And so we come to the end . . .
AT SOME STAGE during the planning of Dublin Contemporary 2011(or DC11), one of the two lead curators, Christian Viveros-Fauné, must have invited the other lead curator, Jota Castro, to participate in the exhibition. At that point, Castro should have said no, and said it emphatically. Perhaps he did say no initially but, if so, Viveros-Fauné persuaded him to change his mind, and Castro’s work duly appeared in the show. Nor did it just appear, incidentally, it occupied a prominent position in the main venue, Earlsfort Terrace.
There is a convention that you do not feature in an exhibition which you are curating. It’s not a law, or even a rule, but it’s generally honoured. It prevents any potential charge of a conflict of interest, and avoids creating the impression that your exhibition is partly or wholly an ego trip.
Castro, a Franco-Peruvian, became popular in Dublin and other parts of Ireland that he visited during the process of putting DC11together. A stocky, ebullient figure, with professional diplomatic experience, he likes coming up with left-field ideas: for a time he carried a small trophy around with him and would award it to people on the spur of the moment for any reason that took his fancy. He was especially keen on DC11’s talking shop, the Office of Non-Compliance, which aimed to highlight art in the context of wider economic and social issues and come up with innovative solutions to our ills.
He was generous with his time, energy and attention. Yet his decision to feature as an exhibitor, and as an exhibitor awarded pride of place, as well as lead curator, raised a lot of eyebrows. Clearly it just seemed wrong to many people, though their doubts and disapproval were almost invariably politely expressed.
In a way it was especially wrong given DC11’s troubled beginnings. When it was announced by then Arts Minister Mary Hanafin on July 1st last summer, DCwas already on a tight timescale: big international exhibitions are usually years in the making, and DC11aspired to be up there with the biggest. The St Patrick’s Festival had been appointed to deliver it, with Rachel Thomas of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) as Artistic Director. But instead of hitting the ground running it seemed to run into the sand. Word filtered out that DCHQ was not a happy place. Around year’s end Thomas was controversially ousted, along with the show and artists she had in mind.
Within a month, Viveros-Fauné and Castro were appointed and set about making a show according to their own vision of DC. Hence Terrible Beauty – Art Crisis, Change. They envisaged an alternative kind of exhibition, one removed from the influence of big commercial galleries and dealers and, more problematically, one that avoided the A-list artists who habitually feature on the international circuit. And it would include the Office of Non-Compliance, the talking shop, which would contribute towards generating a buzz about the exhibition.
With stated public funding of €2.5 million, DCalso had a basic €15 entrance charge for a one-off visit, a price tag that has drawn a continuous stream of criticism. The Irish audience is used to free admission to galleries and museums, and there is resistance to paying charges that are entirely routine elsewhere. It can be done, as Imma has proved with a few very popular events. But persuading people to pay a significant fee to see an exhibition that didn’t feature any high-profile international names was always going to be a challenge.
Attendance figures are not as yet available, but unofficial estimates suggest that the final tally is expected to fall significantly short of the original projection of 150,000, including more than 50,000 from overseas. Just on a point of comparison, Imma’s most recent annual figures are significantly in excess of 400,000, and the fledgling Science Gallery has quickly built to an impressive 200,000 visitors per annum.
Overseas visitor numbers to Ireland were significantly up this summer, after falling considerably in recent years, but even allowing for those visitors – artists, art world people, journalists – to the exhibition actually brought to Ireland by DCitself, 50,000 seems overly optimistic by a long shot. The estimate was actually based on other established international exhibitions such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale, but international press coverage, one indicator of international interest, has been modest to say the least.
Official estimates put the eventual overall cost of DC11at €4 million. Earlier this month Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan said that his department had contributed €1.16 million in this calendar year so far. Viveros-Fauné had indicated earlier in the year that the direct spend on what we actually see when we visit the show was in the region of €0.9 million. Only when the sums are done and the take from ticket sales and sponsorship are accounted for will the final liability of the Exchequer be known. It’s not clear if all costs will go into the eventual figures. Last year, for example, €22,000 went into the development of the DCwebsite and iPhone app in the form of a cultural tourism technology grant.
Rosc, the series of international exhibitions held in Dublin from 1967 every four years or so into the 1980s, was frequently cited as a precursor of DC. But you could only compare the impact of DC to Roscif you hadn’t been paying attention to what was happening in the interim: Imma, EV+A and myriad international exhibitions in Ireland, and the growth in overseas travel, bringing more Irish people into contact with contemporary art. DC simply couldn’t have the impact of Roscback in 1967.
The Earlsfort Terrace venue was a highlight of DC11. Its varied history left the exhibition with a network of halls, classrooms and lecture theatres, plus the Real Tennis Court, making some 68 rooms in all. Partly out of necessity, the curators worked very well with the worn fabric and texture of the buildings, making minimal decorative interventions. This suited some work, though by no means all, and it’s not clear that the complex could have an equivalent impact if it is used again as a venue – currently Imma is hoping to occupy some of the space while the main building at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham is closed, from November to January 2013 for necessary works. More attention may be necessary at Earlsfort Terrace if its limitations and drawbacks are not to become glaringly apparent.
Viveros-Fauné and Castro were generous with their inclusion of Irish artists, aiming for a broad reach. And the artists responded incredibly well. Such local figures as Nevan Lahart, Liam O’Callaghan and Eamonn O’Kane drew incredibly positive responses. Anecdotal evidence suggests that attendance at The Office of Non-Compliance events tended to fluctuate and was more often than not disappointing. But, again, Irish participants drew a great deal of praise for their industry and commitment.
Engaging Bob Geldof to promote the exhibition was a good idea, but his was a relatively isolated voice.
The public venues hosting ancillary DC shows – the RHA, The Hugh Lane and the Douglas Hyde — performed exceptionally well. What should be noted, though, is that the city’s commercial galleries also put a huge effort into the exhibitions they staged during DC. The striking fact is that we have never had so many really first rate visual artists working in Ireland as now, at precisely the moment when the contemporary art market scarcely exists.
DC was conceived as a quinquennial event. Now everyone is asking if there will be another. Without a doubt, it was a steep learning curve for most of the Irish workers involved in its preparation, and most of them worked incredibly hard and were more than equal to the challenge. That experience is invaluable. There has been talk of putting Dublin forward as a venue for Manifesta– the European contemporary biennial that changes location every two years, and seeks out less obvious venues. This being Ireland, there is reputedly an alternative proposal, nominating dual venues in Belfast and Derry. Watch this space.