Twenty years of the Irish Museum of Modern Art

Imma opened in May 1991 to huge expectations, most of which it surpassed

Imma opened in May 1991 to huge expectations, most of which it surpassed. But even after two decades it faces significant challenges on the road ahead, writes AIDAN DUNNE

IN 1987 the businessman and collector Gordon Lambert, who had long advocated the need for an Irish national gallery of contemporary art, persuaded the Royal Hospital Kilmainham to exhibit a significant part of his collection of Irish and international art. He arranged a meeting with Charles Haughey, who was taoiseach at the time, and told him if the State would establish a gallery he would donate his collection.

In making the case for a new gallery he was expressing a view widely held in the arts. Dublin’s municipal gallery, the Hugh Lane, opened in 1908 and for most of the century was the nearest thing we had to a national gallery of modern art. Given the long wait, progress was impressively fast once the political will and EU funding were in place, and Imma opened on May 25th, 1991. It celebrates its 20th birthday this year.

Work on putting together a collection had begun in 1990, starting from zero. Lambert’s donation of more than 200 pieces (with many more since) remains a cornerstone of Imma’s collection. It has been substantially augmented by institutional and private donations, notably by Vincent and Noeleen Ferguson, Marie and Maurice Foley, George and Maura McClelland and the Bank of Ireland, with notable individual contributions from Lochlann and Brenda Quinn and many more.


Less predictable, though just as welcome, were additions such as, to mention two prominent examples, the remarkable Madden Arnholz collection of old master prints and the Musgrave Kinley outsider archive, an extraordinary trove of outsider art. The tax-relief scheme enshrined in the 1997 Taxes Consolidation Act, which allows tax credits to the value of the donated work, has been fruitful and applies to many donations.

IMMA’S FOUNDING DIRECTOR, Declan McGonagle, established his reputation at Orchard Gallery in Derry, a local venue that had ambitiously operated and flourished in an international context. Could he make the local function on the global stage again? Indeed he could. He looked on Imma’s would-be problematic aspects – its peripheral location, the fact it was a historic building, relative poverty in terms of both its collection and its operating budget – as opportunities rather than limitations.

The old, canonical idea of the museum had gone, he said. There was no longer one governing narrative in art history or practice. “Art making is dynamic,” he wrote in 1998. “Its meaning has to be negotiated each time it is experienced.” From the first he was determined not to “accept pre-determined art historical and institutional boundaries”. Imma’s first exhibition, Inheritance and Transformation, signalled the nature of his ambitions, juxtaposing works from many ages and locations.

Over the following years Imma hosted major shows by an impressive and eclectic roll-call of international artists, including Gilbert and George, Richard Hamilton, Alberto Giacometti, Jeff Wall, Joseph Beuys, Anthony Gormley – a big hit in 1997, if not quite in the class of Andy Warhol – Juan Muñoz and Marina Abramovic. Patrick Swift, Louis le Brocquy, William Scott, Stephen McKenna, Felim Egan and Kathy Prendergast numbered among the highlights of Irish artists, together with some wide-ranging group shows.

But the conclusion of McGonagle’s tenure as director plunged Imma into a crisis. In November 2000, at the end of his second five-year term, the board’s then chairwoman, Marie Donnelly, told him his job was going to be advertised. He said his contract automatically renewed his position and allowed for renegotiation only of its terms. The row became bitter and public, and dragged on for several months.

A court case was adjourned while a negotiator tried to reconcile the sides. McGonagle received acknowledgment he was entitled to a renewal of his contract, at which point he announced his decision to leave Imma, on agreed terms. “I have decided my future lies elsewhere,” he said in a brief statement. (He is now director of the nearby National College of Art Design, on Thomas Street).

In the wake of his departure the atmosphere at Imma soured; the staff were demoralised and uneasy, as was the board, just as the museum marked its 10th birthday. The search for a successor was difficult under the circumstances, and there was a bungled attempt to appoint Dr Brian Kennedy, then director of the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, which foundered when he said he was staying where he was, and board members resigned. Donnelly resigned as chairwoman and another board member, the barrister Eoin McGonigal, took the helm in December 2001.

As it happens McGonigal was an auspicious choice: he proved to have just the pragmatic and diplomatic skills Imma needed. He oversaw the search for a director, which led to Enrique Juncosa, who was then deputy director of the Reina Sofia National Museum of Modern Art, in Madrid. Born in Palma de Mallorca, Juncosa is a poet and a curator, and is widely liked and respected in the international art community. He has been Imma’s director since February 2003. His relaxed, warm, open demeanour has been as important, as his professional expertise in moving Imma on from discord to a renewed sense of purpose.

During his tenure he has overseen an impressive sequence of outstanding exhibitions. Not least he has been adept at negotiating a balance between popularity and seriousness. Some of the most well-received shows during the last decade include those featuring Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O'Keeffe, Lucian Freud, Laurie Anderson and photographs of New York from the Moma collection. Also significant were fine exhibitions by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat; Gary Hume and Marc Quinn of the Young British Artists group; the German photographic and sculptural artists Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand and Thomas Scheibitz; the New York painter Alex Katz; the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle; the Spanish abstract painter Juan Uslé; and the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, the subject of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land.

It’s wrong to discriminate, but for the sake of clarity it’s useful to distinguish shows by Irish artists during this time. They include Dorothy Cross, Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Hughie O’Donoghue (nominally Irish), the White Stag Group (likewise), Anne Madden, Patrick Hall, Cecil King and, of course, the burial of Patrick Ireland and the resurrection of Brian O’Doherty.

In the late 1990s John Taylor of Taylor Galleries, on Kildare Street in Dublin, used to say that time and again visitors to the gallery, from Ireland and abroad, would ask one question to which he had no answer. Where could they go to see a representative collection of modern Irish art? He could direct them to see fragments of such a collection at the Hugh Lane or the National Gallery, but only fragments.

His point was that Imma should have been the logical answer to the question but wasn’t. The exceptional popularity of The Moderns, Imma’s current temporary show surveying and summarising modern art and culture in Ireland, drawn chiefly though not exclusively from its own collection, proves his point.

YOU COULD SAY Imma took 20 years to arrive at Taylor’s conclusion, but that’s not quite fair. It has operated within strict financial constraints from the beginning, taking a long time to build up the collection to its current strength and breadth. Yet the notion of a permanent display, as outlined by Taylor, is not on the cards yet for several reasons, including the availability of exhibition space. Which brings up Imma’s need for another, large-scale gallery.

Originally two potential locations for Imma were considered: the Royal Hospital and Stack A in the Docklands, on the site of the Crimea banqueting hall. The attractions of the latter included its city-centre location and the chance to provide a large, state-of-the-art venue. Haughey’s cultural adviser, Anthony Cronin, who was closely involved in the establishment of the museum, said there was no contest.Imma would simply not have happened at Stack A, he said: it would have been too ambitious a project and would have been put on the long finger.

The Royal Hospital, a 17th-century building designed for a specific purpose and consisting largely of a series of domestic-scale rooms, was at least available. Over the years, however, the lack of a large exhibition space has on occasion been a drawback. Not that the “white cube” is the only option for a gallery, but a great deal of modern and contemporary art benefits from such a space.

Juncosa saw it as a challenge for the museum, and, throughout the days of the Celtic Tiger, moves were made towards building a new gallery within the grounds. Nothing came of the initiative before the economic collapse ruled out any prospect of a new building for the time being. The most intriguing proposal for a new gallery comes from the architect Niall McCullough. Rather than reaching out into the grounds, he suggests, why not build downwards, into the main courtyard? It’s an idea that recalls IM Pei’s pyramid in the Louvre courtyard.

In 2009, when it looked like Imma would be forced to amalgamate with the National Gallery of Ireland and the Crawford Art Gallery, in Cork, this young institution fought to maintain its independence. The amalgamation was originally mooted as a cost-cutting exercise – without any actual costing, it’s important to point out – and became government policy in the 2009 budget. If implemented, amalgamation would have meant a single board overseeing all three galleries and a single director general. Alone among the three institutions, Imma set about critically considering the plan and organised a well-attended public forum in November 2009, with contributions from museum directors, academics, administrators, gallerists, artists and an economist, Jim Power.

Every speaker, including those with direct experience of cultural-amalgamation programmes, questioned the logic of the scheme. The amalgamation plan was revised and Imma was excluded from the process, although not its two more quiescent cousins.

The forum made clear the sense of pride in and ownership of Imma held by Hughie O’Donoghue and Jaki Irvine, who both spoke at it, and other Irish artists. Imma’s residency programme, which means a number of Irish and international artists are always living and working on the campus, was instrumental in making them stakeholders in the museum’s wider project.

There were huge expectations for Imma when it opened in May 1991, and, by and large, it has lived up to and surpassed them. As it approaches its 20th birthday, however, it faces significant challenges. Juncosa’s term is up this summer, and he has indicated he will be moving on, which means the search for a new director is already under way. It’s a vital appointment in the context of Irish culture. Then, in November, Imma is scheduled to close for 14 months to allow a much-needed upgrade of lighting, security and fire systems. It’s expected that within a matter of days the museum will confirm the provision of a temporary city-centre exhibition space to be used throughout the period of the closure, and it is also in discussions with several institutions around the country about collaborative projects.

Imma: Highs and lows


From the beginning, Imma set a benchmark in Ireland for art installation, display and supervision.

Helen O’Donoghue’s detailed, progressive development of Imma’s exemplary education and community programme.

The Moderns, Imma’s major survey of Irish cultural modernity, marks a significant coming of age for the museum.


Some shows that should have been good failed to sparkle, including a Tony O’Malley show in 2001 and Shifting Ground, a survey of Irish art from 1950 to 2000.

The period prior to and following the departure of Imma’s first director, Declan McGonagle, when the museum was in disarray.

A curatorial weakness has been Imma’s patchy record on contemporary Irish art. There have been strong individual shows, but so far the pattern has been weak.