The small galleries taking back the Irish art market
After the hubris of the boom, the bust brought big changes to the Irish art market. A new kind of gallery has emerged that is approachable, diverse, risk-taking and even humble
Rosemarie Noone of Claremorris Gallery
Dave O’Shea of Chimera Gallery in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Conor English
Gallery Cafe in Gort, Co Galway, where sales are done over lunch or dinner
As art galleries tumbled to earth after the boom, it was hard not to feel a smidgen of schadenfreude. At the height of the market, certain Irish dealers had exhibited a degree of opportunism similar to that of estate agents. But there’s a new art climate spreading across Ireland, one that encourages greater approachability, diversity and even humility.
Dave O’Shea opened Chimera Gallery in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, last year principally to feed his own passion for art, which was ignited when – as a young army cadet – he was brought to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, with his troop in 1986.
“I wandered into one of the vast rooms with epic paintings adorning the walls. That was the spark. During the following years I served overseas eight times and I tried to see as many art galleries, shows and exhibitions as possible, all in secret. Not that I was ashamed; I just thought no one would share my interest.”
After retiring from the Defence Forces, O’Shea found himself, almost by accident, opening an art gallery in a garden centre in Delvin, Co Westmeath, showing works by Conor Walton, Pauline Bewick and Graham Knuttel. Last year he rented a space in the centre of Mullingar and set up Chimera. His aim was to nurture artists, but he ended up selling a surprising amount of work. He has now moved to more prestigious premises over Days Bazaar, a bookshop that was frequented by James Joyce. And just to prove that the art world still has chutzpah, he got Jason Cooper – drummer with The Cure – to open the new gallery.
Rosemarie Noone couldn’t get over the speed of sales when she first opened Claremorris Gallery in Co Mayo during the boom years. “Dealers from Dublin bought 30 per cent of the exhibition over the phone before the opening night. At that time the art market was on fire,” she says.
Shortly afterwards, reality hit.
“The Irish art market collapsed,” says Noone. “I had no option but to continue because of my big financial investment. While I could have survived by showing pleasing, unchallenging works which would sell readily, I decided to stick to my guns and to promote the best of contemporary Irish art, both emerging and established.”
These were difficult years for Noone. “There was a sense of desperation amongst artists. It was hard to remain optimistic. But I was constantly being reminded that things were worse in the 1980s and that it would all pick up again, eventually.”
Visitor numbers are up now, and while sales are still sluggish, flexible payment plans encourage younger buyers into the market. Claremorris Gallery, a suave, architectural space in her father’s former veterinary surgery, aims to be welcoming to newbies. The spring exhibition featured new work by Brian Bourke, Donald Teskey, Gene Lambert and Jay Murphy.
It wasn’t so much the crumbling art market that crippled Sarah Harty, of Gallery Cafe in Gort, Co Galway, as a dispute with her local council that saw her taken to court for erecting a few seats and some decking. Harty, an artist, set up the Gallery Cafe initially as a place to sell her own work – as well as scones and tea – but became so enthused by the work of other artists that the cafe and gallery expanded to include a rolling programme of exhibitions by Irish artists.
The impasse with Galway County Council over the outdoor seating threatened to close the cafe and gallery in 2013, until Harty capitulated and paid a fine.
Soon after she moved to a new premises that was more suitable for showing art. The Gallery Cafe tries to mount an exhibition every four to six weeks. Sales are done over lunch or dinner in the cafe. Knowing how hard the artist’s life is, Harty tends not to charge a commission.
At first glance, the Taylor Galleries in Dublin seems far from the bohemian quirkiness of Gort’s Gallery Cafe. The Taylor was founded in 1978 in a Georgian building on Kildare Street. It represents some of the venerable old stags of Irish art, including Patrick Scott and Louis le Brocquy. Soaring sales during the boom years made the crash all the more alarming.
“Our attitude since the downturn has been to dig our heels in, grit our teeth and try to ride it out,” says gallery administrator Sabina Mac Mahon. “The good times will probably never be so good again, but they seem to be picking up ever so slightly now.”
Taylor Galleries has begun to reach out towards the younger generation, with an offshoot project, Lacuna, which aims to showcase experimental work by emerging artists. The three Lacuna exhibitions so far have run concurrently with more traditional shows, and the sales from them have opened the gallery to the benefits of including experimental art in a commercially focused, conservative gallery. “It’s clear that Lacuna has made the gallery more relevant and flexible, and opened it to new audiences,” says Mac Mahon, who adds that they were unlikely to have taken the bold step had the era of big sales continued.
Gallery 126 in Galway is coming at the business from an entirely different angle: that of artists trying to take control of the precarious business of showing and selling their own art. It was born out of frustration at the lack of support for solitary artists who are not represented by the established galleries. In 2005 a group of them came together to secure a space and establish a co-operative venture that now represents 200 artists and runs regular exhibitions, while also publishing a quarterly magazine and overseeing various research programmes.
The focus is not so much on selling work as on providing a platform for new, risk-taking, contemporary artists to exhibit, as well as offering an engaging programme for the wider arts audience in Galway. The gallery is entirely staffed by volunteers and relies on grants from national and local bodies. Making artists spend time working in a gallery for free rather than developing their art might not initially seem the best model, but the majority of artists claim it has had a positive impact on their careers: learning about the business of mounting and selling art brings valuable insight while also building connections with administrators, curators and buyers. The gallery has brokered one or two sales on behalf of its artists, but never takes a commission.
The worst is now over
What all these disparate galleries have in common is a sense that the worst is now behind them and that the market is turning. “Things have definitely begun to improve over the past 12 months or so,” says Sabina Mac Mahon of Taylor Galleries. “There are buyers out there now, although they are more individuals than corporate clients or people buying for the major public collections.”
The galleries that have survived have inevitably become more nimble and more appreciative of buyers. For the consumer, art prices are a fraction of what they used to be. In this increasingly synthetic age a local gallery is one of the few places you can purchase unique expressions of human creativity. The speculators and corporate collectors have had control of the art market for too long; it’s about time we took it back and started animating our walls with something other than the products of Ikea and B&Q.