Show and tell: the art of running a gallery
How do museums decide what to display? Should they charge? And what are their dream exhibitions? Eight directors give us the view from the top
People queue to pay into galleries and museums around the world. Why not in Ireland?
Most of the eight museum and art-gallery directors we speak to – responsible for the National Gallery of Ireland, the Ulster Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, among others – are wary of admission fees. They point out that charges can restrict access or deter visitors, and may cost more to collect than they bring in. “In my previous museum” – Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, in Germany – “there were 36 different forms of reduced entry available,” says Sean Rainbird, director of the National Gallery.
But they also believe that the right exhibition could be charged for. “People primarily queue to see the iconic master collections or blockbuster exhibitions, for which they have to pay,” says Sarah Glennie of Imma.
Some of the best-known museums internationally, including the Louvre, in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, charge for entry – and still draw enormous crowds. “People queue to pay here too,” says Tim Cooke of National Museums Northern Ireland, although the example he cites is Age of the Dinosaur, its summer blockbuster exhibition.
Helen Carey of Limerick City Gallery of Art highlights the psychology at play. “At some deep level, I think, Irish people don’t accept that art costs money and artistic training costs money. The perceived tax advantage to artists doesn’t help, as people think they’ve paid for this art provision already, between tax and what they think artists don’t pay.”
If money were no object, what exhibition would the directors most like to mount?
“A thematic show looking at the contribution of Ireland, north and south, to the world,” says Cooke. “It would cover art, literature, music, sport, religion, invention, agriculture, food, drink, theatre, dance and politics. Would you come?”
Glennie would “initiate a series of commissions for the gallery and beyond, by leading Irish and international contemporary artists.”
It’s the National Gallery that is living its dream, “setting Vermeer in the context of his times and next to his main rivals in an exhibition we plan for 2017. This is one exhibition I am very excited about,” says Rainbird.
What percentage of a gallery’s collection is on display, and how do the directors decide what to show and what to store?
The Hugh Lane shows between 20 and 30 per cent of its collection, regularly rotating what is on view.
With 70 per cent of its building closed for refurbishment, very little of the vast National Gallery collection is on show currently, and “even fully open, only a small part of the collection is on display. The remedy is to change the displays over time, to create a dialogue between the works and the public, and to find new contexts in which to show works,” says Rainbird.
In Sligo you’ll see about 10 per cent of the Model’s holdings – mainly the Niland Collection – and in Cork about a third of the Crawford’s. Imma shows about 8 per cent of its pieces, plus works in the national touring programme.
Limerick City Art Gallery has collection shows throughout the year, as does the Royal Hibernian Academy, in its dedicated Dr Tony Ryan Gallery. At the Ulster Museum the proportion on show is under 10 per cent, but Cooke points out that some of the collection is there for research and archive purposes rather than for display.