Emptying the artistic vaults


Bank of Ireland’s substantial art collection – said to be worth more than €4 million – is to be sold. But, unlike AIB, its interest in art peaked years ago, writes AIDAN DUNNE

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI’S sculpture Walking Man Iset a new world record for a work of art at auction last February when it fetched just over £65 million at Sotheby’s in London. It had been in the collection of Germany’s Dresdner Bank and, when Dresdner merged with Commerzbank last year, it was decided to rationalise the merged banks’ art holdings. So, one might think, well done Dresdner for making a handsome profit on an artistic investment.

Think again. The Giacometti was sold under the auspices of the Commerzbank Foundation and profits from the sale were earmarked for the Foundation. Its funding is devoted to cultural education, promoting the work of young artists, and also to providing support for retired employees who might be in financial need. In addition, 100 significant modern and contemporary works from the Dresdner Bank’s collection were made available on permanent loan to a number of German art museums. Some of the proceeds of the Giacometti are pledged to the conservation and education costs associated with those loans.

It seems like a sane, sensible and eminently responsible way to go about things. Can the same be said of Bank of Ireland’s decision, announced last weekend, to sell the 2,000 or so works of art that make up its collection? The stated valuation is somewhere between €4 million and €5 million, up from about €1.35 million five years ago but, on the face of it, if national or municipal institutions want to secure any of the works, they will have to bid for them on the open market.

However, look more closely and it emerges that the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) has already received two substantial donations of works from the Bank’s collection, one in 1999, totalling 21 pieces and another in 2008, when a further 25 pieces were given as Heritage Gifts.

Like other institutions, Imma does not accept gifts lightly. It’s important to uphold the quality of the national collections and it’s also expensive to maintain and conserve works of art. So we can be reasonably sure that first-rate pieces from the bank’s collection have already gone to Imma. That is indeed the case.

They include the only Jack B Yeats in the collection, a late one, Eileen Aroon, as well as several fine landscapes by George Campbell, strong paintings by William Scott, Barrie Cooke, Micheál Farrell, abstracts by Cecil King, a Paul Henry, several Camille Souters and a Sean McSweeney.

There’s also a Derek Hill landscape of Tory Island, an important first for Imma, one of Patrick Scott’s gold paintings, a tapestry and an early, soft-hued landscape by him, several Robert Ballaghs and three watercolours by the great expressionist Oskar Kokoschka.

Bank of Ireland’s contemporary art collection dates from the completion of its landmark headquarters in Baggot St, a superb Meisian complex designed by Ronnie Tallon, in the early 1970s. As an architect, Tallon has been exemplary throughout his career in seeing art and architecture as complementary, and he commissioned work from several artists for the buildings and selected the works that form the basis of the collection. It was subsequently developed on the enthusiastic advice of Neil Monahan. What’s interesting about this is that both Tallon and Monahan were very much committed to and involved with the new art of the time. Monahan also oversaw the acquisition of artworks for individual offices and branches of Bank of Ireland.

As architectural historian Edward McParland wrote in the early 1990s, the bank soon had “the major collection in the country of works of contemporary Irish painters and sculptors”. More specifically, the collection’s centre of gravity lies in Irish art of the 1970s – it won a European award in 1978 for the quality of its collection. Its historical importance is amplified by the fact that we did not have an Irish Museum of Modern Art until the 1990s, and existing public collections were not acquiring representative works by Irish artists in any depth. All you have to do is consider how important the bequest of Gordon Lambert’s personal collection of mid- to late-20th century Irish art has been to Imma.

Whereas the AIB art collection, a work in progress, has been consistently developed to be representative of 20th and 21st century Irish art, and is exceptional in its breadth, quality and coherence, the Bank of Ireland collection peaked early. Interest within the bank seemed to wither, even in terms of conserving what was there. While it does, or did, include works from earlier and more recent periods, it is in a way like a time capsule of 1970s Irish art.

It includes holdings of the work of a number of artists that are significant in terms of quality and or quantity, all deserving of a place in the national collections. For example, several outstanding pieces by Barrie Cooke chart the direction his painting took throughout the 1970s, from the dry precision of Joint Regional Anatomy(1970) to the drenched lushness of the rain forest in Big Forest, Borneo(1976). Patrick Scott’s epic Aubusson tapestry, Blaze(1972), was commissioned for the Bank of Ireland headquarters. Another tapestry, Eroica,equally monumental, dates from 1979. Also represented in depth and not mentioned among the donations to Imma are Anne Madden, Micheál Farrell and Tim Goulding.

There are good examples of work by Patrick Collins, F.E. McWilliam, Nano Reid, Brian Bourke, Martin Gale, Charles Harper, Brian Henderson, Colin Harrison, Michael Warren and TP Flanagan to name but some.

There’s an unusual early sculpture by James Coleman, one of Ireland’s most renowned artists internationally. Light is thrown on several figures who have, to some extent, been forgotten or eclipsed since the 1970s, but who certainly warrant a place in Irish art history and public collections, including the sculptor Gerda Fromel whose premature death silenced an outstanding talent, and Alexandra Wejchert, the Polish-born architect and artist who became an Irish citizen (just one piece went to Imma).

All of this represents the interest and dedication of figures such as Tallon, Monahan and many more. It is an archive of the visual arts at a moment of burgeoning creativity in our cultural history, when cross currents of American and European influences ripple through established Irish artistic traditions. It is part and parcel of our heritage.

The stimulus for the formation of the AIB collection was also the advent of a new headquarters in Dublin’s Ballsbridge in 1980. From early on, the enterprise has benefited from the guidance of an art historian, Dr Frances Ruane, with extensive experience of Irish art.

The emphasis was on post-1950s art, but the collection quickly grew to encompass the span of the 20th century. With publications, exhibitions and the annual AIB Art Prize, inaugurated in 2000 and designed to encourage Irish artists early in their careers (this writer serves on the prize’s jury), AIB’s involvement in the arts has been more culturally constructive than inwardly corporate. It’s almost impossible to accurately value the collection. It features every major name in 20th century Irish art and generally the choice of work is outstanding.

Its great virtue and value, though, is that it comprises an encyclopedic account of Irish art from the beginning of the 20th century to today. It would be a tragedy if it were to be broken up and dispersed. Equally, custodianship of such a collection is in itself a formidable undertaking. It may not be a popular thing to say, but the best thing that could happen to the AIB collection is that the bank remains committed to it.