Recognising a friend in need


How do State-owned museums and art galleries make new acquisitions at a time of national austerity?

AUCTIONS OF Irish art and historical memorabilia occasionally prompt public comment that items of national significance – whether letters by Michael Collins or paintings by Jack B Yeats – ought to be acquired by the State. But, even during the economic boom, museums and art galleries simply couldn’t afford to buy everything of interest which was offered for sale nor match the spending power of determined, wealthy private collectors.

Now, with the public finances under severe pressure, the State would need to have a compelling reason to justify bidding at auction. Philanthropy, therefore, is more important than ever.

A discreet, philanthropic group, founded in 1924, has quietly been acquiring objects of historical significance and important works of art for the State’s museums and art galleries. The Friends of the National Collections of Ireland (FNCI) relies mainly on donations and much of the organisation’s income is derived from membership subscriptions.

Although its budget may be limited, the FNCI has acquired hundreds of heritage items over the past eight decades.

For example, the National Gallery of Ireland has received 47 paintings, 133 print room items, four stained-glass panels and a sculpture through the FNCI. Other institutions to receive donations include Dublin City Gallery (The Hugh Lane), the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork and the Ulster Museum.

Earlier this year, the FNCI provided almost €10,000 to help the National Museum of Ireland buy an important set of medals awarded to members of the Defence Forces during “The Emergency” (1939-1945) and to assist the Waterford Museum of Treasures to buy rare historical documents of local significance.

Matthew Russell, an FNCI vice-president and member of the purchasing committee, says: “in these times of austerity when funding difficulties are being experienced by art galleries, museums and other cultural institutions” his organisation’s “role in supporting public collections assumes an ever greater importance”.

In a bid to boost membership, the FNCI, whose patron is President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, has announced that subscription rates have been halved for new members “for one year only”.

Membership now costs just €20 for individuals, €30 for a family and €10 for students – providing access to a programme of lectures and other cultural activities.

The Friends of the National Collections of Ireland is one of those (many) voluntary organisations in Irish society which is a quiet force for good and doesn’t claim – but deserves – much credit.

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