New director steps into the frame
Sean Rainbird, director of the National Gallery of Ireland, has his work cut out. There’s the proposed merger with Imma and the Crawford to deal with, the gallery’s extensive renovation works, and the challenge of coming up with major shows – so what’s his master plan?
SEAN RAINBIRD, the new director of the National Gallery of Ireland, knows that he has taken on a challenging job. With funding under unprecedented pressure, all public galleries are facing hard times. A recruitment ban means that staff members are fully and sometimes over-stretched. But besides all that, large sections of the complex of buildings that make up the National Gallery are closed for extensive and necessary refurbishment, severely curtailing exhibition space. Core parts of the Merrion Square premises, the original Dargan and the Milltown wings, are being substantially upgraded and won’t reopen until, perhaps, the end of 2015.
All these things seriously limit Rainbird’s options, but he’s upbeat about it. “It’s a challenging time,” he acknowledges, “and that’s good and bad at the same time.” He knows that the gallery is fondly regarded by visitors. There is, he feels, much that can be done in terms of using all the available spaces, exploring the collection and working with other institutions. “Because it is the national collection, not only the Dublin collection.”
Prior to his arrival, he wasn’t, he readily admits, that familiar with the gallery’s holdings, especially the Irish work. “I’m on a pretty steep learning curve as regards Irish art.”
A tall, urbane figure with a refreshingly direct, informal manner, Rainbird was born in Hong Kong in 1959. He studied art history and German, first in London, then in Freiburg and Berlin. It’s hardly surprising, then, that when he began to work at the Tate in 1987 as an assistant keeper, his speciality was German art. He sees it in wider terms: “I’d say I’ve always been interested in the northern European tradition.” By no means exclusively so, though. During his time at Tate and, from the year 2000 at Tate Modern as a senior curator, he notched up an impressive tally of exhibitions, by no means all of them featuring German artists.
Still, he seemed ideally suited to the position he took up at the end of 2006, as director of the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. There he found himself overseeing significant renovation works and set about reorganising and displaying the gallery’s vast permanent collection, a strategy that drew mixed responses.
While the Staatsgalerie liked the idea of change, he reckons, it was less susceptible to the reality. “There’s a strong level of conservatism among curators in German,” he says. “They are very committed to the old model of running a museum.” While, in a sense, they enlisted him with the idea that a bit of the Tate magic might rub off on the Staatsgalerie, at heart they remained wary of what that might entail.