Charles Zuill, a BNG visionary
For decades, Charles Zuill helped spearhead a campaign to create “a proper art museum”.
In 1992, a week before his dream came true, he was stuck in a room at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.
His immediate concern was that he would miss the grand opening of the Bermuda National Gallery on March 15.
“I was in a cycle accident on Front Street, travelling to the BNG from the Bermuda College,” he said. “A car pulled in front of me as I neared the entrance to the docks and I went down. I had to have surgery the night of the accident. I told the doctor he had better fix me up; the opening of the Bermuda National Gallery was only a week away. I told him I was heavily involved in its creation and I intended to be there.”
Dr Zuill showed up for the ribbon-cutting on crutches and wearing a leg brace, thrilled to see Louise Jackson, the BNG’s first chairperson, dedicate the gallery to “Bermuda’s schoolchildren and their children”.
Thirty years later, the 86-year-old is still “heavily involved” having curated From Darkness to Light: Portraits by Henry Ward, which is on show until October.
The opening of the BNG was the realisation of a decades-long campaign by artists, Dr Zuill said.
“The idea for a proper art museum for Bermuda had been kicking around since the 1950s when there was a split in the Bermuda Art Association.
“The upshot was the development of the Bermuda Society of Arts. One of their aims was to open an art museum.”
The goal had not been met in 1971, when he returned to Bermuda after teaching art at Atlantic Union College in Lancaster, Massachusetts, for several years.
“I rented an old chapel on Flatts Hill as a studio,” he said. “I think it belonged to St Mark’s Church. It was a much bigger space than I needed. I suggested Desmond Fountain take part of it to help defray the expenses.”
He and the sculptor would often talk about opening an art museum.
“We knew there were some significant collectors on the island who had good art – not only Bermuda art, but also international art,” Dr Zuill said.
Unable to find a teaching position here, he again left Bermuda, this time for Washington, where he took on the post of assistant professor at Walla Walla University.
“I went there by boat through Panama and up the west coast,” he said.
He moved back to Bermuda in 1983 and, with others, worked to develop the island’s first art museum.
In the late 1970s, Mr Fountain had pushed the Bermuda Fine Arts Trust through Parliament. It gave the BNG founders $300,000 to get the gallery started.
In eight weeks Jay Bluck, “a crackerjack fundraiser”, raised an additional $4 million to refurbish and equip the new space.
Dr Zuill came up with the name, Bermuda National Gallery, and compiled a five-year list of exhibitions until a permanent collection could be built up.
His first suggestion was an African art display. Collector Dusty Hind agreed to loan some of his pieces and suggested that New York’s Africa Centre might share its touring exhibit, Secrecy.
Dr Zuill was unsure if they could raise the necessary money, only months after asking for funding to create the gallery.
“The initial fee was $50,000,” he said. “Beyond that we had to pay to ship the artwork, insure it, install it and they wanted us to have armed guards. I had to explain that that would not fly in Bermuda. Even the police were not armed. They relented.”
The whole community pitched in to raise $150,000; $55,000 came from the Christian Human Foundation.
Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals opened in February 1993.
“It was an astounding success,” Dr Zuill said. “People went to it by the droves.”
Another popular exhibit was A Window on The Azores in 1999, featuring work loaned by the Carlos Machado Gallery in Sao Miguel. That show changed his own perceptions.
“I had no idea what the art was like in the Azores,” Dr Zuill said. “I did not know if it would be adequate or it would just be folk art or what.”
He soon discovered that it was actually very sophisticated.
“It was not just folk art,” he said. “We have a really faulty idea of what the Azores is like. It is more than just farmers.”
He also organised shows about Bermudian artists such as Bill Ming and Richard Saunders.
Through it all, he was determined to use the BNG to educate and transform the community. He also wanted the gallery to be socially inclusive. Validation came in a quiet conversation with Walton Brown.
“We were both teaching at the Bermuda College at the time,” he said. “Walton said to me it truly is a national gallery.”
Dr Zuill’s work has been in 12 of the BNG’s 15 Bermuda Biennials, including this year’s. Eve Godet, the director of programming and engagement, said he has been called the “father of modernism in Bermuda”.
“He was the first artist to push a conceptual view of Bermuda,” she said. “What Charles brings to the BNG is his vision and a really deep understanding of the art scene in Bermuda. He has a PhD in colour theory as well as being an artist himself so he has a deep understanding of other artists and art history. And he has been involved with the gallery for so long that he has a rich history of local art.”
In celebration of 30 years, the BNG is planning to host a fundraiser this autumn and will revisit some key pieces in its permanent collection. The 2022 Bermuda Biennial: A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future is now on display. A Personal Perspective: Photographs by Richard Saunders opens on June 23.
For more information see bng.bm