Imma and the role of art museums


Sir, – Frank Schnittger (Letters, August 2nd), in his response to the powerful column by Hugh Linehan on Imma (“Imma’s relentlessly on-message programme highlights its identity crisis”, Culture, July 31st), seems to be living in a time warp.

He seems to think that Ireland is still a conservative, Catholic state “entirely wedded to maintaining the status quo”, as if it was 30 or 40 years ago. In reality, Official Ireland has long since enthusiastically supported the so-called progressive agenda. We saw that most recently with the gay marriage (“marriage equality”) referendum and the abortion referendum, not to mention ever-growing political correctness on issues of gender and identity. There is near-unanimity in the Irish media and political class in support of the progressive agenda, the European Union, immigration and multiculturalism. The real rebels in Ireland today are conservative Catholics and Eurosceptics. Pretentious left-wing artists are actually boringly conventional; in fact, petty bourgeois. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 4.

Sir, – Hugh Linehan’s response to the launch of Imma’s 30th anniversary programme is curiously reactionary. He faults Imma for engaging with the world we live in and for its location in an important heritage building in Dublin 8 – public access to which was provided by the opening of Imma in 1991. His argument is regressive and seems still to be in thrall to a model of art practice and institutional practice which values art as an antidote to reality rather than as a means of comprehending and transforming it.

The purpose of art, when considered over the long rather than the short term, has always been to try to understand reality and to re-present and communicate that understanding. That is a societal process and is why art – whatever form it takes and however it is housed – has always been a societal necessity.

The business of art is also confused with the art business in the piece. The business of art has always been to explore the nature and meaning of human experience in the world whereas the art business is fundamentally about the movement of money and ownership of commodities. Not the same at all. The art business is unavoidable but is incidental to Imma’s role in creating public value. Addressing pressing societal issues, as in Imma’s programme, within a wider strategy, is something to be expected, therefore, rather than damned, even before it has been realised.

Hugh Linehan also regards the tension between the Royal Hospital building and its function as a museum of modern art as an impediment to Imma meeting the responsibilities of a museum of modern art in Ireland in the 21st century. Yet many other modern art museums, in Europe, in particular, which are consciously housed in heritage buildings and sites, share Imma’s understanding that the tension between past and present is a dynamic part of a museum’s subject and ongoing societal dynamics, especially true in Ireland.

The real problem here, evident in this piece, is the nostalgia for a narrow modernist model of art museum, abstracted and functioning as a means of separating art from society, as in the hugely influential Museum of Modern Art in New York’s ideological and institutional project, which, though still powerful, is now past its sell-by date. Imma was never intended as that kind of museum, as simply the next iteration of a museum of “modernist” art or experience. In art or ideology, modernism is only one way to be present in the world, and this modernist nostalgia, which still traps a lot of architecture, represents a continuation of colonised thinking. We can do better.

What Imma is and has been about over 30 years – rightly and unavoidably because of its context in the Royal Hospital building and in the city – is a process of mapping and negotiating contemporary realities and exploring answers to the fundamental questions facing any publicly funded cultural institution – what for and who for? Having capable, situated public institutions, turned towards society, is all the more important in the face of an emerging Trumpian neo-colonialism across the world. It is clear that Imma is doing what it should to fulfil its responsibilities as a publicly funded institution geared to creating public value.

But it is also clear, in a Covid world, that a restatement of where public value lies and how and where it is provided for needs to be prioritised. – Yours, etc,



Co Donegal.