Making the case for the contemporary art gallery

Commercial galleries play a vital role in the art eco-system, but the sector needs help to become more sustainable

Looking out the window of his art gallery on Molesworth Street in central Dublin, Ronan Lyons points out a vacant premises across the road. “It was the Oliver Sears Gallery for 10 years,” he says, “and for 20 years before that it was Ib Jorgensen’s. So that building was an art gallery for 30 years, and now it’s ‘to let’ as an office space. It’s an awful loss to the cultural fabric of the city.”

There have been many such losses. While Oliver Sears has moved to a smaller space on Fitzwilliam Street Upper, other Dublin galleries have closed entirely, including the Cross, Rubicon and Hallward. It leaves the sector badly depleted.

“I think the art market in Ireland is probably underdeveloped relative to the size of the economy,” says Lyons, who was a journalist for the Economist Group in London and Vienna before opening the Molesworth Gallery in 2000. “There’s no hard data on sales of contemporary art, but if you wander around comparable cities in Europe you see a lot more galleries and activity. There’s a lot we can do to expand the market, and give artists more outlets for their work.”

That belief has prompted Lyons, Sears and nine other gallerists in Dublin to band together and set up the Contemporary Art Gallery Association (CAGA). Its main objective is to raise the profile of the sector, by engaging with collectors, the media and public bodies. CAGA members do have a wish list – we’ll get to that in a minute – but first they’d like some recognition and respect.


Tara Murphy, director of Solomon Fine Art, says “some of the rhetoric out there implies that private galleries are the bad guys and that commercialism is a dirty word”.

“We would like to highlight the fact that the visual arts eco-system is not just made up of artists,” she says. “Artists can’t really survive or make a living without selling their work, and the commercial galleries are integral to that. Just as writers need publishers, artists need galleries.

“What sets CAGA galleries apart is that we take a long view when signing on an artist. We often take on an artist at the start of their career, with a view to building up a long-term relationship. That makes us more of an agent than a shop-like space that just hangs paintings.

“An artist will generally have a solo show every two years, and we also help them find representation abroad, and bring their work to international art fairs. We’re in it for the long run.”

It irks Kevin Kavanagh, another CAGA member, that the role played by private art galleries is not valued by the Arts Council, from which they get no assistance, though both private theatre groups and private publishers do. “I am doing something they are meant to be doing – promoting art in Ireland, and we should be recognised for that,” he insists.

Not that galleries are seeking direct financial support, Lyons stresses, “just help, even at the margins, to make them more viable and the sector more sustainable”. He has helped draw up a business plan for a loan scheme that would make it easier and more affordable for people to buy contemporary works of art. It would allow collectors to spread the cost of a purchase over a year, with a low-interest or interest-free loan.

What’s needed to make the scheme work is a bank or lending institution to act as finance partner, and the support of the state. It’s an idea that works well in almost every other European country, he points out.

“There’s a scheme run by the Arts Council of Wales that turns over €1m a year. The Welsh economy is a third the size of Ireland’s, so you can see the potential there,” Lyons says. “For relatively little outlay by the Arts Council or Dublin City Council, they could help set up a scheme that would have a huge effect on the size of the art market.”

England and Scotland have Own Art, a public-private partnership with Hitachi Finance providing the funds and deducting a 2.5pc handling charge, which is absorbed by galleries. Buyers pay a deposit - typically one-twelfth of the price - take the artwork home, and pay the rest in instalments. “People are more comfortable buying it that way than putting the cost on their credit card,” says Lyons. “These schemes do really work, and the rates of default are low.”

The only new gallery that has opened in Dublin of late is Hang Tough Contemporary on Exchequer Street, run by Michael Hennigan, 37, generally known by his college nickname “Rubio”. An art enthusiast bubbling with energy and ideas, he decided to take a chance on opening a permanent space – where he shows mainly young and unrepresented artists – after running three successful exhibitions in a pop-up gallery on Coppinger Row.

“The landlord of our Exchequer Street gallery just happens to be an acquaintance who is a supporter of the arts,” Rubio says. “We lucked out, as it is so hard to find appropriate creative spaces. A gallery needs to be a large open space that feels accessible, so visitors can appreciate the exhibition. This is hard to find in the city centre, unless you are willing to pay extortionate money.”

He would like Dublin City Council to review the rates valuation on galleries, to give them a reduction in view of the cultural contribution they make. “Our premises was a music shop before us, but the rates remain the same even though we run a different type of business,” he says. “We are offering free cultural events to the city, open to the public, creating exciting exhibitions based only on projected sales, which may or may not come.

“We’re not saying ‘no rates’, because we understand they have to be paid, but a conversation about a revaluation would be good.”

So would a reduction in the 23pc VAT paid by galleries, Kavanagh says. “If I sell an artwork for €100, I pay the artist €50, and then I pay 23pc on the remaining €50, which is about €11.50. It’s a big outlay. But if you own art and sell it, VAT is generally charged at 13.5pc. I can’t pass on the VAT to customers, like most people. I just have to suck it up.”

The gallerists are also unhappy with the decline of art criticism, particularly in newspapers. The lack of exposure can leave exhibiting artists feeling like they are working in a vacuum. “There’s a lot of coverage of what is happening in the institutions, which is fantastic, but private galleries need art critics to be writing about their art too,” says Rubio. He suggests CAGA may even fund art criticism, such is its importance. “At the moment, galleries have to pay to get people to do that work for their artists.”

In a city that celebrates its writers and musicians, visual artists can feel second division. “It’s a minority sport, we’re aware of that,” says Kavanagh. Yet gallerists argue their role is no different to book publishers, who get both recognition and funding.

“None of us is making a fortune,” says Tara Murphy. “It’s a vocation, and we’d like a bit of support to help us do that. Many commercial galleries have closed over the past 10 years, yet there’s a huge number of artists out there and not enough space to cope with demand. We get inquiries every day from painters and sculptors who want to show their work. We would love to be able to, but we can only manage 20 to 30 artists in our stable, and to host roughly 12 shows a year.”

In time, Hennigan says, he’d like to open another gallery in Dublin, “in a purpose-built space where it’s not all about sales”. International artists could be invited to show there; it would host all types of artistic events. “I think Dublin needs that,” he says. “I’m just reacting to what I’m seeing – which is a demand from artists for spaces where they can show.”

As he looks at the former art gallery across the road, Ronan Lyons in the Molesworth wonders why Dublin City Council doesn’t get more involved in the visual arts, like its counterpart in Sydney, and pay closer attention to the mix of businesses on key streets. “There are a lot of Georgian buildings that are not suitable for offices, but which could be redeveloped as cultural spaces, of which there is a dearth in Dublin city centre.”