Galleries have their wings clipped

 

BY UNHAPPY COINCIDENCE, two of Ireland’s premier national cultural institutions, the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), are both enduring difficult and challenging times through no fault of their own. In fact, far from being at fault, both represent remarkable success stories: they are fondly regarded by the public, are staffed by resourceful, experienced people and boast exceptional attendance figures, writes AIDAN DUNNE

But, by chance, at one of the most difficult moments imaginable for the country’s finances, they are experiencing periods of partial but substantial closure, with all its concomitant uncertainties. The closures are necessary to facilitate essential repair and refurbishment, and they have happened just as both are looking for new directors. As if that weren’t enough, they also face the renewed prospect of being forced into an amalgamation process that many believe would undermine their autonomy, reputations and effectiveness, and undo decades of careful work.

Although a major exhibition by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander has just opened at the New Galleries in Imma, the main galleries in the central building at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham will be closed until the end of next year (Ireland’s assumption of the EU presidency in January 2013 provides a useful deadline). In the meantime, Imma’s long-mooted, temporary occupancy of part of the Earlsfort Terrace complex that was the central venue for Dublin Contemporary has only just been confirmed, weeks after the closure of the galleries at Kilmainham. This tardiness means that in all likelihood it will be well into next year – April or even May – before Imma exhibitions commence at Earlsfort Terrace.

It’s equally unclear why necessary work under way on the Milltown Wing (dating from 1903) and the Dargan Wing (dating from 1864) of the National Gallery has had such a limiting effect on overall activities there. Lack of storage space is the obvious cause. It should not be an insurmountable problem, yet the provision of adequate, climate-controlled storage space for works of art in both the National Gallery and Imma collections has been an outstanding issue for decades now. The current work at Imma includes comprehensive rewiring, with the aims of enhancing lighting, security and fire safety. Difficulties in moving artworks in and out of the building will also be addressed, but not long-term storage. A mooted off-site facility has not materialised.

This year, both institutions also saw the departure of long-standing directors. A couple of months ago, Enrique Juncosa – a popular figure widely regarded as having enjoyed an extremely successful tenure – finished at Imma, where he had been director since 2003. Raymond Keaveney will retire from the National Gallery at the end of January. He has been there since 1979, first as a curator and as director since 1988.

The transition in both cases has not gone at all smoothly. Firstly, there has been an implicit downgrading of the role of director, with the emphasis edging subtly but noticeably towards a managerial rather than a creative, curatorial role, together with a drop in salary. Rather than the permanent position entered into by Keaveney, NGI is now offering a five-year fixed-term contract, potentially renewable, with remuneration of between about €86,000 to a maximum of less than €111,000 after several years.

Imma would be directly comparable, but there are reports that the on-site director’s residence will no longer form part of the package.

Names haves been mentioned in relation to the two directorships – estimable figures in all cases – but neither role has yet been filled, possibly because of the terms, conditions and issues involved in the positions. In the case of Imma, there was no formal commitment made to the candidate. A number of candidates for the post have been interviewed recently and a board member said that they are confident of making a good appointment.

During the summer, the National Gallery was taken aback by rumours of a potential appointment and moved, not altogether successfully, to scotch them. More recently another mooted appointee is reported to have withdrawn their name.

None of the possible contenders referred to is Irish or works in Ireland, but there are quite a few Irish possibilities. Brian Kennedy, for example, would be suitable for either role. A dynamic presence as assistant director at the NGI, he was also director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1997 until 2004. He’d been abortively approached about taking on Imma in 2002. But since October last year he’s been director of the Toledo Museum of Art in the US.

Barbara Dawson, director of the Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, has been widely mentioned as a candidate for the National Gallery.

Fionnuala Croke, formerly at the National Gallery, who was informally regarded within the arts community as a potential successor to Keaveney, became director of the Chester Beatty Library last January.

She is not the only example of mobility in the arts sector. Mary Cloake completed her term as director of the Arts Council recently, and last May there was a change of chair in the NGI, where Olive Braiden took over from Lochlainn Quinn, all of which adds to the current sense of flux.

Apart from overseas contenders who have been noted as plausible candidates for the Imma post, Irish-based possibilities – which is not to say that they have themselves expressed any interest in it – include RHA director Patrick T Murphy, and Mike Fitzpatrick, currently head of Limerick School of Art. The same goes for Annie Fletcher, not actually based in Ireland, but a curator at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands who has had myriad involvements in Irish projects, and Sarah Glennie, director of the Irish Film Institute (IFI) and previously director of Sligo’s Model Niland Gallery.

THE TWO DIRECTORSHIPSare pivotal in Irish cultural life. Whoever takes on the jobs will have their work cut out for them, not only in taking over institutions in partial abeyance and hence vulnerable on various, not least political, levels. They also have to deal with ongoing budget strictures and staff shortages. Perhaps most worryingly, they will have to face the prospect of entering into a process of an as-yet undefined amalgamation.

Amalgamation, as originally proposed by the Department of Finance in 2008 and written into the budget that year, entailed a merger of the NGI, Imma and the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork under a single, 13-member board and one director general – an additional, newly created post, it’s worth noting. The idea was pitched as a cost-saving measure. When it became apparent that there was no evidence to suggest that costs would be significantly cut – and possibly the reverse – the economic rationale was simply dropped.

About 200 people working in the visual arts attended a public forum organised by Imma in 2009 which featured speakers who had been involved in comparable amalgamations elsewhere. Overwhelmingly, their view was that it was a very bad idea. Economist Jim Power compared it to decentralisation for the breath-taking lack of research and analysis. His own analysis concluded that questionable, long-term, minimal savings came with great risk of destroying something valuable. “If we’ve learned anything from the banking crisis,” he said, “it’s that bigger is not necessarily better.”

In the face of informed criticism, and given the lack of evidence of any benefits, amalgamation seemed to be sidelined. Amazingly, it has re-emerged under the current administration, from Brendan Howlin’s Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Howlin’s party colleague, Mary Upton– at the time a TD and Labour spokesperson on Arts – had previously viewed the original amalgamation plan with considerable scepticism.

Incredibly, the impetus for amalgamation is again the unsubstantiated idea that mergers are good, without the slightest evidence that this is so, and in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence. The implicit assumption is that any resistance to change is bad and retrograde. There is dismay in the sector that amalgamation is again being pursued without any real rationale, purely as a political policy.

As one person at the heart of the arts world put it, the fear is that there is no strategic thinking of any sort being done by those who are in charge of culture in Government, something that would have serious, long-term repercussions.

Many feel there is no appreciation whatsoever that a great deal of what is there, culturally, has been put in place carefully and incrementally, by people who know what they are doing, and that it could all be easily destroyed.

There is a dispiriting sense that Government agencies are approaching institutions without any sense of how they work or don’t work, with the blind intent of reform at any cost.