WHEN BRIAN Kennedy was a young student, he stayed in a building workers’ hostel in Kilburn, to help eke out his meagre resources and extend a study visit to London’s galleries.
He still remembers one exchange in particular with a longer-term expatriate. “Another lodger, a lovely big man from Sligo, thought it was wonderful that Ireland had produced someone who wanted to go to art museums.”
Kennedy never persuaded this man to join him on an exhibition visit, but he has spent much of his professional life since then, rather more successfully, trying to engage wider circles of the general public with the arts. He has done so – always energetically, and occasionally controversially – from senior positions at art institutions across three continents. At the age of 26 he was appointed assistant director of the Irish National Gallery. Six years later he became director of the National Gallery of Australia. He then moved to the small but highly influential Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.
Nearly two years ago he moved again, to become director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the home of a world-class collection, magnificently housed, and an institute with a strong tradition of community education.
Kennedy’s first encounter with visual art was worlds apart from his current position.
“At the age of 13, my aunt sent me an art postcard, and promised to continue sending them to me at the rate of one a month. I then started to collect them vigorously myself. At 18, I had 5,000 of them, 40 Rembrandts organised in chronological order and so on; I found my subject very early.”
Finding his profession as a gallery director took a little longer, following civil service jobs and a stint at the Chester Beatty Library. It was here that he became fascinated by the interface between culture and politics, writing his first book on Beatty’s decision to donate his collection to Ireland.
He soon learned just how tricky this relationship could be, following his move to the National Gallery. The Arts Council commissioned him to write a history of the State and the arts in Ireland. The result was Dreams and Responsibilities, published in 1990. The book is a serious, scholarly work, but Kennedy’s unfettered access to the council’s archives and personnel yielded sensational material. He wrote carefully, but revealingly, about apparent interference by the then taoiseach, Charles J Haughey, in the council’s affairs.
The book was at first avidly promoted by the council’s then director, Adrian Munnelly. But Haughey’s cultural advisor, the poet Anthony Cronin, challenged Kennedy’s account of these events in print. Munnelly told his staff that he had assured Cronin he would lower the book’s profile.
Cronin has always denied seeking such an assurance. Nevertheless, Munnelly shredded some 200 copies of the book without informing the author. He rejected allegations that he did so under political pressure. But he never republished it.