New director steps into the frame
For many reasons, mounting the sort of temporary exhibitions that generate crowds and headlines is going to be very difficult in Ireland, at least in the near future. Globally, he points out, there are more museums and galleries than ever. “All of them jostling to make temporary exhibitions. And temporary exhibitions cost money, usually a lot of money, which people don’t always realise as they’re paying for their tickets. It’s harder and harder to get works on loan, and it’s more and more expensive. If you want to borrow the kind of names that draw the crowds – van Gogh, say – you’ve got to start with many millions in your pocket, or a sponsor with many millions.”
Such practical constraints explain why he will work with the collection at the National Gallery of Ireland, mindful of the fact that only a small fraction of what is there is on view at any given time.
“There’s no point in having a collection if you don’t use it. It’s much more than a research resource. A permanent collection is not just a static statement of fact. Any selection of paintings you make is a way of constructing an argument, on several levels. You can draw attention to particular issues: for example, why is oil paint regarded as being more important as a medium than watercolour?”
A collection is never a given, in his view. Choices always inform the way it is assembled and the way it is presented. “There are certain constants. Because of their size or whatever, particular works must occupy particular rooms. But beyond that, do we want to keep doing it the same way? The three basic ways of arranging a collection are in terms of chronologies, geographies and thematics. It can be useful to interrupt these approaches.”
One can interrupt by short-circuiting any of the rationales or disrupting the time-line, which Rainbird did, for example, in Stuttgart, by juxtaposing the 20th-century expressionist Max Beckmann and the 15th-century master of Netherlandish painting Hans Memling. And he seems taken with the promising idea of inviting contemporary artists to interact with the collection.
One of the first things to go during cutbacks is the acquisitions budget. He has firm views about that: “The fact is that if you stop acquiring works, some of the lifeblood goes from an institution. You need that input. It’s good for your visitors and it helps you to keep a finger on the pulse of things.” Between his initial acceptance of the appointment and his taking it up, he found himself facing another hurdle: the revived plan of the amalgamation of the National Gallery, Imma and the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. It landed on his desk, so to speak: “A week after I’d signed my contract. It is an issue, and it’s not going to go away.”