Among readers who voted, Caravaggio nosed ahead of Vermeer to emerge as the top exhibition of the year in Ireland. Beyond Caravaggio: Caravaggio and his Followers was a hit early in the year at the National Gallery of Ireland.
Using the gallery's own Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, as leverage, and working with the National Gallery, London and the National Gallery of Scotland, the NGI managed to assemble four Caravaggios and many strong works by the Caravaggisti. That is pretty much a blueprint of how to go about creating an exhibition of international stature: you have to have something to bargain with to win loans of high calibre works.
It is something that the NGI's Adriaan Waiboer managed to spectacular effect with Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. Getting 10 Vermeers in one place is an extraordinary feat, and Waiboer's knowledge of the painter's historical context made for an exhibition of stunning quality. No offence to Caravaggio, a born showman, but in terms of significance, the Vermeer should have been out there in pole position.
Small Town Portraits, featuring the work of Macroom photographer Dennis Dineen (1927-85), was not your usual offering from the Douglas Hyde Gallery, which aims more for cutting edge contemporary art. But gosh it was popular. The word of mouth was exceptional and people adored it. Not only did Dineen's photography recall a bygone era in Irish small town life, it was richly informative of the spirit of the times and not in a cosy, nostalgic way: there was often sadness in these insights into lives shaped and limited by the economic and social circumstances of a conservative era.
Getting back to the cutting edge, Mark Swords' inspired painting-installation show at Temple Bar Gallery, The Living and the Dead clearly made an impact. Where contemporary art can come across as exclusive and obscure, this show was immensely approachable without sacrificing complexity.
It is perhaps unfair to bracket Galway’s Arts Festival shows together, but, for all its infrastructural challenges, the city is festival central and it knows how to bring in the audiences.