Introducing…Natalie Urquhart, Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands
Walking into the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands on a picturesque morning in April, you can’t help but feel captivated by all the beautiful pieces of art surrounding you. Every painting, installation and objet d’ art has an inspiring story to tell. One could spend hours (as many do) admiring the walls of the Gallery, learning about the rich history of Cayman and getting a taste of the vibrant and exciting art scene that is emerging.
We were lucky enough to get a sneak peek of the newly curated Permanent Collection Exhibition as Natalie Urquhart and her team were rehanging the collection. One of the first things she tells us – as we weave gingerly around canvases leaning against walls – is about her passion for her work. She wakes up in the morning with the mission to keep expanding opportunities for the growing artistic landscape in Cayman, and for the burgeoning creative industries. That passion is palpable. Here we speak to Natalie about why she loves living in Cayman, her fondest childhood memories and her penchant for vintage books.
Born and bred in Cayman, Natalie moved back home in 2008. Before then she was educated in Cayman and the UK, later obtaining degrees in Art History and Arts Management. Her impressive background includes 17 years’ experience in the cultural sector coordinating multi-genre arts festivals, arts programming and exhibitions for public and private sector arts initiatives. She has lived in many places across the world – including Glasgow, London, Florence and Vancouver.
She took over the National Gallery as Director in 2009 and has been instrumental in shaping the local art scene since. When asked what she loves about living here, she refers to the wonderful work-life balance that many of us who live in paradise can appreciate. She elaborated: “I have been fortunate to live in a lot of different places but I was born and raised in Cayman. It is really hard to beat this lifestyle because we enjoy a vibrant, cosmopolitan community on the one hand, while at the same time having direct access to an amazing natural environment, which is quite unique. You can be on the beach 15 minutes after work. Sometimes I think that we don’t embrace that enough! We have outstanding local culture from food, music and increasingly art. Just in the last 10 years you can see how the art scene has transformed and there are growing opportunities for creative entrepreneurs, which is something I’m focused on right now.”
Many would say that this undeniable change in the local art landscape over the last decade was largely driven by Natalie’s involvement with the Gallery and the wider arts community (she has curated for the Visual Arts Society, private galleries, hotels and public heritage sites). She said: “I am driven by the idea that we should be creating a world-class organization that could be transferred anywhere, and to successfully adapting global models in consideration of Cayman’s unique environment and story. Cayman deserves institutions of that quality, that preserve and foster the work our artists are creating and that provide platforms for dialogue about community and identity. I have visited hundreds of museums and galleries over the years – that is what I do for fun and fortunately my husband loves to do that too – and I am always looking for new innovative ideas for exhibition design or events and programming that we can adapt. They can be tiny or they can be life-changing. It is always in the details. And to be able to come back to Cayman and implement them is really exciting. Everyday is different and that is what keep me engaged.”
Besides pursuing her dream career, what keeps her rooted in Cayman is her strong bond to her family. She has countless childhood memories of her parents and sisters on a boat navigating the North Sound. She reminisced: “My favourite early memories are being out on the boat with my family on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We would head to the Sand Bar at Stingray City with lots of other families who we knew. It was like a communal gathering space but out in the water, which is pretty hard to beat. Years later I still love boating and one of my favourite past times is boating across the Sound by moonlight. It is unbelievably beautiful. We love picking a starry night and heading across to Kaibo to their rum bar for a cocktail. It has such an elegant Caribbean vibe.”
Natalie goes on to talk about how Cayman may have changed a lot since her childhood, but what is so special is that people who visit and live here have the opportunity to embrace both the island’s natural beauty and unique heritage, as well as its growing urbane personality. She added: “This cosmopolitan Cayman is really a product of the last 10-15 years. As kids we spent a lot of time having family barbeques on Sundays, going boating or hanging out on the beach. There wasn’t a lot of other things to do at the time. Back then, the connection to nature and the beauty of the Caymanian environment was even more apparent because you could literally see it everywhere you went. There weren’t buildings that were over two or three stories. Fortunately, that is still the case in the districts, Little Cayman and the Brac where you can experience the traditional Caymanian way of life authentically. At the same time, the more developed side of Cayman offers a wealth of things to do that are much more diverse and globally inspired. Its important to strike a balance.”
When asked what her greatest extravagance is, it is no surprise that her response is ‘travel and books’ – the two seem to go perfectly hand-in-hand. She elaborated: “I’ve been collecting books since I was about 15 so we have thousands of books in our house. It is a bit like a library. As a young person I spent most of my money travelling and buying books. When I thought of what I wanted to do in my lifetime, it was always driven by the notion of being able to see as much as I can. The challenge is when the travelling overlaps with the book buying! We always come back from every trip with overweight luggage. Our favourite bookshop is in an ancient market town called Alnwick in the North East of England – there is a wonderful series of fishing villages just below Scotland that my dad grew up around so we have been going there for family holidays since I was 5 years old. The old Victorian railway station has been converted into the second largest second hand and rare bookshop in Britain called Barter Books. This bookshop is like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it just keeps on going and going. Outside of Cayman, my happy place would be sitting inside that bookshop. I guess the extravagance will be the oversize luggage!”
When asked what or who is the greatest love of her life, Natalie’s face lights up instantly as she tells us – her husband Alexander (Sandy) Urquhart. The story of how they met is kismet. She explained: “Sandy is a designer. He was part of the early team who planned Camana Bay and later led the design team for the town. At the time, I had just started a magazine called Inside Out. My first article was a profile of lead designers in Cayman. It was pretty outside the box because design back then wasn’t as universal as it is now. I had four profiles – Sandy was going to be my landscape architect because that was the area where he got his original training. It took forever to track him down and when I finally did he suggested the interview took place at 6am on a Sunday! Clearly expecting me to decline. I called his bluff however and met at 6am at this gigantic tropical nursery that he had been developing with Dart, which covered the entire site where Camana Bay sits now. It was a little like stepping into Alice in Wonderland! It was really love at first sight. He is pretty eccentric and very different to anyone else I have ever met. I remembered thinking, ‘if I had to talk to one person for the rest of my life and everyone else disappeared, I would pick him every time.’ Having two creative people living in one space gets very spicy at times. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I also have an amazing family here – my parents, three sisters, their partners and a very cool nephew and we get together at least once or twice a week.”
When asked what Natalie’s idea of perfect happiness is, she paints a beautiful picture of one of her favourite places in the world. She described: “If I had to pick one spot it would be on our dock in Little Cayman at night. There is no light pollution over there and you can see thousands of stars. Every time I am there I feel such a sense peace and of my place in the world. You feel like everything is put in perspective. At the end of the day, all your stresses are insignificant when you are lying looking at a billion stars.”
It seems the (art) world is Natalie’s oyster – we can’t wait to see what she does next!
The National Gallery is hosting the third iteration of the Caribbean arts strategies group Tilting Axis, from May 18-20th. Tilting Axis is a roving meeting that brings together arts professionals who are interested in, and committed to, expanding contemporary visual art practice across all linguistic areas of the region. The goal of Tilting Axis is to facilitate opportunities for those who are living and working in the Caribbean, to increase interest and understanding of this region’s contemporary visual practice while contributing to a healthy cultural eco-system and purposeful growth for the Caribbean creative sector. For more information please visit their website.
In a Nutshell:
What is your motto: “Passion and purpose” – I think this underscores most of my life decisions.
Brand of sunscreen: Piz Buin
Sunset drink: A decent Marlborough, NZ, Sauvignon Blanc
Summer scent: L’Eau de Cartier
Brand of sunglasses: DVF Aviators
Summer Book: (Current read) Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco
Song of the season: Joe Clausell “Feeling Good” Nina Simone remix – it never gets old!
Flips flops or bare feet: Bare feet (with “Barefoot in Barcelona” polish by OPI)