being showcased in a booth organized and curated by Barbados’ Fresh Milk Art Platform, a non-commercial venture that holds residencies and programmes for Caribbean artists, including important opportunities to participate in events throughout the region.

At FUZE, Akilah launched her new conceptual curatorial project Greedy Gift Shop. Offering a range of limited-edition artistic ‘souvenirs’ such as postcards, tea towels and keychains for sale, Akilah is responding to and critically addressing the existing local market, while fostering her own accessible platform for sales. She shared with me that she would welcome a local commercial space that would invest in nurturing a market for conceptual work and reduce the need to leave the island for one-off, often self-funded opportunities.

Akilah Watts

There are regional and international models we can learn from and a need for investment in knowledge and infrastructures to support more sustainable artistic and institutional practice through engagements with the commercial sector. Fundamental to this is the need for a more creative and public-spirited exchange between the commercial and non-commercial sides of the art industry.

For investors with an interest in the arts and creative industry in Barbados, opportunities abound. As there is no art market without artists, centering the needs and aims of Barbadian artists in the development of a commercial practice could ensure more impactful reach and representation of their work.