Empty pockets, but rich pickings in art


Despite a lack of funding and reduced support in 2012, artists rose to the challenge and created brilliant work

Early this year, two important positions in the Irish art world were filled after prolonged speculation. Sarah Glennie took over as director of Imma, following the highly successful tenure of Enrique Juncosa, and Sean Rainbird took the reins at the National Gallery, following the retirement of Raymond Keaveney, long a steady hand in one of our most closely watched, jealously regarded national institutions.

Glennie and Rainbird took on formidable challenges, some overlapping. They both had to face directly into talks about the startling, Twilight-like resurrection of the plan to amalgamate Imma, the National Gallery and the Crawford Art Gallery. Both of them are dealing with very difficult budgets, with serious implications for programme planning, acquisitions and staffing. And their two galleries are undergoing significant renovation and refurbishment, necessitating the closure of Imma’s main galleries and a large proportion of the National Gallery at Merrion Square. Encouragingly, the signs so far are that they are more than up to the challenges.

Not everything in the garden was rosy, however. Opened in 2009, Carlow’s Visual National Centre for Contemporary Art ran smack into the recession from the word go. The board’s decision not to renew director Carissa Farrell’s contract, despite praise for her programming, signalled a rethink about how it functions.

Visual is a large-scale venue and there’s been comment that its scale is at variance with its location. To build an audience commensurate with the scale of the galleries would take time and thoughtful work, and the town may have nursed unrealistic expectations, perhaps based on the enthusiastic response to the annual Éigse festival. But while audiences can be relied upon to flock to festivals, they are less likely to attend regular exhibitions.

Interestingly, Athlone has taken a different tack with its recently opened Luan Gallery. It is capacious but modestly scaled, in a carefully adapted and transformed, widely liked building, centrally positioned in the town. A studio residency schedule and arts workshops were in place a year in advance, and the gallery is linked to another tourist amenity, the adjacent castle. Expectations seem realistic.

Andy Warhol’s aphoristic equation of art with business is not unrealistic or unreasonable if you consider the international art market and headline news stories. People routinely equate art and market value, as though it’s like winning the lottery. By that reckoning, monetary value is the bottom line. But long before the auction houses, the oligarchs and the headline writers get there, art is born out of passion and conviction far removed from the profit motive. There are perpetual efforts – so far not entirely successful – to keep it outside of that domain completely.

In the middle ground, we have “commercial” galleries, mostly run by people who are, indeed, passionate and committed. If they weren’t, we would not have anything like the number of galleries that currently survive here. In the new Ireland, everybody owes money or is owed money and artists and gallerists are no exception. Year on year, the art market is struggling. Routinely, artists subsidise their art. They make work because they feel compelled to, but it costs rather than earns them money.

While we have a public gallery infrastructure, generally within the framework of regional arts centres, they are under pressure because national and local funding has been squeezed, and unfortunately artists are at the bottom of the food chain. If that sounds bleak it’s because the situation is quite bleak. Witness Visual and the cash-strapped Letterkenny Regional Arts Centre, or the question over the future of Galway’s 126 artist-run gallery, which has lost its very modest funding.

Against this background it is perhaps surprising that the contemporary art scene is so lively. Limerick, for example, was a centre of activity, and not alone because of the return of Eva and the continuing vitality of the Limerick City Gallery of Art with new director Helen Carey. In the absence of money, the city has incentivised cultural enterprise in other, imaginative ways, aiding such initiatives as Ormston House and Limerick Printmakers. Other projects, such as Askeaton Contemporary Arts and Belltable’s revived visual arts programme (Michelle Horrigan is the link between the two) lend depth to contemporary arts in the region. Similarly, Belfast seemed quite energised this year, with innovative venues operating in tandem with more established galleries and the MAC.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was a very good year for exhibitions, though there were fewer of them; it may be no harm that runs are longer. Some of the impressive large-scale shows countrywide included Merlin James’s survey at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, David Mach’s blockbuster biblical sculpture and collages in Precious Light at the Galway Arts Festival, and Paul Mosse and Hans Op de Beeck’s equally superb exhibitions at the Butler Gallery in February and August respectively.

Summer treats

The work of the great figurative sculptor Hans Josephsohn, who died during the year, was ideally located at Lismore Castle as its summer exhibition. Simon Norfolk’s Crawford Gallery show was a fascinating dialogue with the work of the 19th-century Irish photographer John Burke, whose steps he retraced in Afghanistan.

Making Familiar at Temple Bar Gallery was a serious attempt to consider the state of contemporary painting, curated by Robert Armstrong and James Merrigan. Among many solo shows of note were Jennifer Cunningham at the Galway Arts Festival, Sam Keogh’s Terrestris, his fantastic contribution to Conjuring for Beginners at the Project in July, Charles Tyrrell at the Taylor Gallery, Willie Doherty and Callum Innes at the Kerlin, Mary Lohan at the Hamilton in Sligo and, with David Quinn, at the Fenderesky in Belfast, and Vanessa Donoso López’s It never rains to everyone’s taste at Queen Street Studio’s gallery. And The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a set of scrolls based on the oldest work of Japanese prose fiction, newly restored, made a stunning exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in the summer.

It was a little disappointing, in May, that Ireland’s favourite painting – beating off Vermeer, no less – turned out to be Frederic William Burton’s Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs, at the National Gallery. It is undeniably and enduringly popular with gallery visitors, as postcard sales attest. At the same time, it is a stolid rather than an outstanding or exciting piece of work, and in terms of subject matter and treatment it is a prime slice of Victorian schmaltz.

Sadly, two great artists died this year: Louis le Brocquy, a towering figure in 20th century Irish art, and Paddy Jolley, one of the most ambitious and brilliant younger artists to have emerged in years.

5 best shows of 2012 Skating in Wyoming, snipers in Sarajevo and a new era for Eva

The Josef Albers show at the Glucksman in April was a landmark. Made possible through the commitment of The Josef Anni Albers Foundation in the US, and particularly director Nicholas Fox Weber, the exhibition was a richly textured, remarkably well-rounded survey of the life and work of one of the most celebrated abstract artists of the 20th century. The only flaw was the presentation of Albers as the Sacred Modernist and a Catholic artist. The work suggested these were peripheral concerns.

Limerick’s Eva embarked on a new era. The exhibition After the Future opened in June under the auspices of new director Woodrow Kernohan. Guest curator was Dutch-based Annie Fletcher. Together, they produced an impressive, international event. Fletcher had in mind art that articulated alternative ways of dealing with contemporary, often oppressive realities. Outstanding highlights included Pilvi Takala’s inventive take on corporate life (documenting her experience as a trainee in Deloitte ), Adrian O’Connell’s dramatic Library and Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s poetically surreal video installation.

Brian Duggan’s Everything can be done, in principle, the centrepiece of Éigse at VISUAL in Carlow, involved building a rollerskating rink in a facsimile of an 1890s Wyoming timber bar in the gallery, and providing skates for visitors. For everyone, including curator Helen Carey, it was a huge undertaking. The inspiration was Michael Cimino’s cult 1980 film, Heaven’s Gate, which went famously and ruinously over budget. Duggan’s work is fascinated with the idea of failure, and the notion of community, each and in combination very relevant to Ireland now.

Anri Sala’s 1395 Days Without Red, at Imma, Earlsfort Terrace, in June, is a collaboration between Sala, New York-born composer and conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers and French filmmaker Liria Bégéja. Set during the Siege of Sarajevo, from April 1992 to February 1996, it ingeniously charts the progress of a woman – actress Mirabel Verdú – on her way to work (with the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra, which never gave up through the siege), as Serbian snipers fired at will.

Imma’s Alice Maher survey, Alice Maher: Becoming, at Earlsfort Terrace, from October, is a triumph, striking a lively balance between older and new work. The title indicates Maher’s fascination not just with metamorphosis, but also with how, as individuals, we carve out personal identities in the midst of institutional conditioning. Don’t miss it.

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