A Model of ambition for Sligo and the northwest

Can The Model’s director turn it into a national cultural institution for the northwest? Here’s the plan

Director Megan Johnston, on right, with artist Anne Labovitz at the Bureau of Radical Accessability in the Model

Director Megan Johnston, on right, with artist Anne Labovitz at the Bureau of Radical Accessability in the Model

 

Sligo has suffered the effects of the recession more than most Irish towns. An excess of dead retail space is evident throughout the town centre. Sligo County Council is still one of the country’s most indebted local authorities; last year there was a large payout following the council’s lawsuit with Lissadell, and earlier this year library closures were threatened.

That said, recent events such as the celebrations of WB Yeats’s 150th birthday and the British royal visit have done their bit to change the mood, and an air of optimism is rippling out from underneath the copper-green cladding that distinguishes the Model, Sligo’s largest arts resource.

On a recent visit to the Model, on the eve of Yeats Day, there was a palpable buzz in the atrium. The space is set up for the opening of two new exhibitions, Psychic Lighthouse and Entwined Memories; the launch of a new members’ scheme, Model Citizen; and a Candlelit Salon, where Yeats’s interest in magic and the occult will be discussed by artists, academics and members of Sligo’s arts community. The evening is lively and engaging. Megan Johnston, director of the Model, is at the heart of the hustle and bustle, relishing the fact that the public are arriving in their droves.

It’s been nine months since she took up the post of director with the aim of making the Model radically accessible and socially engaged. Last October, she gave her inaugural lecture to the Sligo community and mentioned “slow curating” to describe the process of making “deep and meaningful connections” in her work. She noted a Travellers’ halting site 200 yards away from the Model, and expressed her interest in working with the community there as much as any other.

Johnston, who hails from Minnesota in the US, subscribes to the belief that “to be socially engaged is a lived practice which involves working with a generosity of spirit in a non-hierarchical way”.

She cut her teeth as a curator and director in Portadown, Co Armagh, and she acknowledges that working there was “complicated”. But her time there and in other challenging locations means she is “used to contested spaces.”

The challenge she has set for herself in Sligo is “how to create a permeable museum, one that is non-hierarchical and which responds to current conditions. I like to respond to those conditions and I like artists who respond.” When I remind her of her early reference to the halting site, she says: “You can’t do political exhibitions and not look in your own backyard. Here in Sligo, I’m interested in the contentious issues, whether it’s halting sites, the built environment, fracking, or our post-conflict relationship with the North. That said, not everything has to be political.”

Shortly after her arrival Johnston installed a desk and chair in the foyer of the Model. The plaque on the mantelpiece declares this area to be the Bureau of Radical Accessibility.

The space is dedicated to open discussion around the exhibition programme and art practice, as well as to current issues. The director, staff, artists and other members of the community make themselves available to the public.

The bureau has provided a forum for varied discussion with, among others, artist Paul Seawright, theorist Michael Birchall, American artist and community activist Anne Labovitz, and Polish artist Maria Loboda.

For Johnston, providing the space for such engagement is central to her thinking that socially engaged practice is about establishing relationships.

“I have been mapping the talent and the town and our collective assets, finding out what the community really wants through these conversations.”

When people ask Johnston why she decided to move here, she laughs and says: “Just take a look at the landscape and Knocknarea.” Along with Sligo’s natural assets, she is impressed by the town’s cultural offerings, and mentions other local organisations such as the Hamilton Gallery, Blue Raincoat, the Hawkswell, the Fleadh, Sligo Live, the Yeats Society, the Hyde Bridge Gallery and the Yeats International Summer School.

“The energy I have encountered here includes many new people, not just me, working with an arts ecosystem that’s already very strong.”

“Now we’re in the middle of Yeats 2015, and, with plans for the Yeats International Centre really getting off the ground, I think a lot of people are sensing that this is the time when we can really showcase what we have here.”

In honour of Nora Niland

One of Johnston’s aims has been to make the Niland collection – Sligo’s municipal art collection named after its founder Nora Niland and housed in the Model – more visible.

“There has always been a commitment by the Model to the collection. But, I felt we needed to re-emphasise it as a hugely important asset to the community. I also really wanted to honour this woman Nora Niland, who had really been a visionary in supporting local artists and in building a great collection. This rehang, by putting the collection centre stage, means a lot to the community.”

The highlight of Shared Visions: The Model Collects, the current installation of the Niland Collection, is the single wall that displays more than 100 paintings, hung three deep and salon style, against a backdrop of deep blue.

Many of Sligo’s best-loved Jack B Yeats paintings are there, including The Funeral of Harry Boland and A Political Meeting (In the West of Ireland) alongside familiar pieces by Paul Henry, Nora McGuinness, Evie Hone and George Russell (Æ).

In a vitrine, correspondence between Nora Niland and various artists and collectors can be read. “Niland’s success in building that collection was based around relationships,” says Johnston.

The gallery is now following in Niland’s footsteps, by launching a new acquisitions fund with the aim of purchasing art locally. Growing the collection is part of a wider strategy of institution building.

Johnston is ambitious for the centre and says that the northwest deserves a national institution.“We have national aspirations, and the Model is poised to take on that role.”

Those aspirations could become reality, with the proposed Yeats International Centre, which the Model is involved in. But her vision also embraces the grassroots and Sligo’s arts community. “We can only come out of the recession from a position of strength by coming together and holding on tightly to that ecosystem that is the lifeblood of this Sligo regeneration.”

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