Future proofing the arts

ON MAY 24th last, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) announced it intended to appoint an international panel to review the …

ON MAY 24th last, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) announced it intended to appoint an international panel to review the provision of third-level creative arts education in Dublin.

The HEA pointed out that there are 10 institutions in the Dublin area involving the creative arts and media, and a further 10 nationwide. The existing strategic plan for higher education outlines a need for a more internationally competitive, coherent, co-ordinated and efficient approach in the sector. Tom Boland, the HEA chief executive, pointed towards stronger collaboration with the aim of building an international profile and developing creative industries.

We’ll have to wait for the panel’s review to see how that will play out, but there is already much talk of synergy, if not amalgamation, among the Dublin institutions.

The review will have to address questions of institutional autonomy, governance and validation. As it is, for various reasons NCAD has signalled its preference for an alliance with UCD, placing it at one remove from the majority of the creative arts institutions in the Dublin region, who fall within the Institutes of Technology rather than the university domain. Meanwhile, the several extant validation bodies are in the process of being amalgamated into one: the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, under Dr Padraig Walsh.


With arts education institutions outside Dublin facing their own organisational uncertainties in the light of the strategic higher education plan, as well as challenges created by our current economic woes, it seems opportune to look at the graduate and postgraduate degree shows in some of the institutions in question – those relating to fine art — and see what they say about the current state of arts education and, indeed, emerging fine art practice in contemporary Ireland.

One immediate point is that the very term creative arts may be at variance with administrative rigour and academic regimentation. If you are an administrator struggling to organise a smoothly-functioning system, the really creative individual may annoy the hell out of you. This is not something new – it’s a longstanding fact of arts and for that matter other kinds of education, and institutions have, to varying degrees, learned to factor it in. It would be a shame if we failed to do that here. It’s essential, for example, that talent is nurtured, not tamed.

In recent years, it’s been obvious that the photographic departments of both Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design and Technology (DLIADT) and DIT have been performing well above par, not just because they are really good departments – which they are, incidentally – but because they reflect the inclinations and abilities of the students and they are in tune with the times.

It was salutary to visit the two shows this year, at Kill Avenue and in Temple Bar. Each was like a complete degree show in itself.

Cameras in their multiple contemporary guises have become the natural visual language of a generation of arts students, infinitely versatile and adaptable.

In acknowledgement of this, Limerick School of ART and Design is launching a lens-based media course (much of the best graduate work each year there is lens-based), and NCAD has its own flourishing digital media department.

It’s not that all lens-based media students aspire to create what everyone might describe as a well-made photograph. It’s not a question of “photography” at all. Rather, as the photographer Don McCullin once put it rather bluntly, “I use a camera like a use a toothbrush. It does a job.”

Pretty much everyone feels at home with a camera these days – it’s a means to an end. At DLIADT you could find everything from Monika Chmielarz’s moving exploration of her relationship with her father (using video interviews and archival photographs) to Henning Koestler’s intricately detailed, objective documentary photographs of the Liberties area, via Lynn Rothwell’s impeccably staged, cinematic celebrations of moments from everyday life.

Add searching autobiographical essays (Megan Gallagher), more conventional photo-essays (Diarmuid O’Riordan’s Erris, Amy Petherdridge’s Firefighters), romantic landscape (Jason Lowe), fashion, surrealism and a great deal else, all impressively well formulated, and you begin to get the picture.

At DIT, the projects were equally impressive and diverse.

Brendan Grimes’s survey of disused golf courses is a fascinating approach to contemporary landscape, as is Brian Cregan’s survey of our fondness for cordyline trees.

Rachel Hegarty looked at the personal histories behind individual tattoos, Ieva Baltaduonyte forensically examined personal experiences of exile and return and Lyndsey Putt ingeniously treated the ways women negotiate personal space for themselves in a specific public arena.

At LSAD, under the heading of painting, Patsy O’Brien’s photographs of the Irish Cement plant in Limerick excelled, as did Amy Hanrahan’s remarkable, prize-winning photo-essay on a family’s inner world, The Heart if Deceitful Above All Things.

Also noteworthy was Louise Corry’s work on taxis and Niamh J Ryan’s Domestic Space. Declan Casey, a sculptor whose work incorporates performance, showed a terrific, tragicomic video piece, River Walk.

In Cork, Rhianna Cox and Sarah Ryan used photography extremely well. Several NCAD media graduates made very ambitious works, including Brendan Fox, Jonah King and Hannah Mooney, as did Mike Heffernan at LSAD. We should see a great deal more of the works each of them exhibited.

Where do changing times leave the traditional departmental categories of painting, sculpture and printmaking?

The simple fact is that painting does not have the centrality it once enjoyed in art schools.

People can work effectively and pertinently without going near the discipline. Equally, it’s painful to see people paying it lip service without any real engagement or ability.

Yet, while sculpture in the traditional sense has all but disappeared into myriad forms of installation, video, performance and relational aesthetics, painting continually reinvents itself within broadly traditional terms. The younger generation of painters in Ireland is probably the best ever, in terms of breadth and quality, and this holds true for the graduates coming through now. Print media have likewise retained a certain core identity.

In terms of painting, at NCAD Amanda Doran, Genieve Figgis (an MA), Michael Fitzgerald, Sorcha Gorsuch, Joan Kirby and Helen O’Dea all impressed.

In Cork, Aaron Holten, Olivia Bridget O’Mahony (beautifully layered drawings) and Norma Walsh stood out in a generally good showing.

At LSAD Kinga Bireccka, Megan Gorman, Ben McKernan, Donal Sorohan all did very interesting work.

Cork, incidentally, retains its reputation for sculpture, with a number of very accomplished artists. All of these institutions have become highly competent at what they do. The trick will be to develop without undoing what has been achieved, and to create a context in which both students and staff can flourish. It’s one thing to pay lip service to the creative industries, it’s quite another to encourage real creativity.

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times