JACMEL, Haiti - In early March, a few days after armed rebels forced Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office, vandals ransacked a Port-au-Prince art museum and burned dozens of paintings — as well as 86 rare voodoo dolls that were part of an exhibit marking Haiti’s 200th anniversary of independence.
“It was such a shame,” said prominent Haitian artist Patrick NarBal Boucard. “A lot of important works were destroyed.”
Yet, in the picturesque coastal town of Jacmel, art is being created, not plundered.
On Feb. 14, two weeks before Mr. Aristide’s ouster, Mr. Boucard, 47, opened a contemporary, 2,000-square-foot gallery at his evolving Centre d’Art de Jacmel (rendered in Creole as “Fondation Sant d’A Jakmel”). The gallery is part of a much bigger fund-raising project aimed at keeping Haiti’s rich artistic heritage alive in the face of continuing political and economic chaos.
“We’ve had no problem here, for the simple reason that Jacmel is not as divided, and there’s not as much hate here as in the rest of the country,” Mr. Boucard said. “We have very good relations with the community, and we don’t even need security, because people protect our space.”
The center is located in a renovated 8,000-square-foot brick warehouse that had been used to sort and store coffee in the 19th century, when Jacmel was a booming port city and its famous gingerbread houses were built.
The back of the two-story Centre d’Art faces the beach, with views of Jacmel’s fishing wharf and the Caribbean Sea. Inside, space has been arranged to accommodate 10 studios for art students and 10 for visiting artists.
Mr. Boucard, a Jacmel native, grew up in Haiti and Mexico, studied art in England and served in the U.S. Navy. He says his goal is to upgrade the quality of art in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
“Haitian art is losing its credibility around the world, for a few reasons,” he said. “Because of market forces and economic difficulties, artists here tend to paint what sells. They’re selling mostly stereotyped Haitian art — mass-produced market scenes, voodoo scenes and landscapes. It’s diluting creativity.”
Mr. Boucard was interviewed in his cluttered Jacmel studio as he smoked Marlboros and sipped Barbancourt rum, which is Haiti’s most famous export after art. His words were nearly drowned out by a fan blowing in the tropical heat and by roosters crowing in the courtyard below.
“Haiti has changed a lot in the last 50 years, but that’s not reflected in the art,” he said. “What’s being painted are decorative pieces rather than an expression relevant to the changes in the country. Artists are not really expressing themselves. There is no cutting edge, no avant-garde. We’re not creating things anymore.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that “artists don’t have a support system. They don’t have schools, they don’t have access to markets.”
The Centre d’Art hopes to address those shortcomings. It will start with 11 young Haitians studying only painting, but Mr. Boucard said, “We’ll expand every year and add a new discipline — film, sculpture, photography, printmaking and voodoo flag making.”
Students pay a token fee equivalent to $3 a month. They also pay the center a small commission on sales of their works. In return, they receive all the materials, support and exposure needed.
The center eventually could have as many as 40 students.
“We plan to demystify art by organizing tours for the local schools,” said Mr. Boucard, who speaks English and Spanish in addition to his native French and Creole. “For the inauguration of our art gallery, we did a photographic exhibition of Jacmel. We went around town, taking pictures of over 100 people. When they came to the show, we gave them a small picture of themselves. The reaction was fantastic.”
Among other things, the Centre d’Art de Jacmel will help aspiring Haitian artists sell their work on the Internet, via the center’s own Web site. The center’s gallery will be open seven days a week and staffed by its students.
That alone could lure more cruise ships to Jacmel, because more and better art will be available for cruise-ship passengers to buy — thereby giving a boost to the stagnant local economy.
It’s all outlined in Mr. Boucard’s 40-page proposal, which also envisions a woodworking facility, an audiovisual library, and an annual Jacmel Arts Festival in July.
To make his dream come true, Mr. Boucard needs to raise $150,000. He and his South African wife, co-founder Kate Tarratt Cross, have spent $50,000 of their own money and have collected $40,000 from outside sources.
To come up with the remaining $60,000, the couple has formed a Miami-based nonprofit organization called Hybrid Art Centers Inc. This entity recently sponsored a fund-raising event at Tap Tap, a South Beach restaurant specializing in Haitian cuisine.
“We’re hoping that by being a nonprofit organization, we’ll get discounts on canvas, paints and ink, and exemption on duties,” said Mr. Boucard, adding: “We’re totally independent. We have nothing to do with the government.”
Florence Bellande Robertson is president of Foundation Hope for Haiti Inc., a nonprofit group with headquarters at Pembroke Pines, Fla.
She said her organization, one of the art center’s initial sponsors, is “proud to add the Sant d’A Jakmel” to the list of charities it has helped. “Jacmel is bursting with talent, but woefully short on opportunities for artists, both aspiring and established,” she added. “What impressed us the most [about the art center] was the widespread support of the project in the Haitian artistic and private business sectors. For such a project to work, it must have the support of the local community as well as generous friends from all over the world.”
Patrick Slavin, a New York author who has written extensively on Haiti, said it will be difficult for Mr. Boucard to raise the kind of money he needs without help from foreign governments or nongovernmental organizations. But Mr. Slavin added that the Centre d’Art de Jacmel will be a godsend for the local economy.
“Jacmel’s historic isolation from the turmoil in Port-au-Prince has done wonders for the town. It’s the only place that literally hasn’t burned down since Haitian independence,” he said. “Having this arts center in Jacmel would be excellent for the future of Haitian culture.”