How the bust painted artists into a corner


How beneficial was the boom for Irish artists? And in the bust, with institutions’ funding being cut and collectors’ money running out, will there be a ‘lost generation’ of emerging artists?

WAS THE BOOM good for artists in Ireland? On the face of it, it was a story of unparalleled success: new galleries, new buildings, new collectors and opportunities for Irish artists hitherto undreamed of. But in the aftermath of the art-market frenzy, what is left? The art we know of from the past has survived largely by being included in collections, so when future generations look at this period of Irish art, what will they see? Will there be a lost generation of Irish artists, casualties both of the boom and of the bust?

As Bank of Ireland continues with its plans to sell off its art collection, not to make a small dent in its huge debt but to put the money into the bank’s existing community programmes, the very notion of collecting art in Ireland is under pressure. Buying art is seen as a pastime for the rich, an indulgence and a luxury at odds with the needs of communities.

Barbara Dawson, director of Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, disputes this view, saying artists are part of the lifeblood of the communities in which they live, and that the cultural life of Ireland’s capital city, on which it relies greatly for tourism, is at risk if a value isn’t put on the work and contributions of artists. “In the 1970s and 1980s the corporate sector played its part in supporting the livelihoods of artists by their philanthropy, by collecting. If corporations erroneously believe that it’s no longer their role to support the visual arts, the downward spiral would be enormous – disproportionate, actually, to what they put in. It can’t be overestimated.”

With philanthropy towards the contemporary arts almost a dirty word in the corporate world, what about the public collecting institutions? The Arts Council has no purchasing fund for its collection at the moment; the buying budget at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) has been reduced to €100,000 for 2010, down from €300,000 in the past two years; and Dawson says that the Hugh Lane always tries to collect but that it is “extremely difficult” at the moment.

Alongside the institutions, the largely forgotten players in the success story of contemporary Irish art are the private commercial galleries. Operating at the point where money for art changes hands, the rest of the art world can be ambivalent about the role they play, yet they, as much as the Arts Council and the major institutions, form the backbone of the art world, and many of them are in crisis. “It is very difficult for commercial galleries at the moment, because people have stopped spending money,” says Kevin Kavanagh, of the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery in Dublin, who represents artists with reputations in Ireland and abroad, including Gary Coyle, Oliver Comerford, Mick O’Dea, Diana Copperwhite and Dermot Seymour.

“Commercial galleries are important components of the arts infrastructure that artists and audiences depend on. In my case I have invested hugely in the physical infrastructure, with the move to a new space at Chancery Lane in September 2008. The timing could not have been any worse.”

Josephine Kelliher of Dublin’s Rubicon Gallery takes up the theme. “Rubicon Gallery relies on a handful of specific private collectors in Ireland and on international sales for revenue,” says Kelliher. “Rubicon Gallery export sales, or sales of Irish art to foreign collectors, increased from 4 per cent to 35 per cent of total revenue over the past 10 years.”

Contemporary art as a successful Irish export is one thing, but what of the legacy of artworks remaining in Ireland? “There was huge celebration at the repatriation of important modern Irish works [including Jack Yeats and Roderic O’Conor] over the past 10 years but scant understanding that today’s legacy may be leaving the country,” says Kelliher.

There is also a lack of understanding that while established artists may be finding markets for their work abroad, not only will that work be lost to Irish collections, but another generation of artists might not even have a chance to emerge. “Anything that promotes the culture of collecting art is a good thing for us,” says Kavanagh. “And this is something that maybe the Arts Council could promote – or even acknowledge the role that commercial galleries have played and continue to do so in advancing Irish art.”

With the help of Culture Ireland, which he describes as fantastic, Kavanagh showed Irish artists at the Basle Art Fair, and will be bringing the work of Nevan Lahart to Berlin in October. “Nevan lost out on a sale to Imma in 2008 due to the cutbacks in its budget for collecting art, which is a great pity as the Imma collection is the most important public collection in Ireland.”

Another artist not yet in the Imma collection is John Gerrard, although a piece of his work is owned by the Arts Council; he also exhibited at last year’s Venice Biennale, and has a major solo show at Dublin’s RHA gallery to his credit, as well as exhibitions in Europe and the US. A work by Gerrard that would have cost about €12,000 five years ago now sells for between €38,00 and €60,000. There is a significant cost to delaying buying the work of particular artists.

The reverse is true for others, however, as the painter Martin Gale, a member of the RHA and of Aosdána, outlines. “The boom was really bad for Irish art, because there were so many second-rate artists having unrealistic sales.” This was encouraged by a new group of collectors, mainly property developers, coming into the market. “They are largely all gone now. During the boom everything changed. Graduates were coming out of college and their diploma shows were selling out. They were getting unrealistic prices, to be honest about it. And that’s gone now. It’s becoming more like when I left art college [in 1973]. If you got an exhibition two years down the line, you couldn’t believe your luck – and if you sold something, even better.”

Gale is more sanguine about the effects of the recession. “I find I’m working slower, and I’m possibly working better. It’s a good thing from that point of view. It’s the same as it always was before the boom. The best stuff will find a home, and the mediocre stuff that slips out carelessly doesn’t – and that’s the way it should be.”

While the commercial galleries have driven the reputation of Irish artists abroad, the spiralling prices fetched by some artists’ work have worsened the situation. Seeing art purely in terms of investment has been partly the cause of its downfall. While articles bearing titles such as “Is art a hedge against inflation?” appear from time to time in the financial and arts press – this one is from the Art Newspaper – most people who bought into art because of hype didn’t see a return on their investment.

Patsy Tsouros, a collector and outgoing board member of Imma, has stopped buying for the moment. “I don’t know if disillusionment is the right word,” she says, “because I do love the work, but I am disillusioned. It’s the same as when young people couldn’t buy houses in the places where they wanted to live, for no reason but the greed of the developers and the banks. I’m beginning to realise with art that the only reason a work was inaccessible to me was it was set up that way.”

Tsouros has only ever tried to sell one work from her collection, a piece by the painter John Bellany. “I bought it for €10,000 and later I got Sotheby’s in to value it. They put it up for auction and couldn’t even get a bid, but at the same time I saw similar work by the artist in a gallery for €10,000.

“This is when I began to question what I was being told about art being an investment. The argument is that if you’re a collector you’re looking after the artist, and you have an emotional connection with the artist who you are supporting. I agree with that, and I do buy art because I love it, but there has to be an element of honesty about how it is priced and how it is marketed.

“There is going to be a lost generation,” she continues. “Because the institutions aren’t collecting, and there’s no philanthropic feeling or attitude in this country. I know people struggling to pay mortgages might say: who cares? But art is part and parcel of the way we think and see things. It’s creativity that keeps people going, [that] stimulates the mind, ideas and good feelings, and that inspires entrepreneurs. There’s also the younger generation with real potential who aren’t coming into the art world, because there’s no way for them to get in at the moment. Imma is strapped for cash, but there is going to be a whole lost generation, and Imma is going to be in the middle of that. It cannot support the existing artists, and yet the Government has invested huge sums of money in Dublin Contemporary 2011, next year’s large-scale exhibition. What will be the long-term value to the Irish art world, to the Irish arts scene? Imma is supposed to be the archive of Irish contemporary art.”

Tellingly, the main exhibition at Imma this year, and into 2011 is The Moderns, based entirely on works from Imma’s own collection. This is being shown alongside Post-War American Art: The Novak/O’Doherty Collection, a donation to the museum by the artist Brian O’Doherty and his wife, Barbara Novak. Including works by Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Hopper, the Novak/O’Doherty collection consists mostly of works that were never sold. Gifts between artist friends always had a value but never had a price.