New director steps into the frame


Sean Rainbird, director of the National Gallery of Ireland, has his work cut out. There’s the proposed merger with Imma and the Crawford to deal with, the gallery’s extensive renovation works, and the challenge of coming up with major shows – so what’s his master plan?

SEAN RAINBIRD, the new director of the National Gallery of Ireland, knows that he has taken on a challenging job. With funding under unprecedented pressure, all public galleries are facing hard times. A recruitment ban means that staff members are fully and sometimes over-stretched. But besides all that, large sections of the complex of buildings that make up the National Gallery are closed for extensive and necessary refurbishment, severely curtailing exhibition space. Core parts of the Merrion Square premises, the original Dargan and the Milltown wings, are being substantially upgraded and won’t reopen until, perhaps, the end of 2015.

All these things seriously limit Rainbird’s options, but he’s upbeat about it. “It’s a challenging time,” he acknowledges, “and that’s good and bad at the same time.” He knows that the gallery is fondly regarded by visitors. There is, he feels, much that can be done in terms of using all the available spaces, exploring the collection and working with other institutions. “Because it is the national collection, not only the Dublin collection.”

Prior to his arrival, he wasn’t, he readily admits, that familiar with the gallery’s holdings, especially the Irish work. “I’m on a pretty steep learning curve as regards Irish art.”

A tall, urbane figure with a refreshingly direct, informal manner, Rainbird was born in Hong Kong in 1959. He studied art history and German, first in London, then in Freiburg and Berlin. It’s hardly surprising, then, that when he began to work at the Tate in 1987 as an assistant keeper, his speciality was German art. He sees it in wider terms: “I’d say I’ve always been interested in the northern European tradition.” By no means exclusively so, though. During his time at Tate and, from the year 2000 at Tate Modern as a senior curator, he notched up an impressive tally of exhibitions, by no means all of them featuring German artists.

Still, he seemed ideally suited to the position he took up at the end of 2006, as director of the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. There he found himself overseeing significant renovation works and set about reorganising and displaying the gallery’s vast permanent collection, a strategy that drew mixed responses.

While the Staatsgalerie liked the idea of change, he reckons, it was less susceptible to the reality. “There’s a strong level of conservatism among curators in German,” he says. “They are very committed to the old model of running a museum.” While, in a sense, they enlisted him with the idea that a bit of the Tate magic might rub off on the Staatsgalerie, at heart they remained wary of what that might entail.

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.”

He and Sarah Glennie, Imma’s incoming director, have been looking at ways of working more closely together. There are areas where increased cooperation clearly makes sense, including conservation and library services, but also thornier issues.

“We’re approaching it with a constructive attitude. But the devil is in the detail. The composition of boards, for example. You really want a board composed of people who are passionate about their institution. In that respect, I’d be very happy to keep working here within the status quo.”

Continuing financial instability makes planning difficult, even problematic. Already there have been delays to the work on the building, though he’s impressed at the way the project is now progressing, under the management of Heneghan Peng Architects. He sees the next stage of the gallery’s development in terms of a 10-year plan. The often hidden aspects of the gallery – including education, library, workshop and other facilities – are, he feels, absolutely central “rather than add-ons.”

The National Gallery of Ireland first opened its doors, in what is now the Dargan Wing, in 1864. If all goes according to plan, that wing and the whole gallery will reopen “on our 150th-plus-one anniversary”. In the meantime, apart from planning for that moment, Rainbird reckons he and his staff have their work cut out. “There is a great deal to be done, and my feeling is that we can accomplish a lot in the next three years here.”

CV: Sean Rainbird

Sean Rainbird was born in Hong Kong in 1959. He studied art history and German at University College London, Freiburg University and the Free University Berlin. He joined the Tate Gallery London as an assistant keeper in 1987, becoming a senior curator in 2003. In 2000 he moved to Tate Modern.

A specialist in German art, he worked on the acquisition of a wide range of 20th-century works and curated substantial exhibitions by a large number of artists including Gerhard Richter, Max Beckmann, Joseph Beuys, Piet Mondrian, Per Kirkeby, Wassily Kandinsky and Bridget Riley.

In November 2006 he was appointed director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. There, he oversaw substantial renovation works and was an advocate of a free admissions policy.

His exhibition programme generated some debate for its concentration on the Staatsgalerie’s extensive permanent collection, from medieval Swabian to contemporary art. His appointment to the National Gallery of Ireland was announced in December last year.