On successive mornings in July, in sunny Dublin, I had the privilege of interviewing two museum directors. We talked about practical and conceptual issues—and we discussed the history of their institutions. As it happened, I was reading Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland: 1600 – 1972, and thinking about his history of Ireland, which turned out to be very relevant. These interviews, organized thanks to suggestions from my wife Marianne Novy, who accompanied me, and also from Joachim Pissarro, nicely supplement each other. We decided to publish them together, edited in a way that brings out their commonality. The National Gallery, founded in 1854, has a collection of European and Irish art, with substantial Old Master holdings and, also, a world-class collection of modernist and contemporary art. The complicated name of the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, founded in 1908, reflects its history. As Dawson explains, Hugh Lane created an Irish museum for contemporary art. The National Gallery is funded by the Irish state, and The Hugh Lane, as its full name signals, by the city government. Dawson has been director of her museum since 1992, while Rainbird comes to the National Gallery from the Tate (1987 – 2006), by way of six years as director of the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (2006 – 12). They head very different institutions, but as becomes apparent, they often face many similar issues.
An art museum aims to collect the best possible works from everywhere; an art museum presents the visual culture of its nation, but these legitimate demands can come into competition. Ireland is a country with a fabulous literary culture—W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and Edna O’Brien to name just four of its writers. It is harder to give a comparable list of Irish visual artists, but some Irish artists certainly deserve more international attention; both Dawson and Rainbird rightly identify Jack Yeats as a major figure. Does being Irish born make an artist Irish? Francis Bacon, whose terminally chaotic London studio is on display in an amazing reconstruction in the Hugh Lane; and Sean Scully, who has shown both there and in the National Gallery—is their painting distinctively Irish? And what about the art of Brian O’Doherty, who has long lived and worked in New York? Our discussion provided an ideal opportunity to reflect on these challenging issues. Ireland, with fewer than five million citizens, has some marvelous ambitious museums. I came away a little envious of Dawson and Rainbird. Of course they are working very hard, but also, it seemed to me, they were enjoying their activities.
Sean Rainbird: Do you know our numbers?
David Carrier (Rail): Almost a million a year?
Rainbird: We topped a million last year. In a way it’s always the first measure people go to and it’s not the only or the ultimate measure. But if you think of Dublin, it’s a city of a million people, a million visitors—roughly half who are from Dublin and Ireland and half who are from outside—is a really satisfying number to attain. We don’t charge admission so every visitor costs a little something—unless they have lunch and give us revenue through the cafe—but there’s always pressure to have healthy numbers. If we charged admission, the decision would ultimately be a political one because we are founded by an act of Parliament from 1854, which says the art will be freely accessible to the public. If we were to charge, I suspect audience numbers would plummet by half or more, as happened in the late 1990s in the U.K.
In Germany we received about seventy-five percent [of funding] from the state. Essentially, public funds paid for the salaries and we had to generate resources to pay for the programs. It’s roughly similar in Dublin: seventy-five to eighty percent is state subvention and the rest we generate. As costs continue to rise we have to become more commercially-minded while retaining our core values about serving a broad audience. We don’t have the same handle over hiring or firing as you would, for example, in an American institution. If I was a director, or a curator, or someone at an American museum and the Board fell out of love, they could fire me the next day. We have very different employment conditions. While that gives certain stability, it also influences the pace of change.
Rail: Ten years ago was the crash, right? So didn’t that directly affect the money you got from the government?
Rainbird: Ten years ago, this gallery had an acquisitions fund, which was roughly double what we have now. Ten years ago, we had twenty percent more money from the state. After the crash our public funds were cut over forty percent: they have recovered a little, but not to the levels of a decade ago. Of course, the cost of mounting exhibitions has only gone up and the price of acquisitions has only gone up. So how do you compensate? That’s where you acknowledge the necessity of fundraising and finding other ways of supporting our activities. We also need to speak with all partners in government about encouraging support through incentives and the tax system.
We had an anniversary in 2014. Actually, a decade apart we celebrate two anniversaries: 1854 is the act establishing the museum, 1864 was the opening. So we invited fifty-six writers, authors, playwrights, and novelists to respond to a work of art of their choice. The result is a very beautiful book—published by Thames & Hudson—Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art, in which every artwork illustrated belongs to us. As we were substantially closed for refurbishment at the time, I said to the curator—who very sensitively cultivated and nurtured all these very different writers and voices; Seamus Heaney’s last poem is in it —why don’t we make an exhibition from this selection of works? Because the writers have chosen some of our great hits as well as a few oddities that we don’t often display, I saw it as a chance to experiment, with the intention of giving new insights into the collection.
When I arrived in 2012 I had the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the institution saw itself chiefly as a picture gallery. I was saying to people, “Look, we’ve got, not only this great collection of paintings, but in fact there are several collections: a collection of Western art, the state collection of Irish art, the state collection of portraiture, a collection of works on paper, and archives of Irish art. So let’s use them all.” So we introduced an element of playfulness into the mix.
At some point, something called the “Fifty Year Rule” had been instituted around the activity of acquisitions. In 2012 I bought a painting from 1962, which is exactly on the cusp of fifty years, by William Crozier [Flander’s Fields, 1962]. I wanted to test the idea that you need a buffer of time as an arbiter of quality between art made now and art that has apparently stood the test of time. The Crozier acquisition was meant as a trigger for discussion. I said to the board, “We ought to think about this fifty-year rule,” which I called the Francis Bacon question, because Francis Bacon was born in Dublin and spent nine years here, just around the corner. Later in life he disliked Ireland, but he did spend part of his life here, a great reason for the Hugh Lane Gallery to have acquired and reconstructed his studio. But the Gallery never acted. So that led to me think about other senior artists—whether they are still here or work abroad. That was the rationale for speaking in 2015 with Sean Scully on the occasion of his seventieth birthday and inviting him to exhibit in the National Gallery. I believe it was a great honor for us both! It became the first temporary exhibition of work by a contemporary artist here, of any scale.
Rail: On one hand you have the Irish collection in the Museum, and on the other hand you have the international things that are not particularly Irish
Rainbird: I always get caught saying, “We have the Irish state collection and then we have the European art,” as if they are two different things. Of course the Irish are a part of Europe so you have to be a bit careful. I think it misses some of the connections and relationships when you start hanging collections on the basis of geography—as this one had previously been hung— (the British School, the French School, the Italian School etc.), which you often see in Old Master collections.
Rail: You don’t want to keep them separate?
Rainbird: In one of the upstairs galleries we hang Irish, Spanish, and Dutch works on one wall, as there is a historical connection between them. In the main, however, the downstairs galleries contain more Irish art and the upstairs rooms cover the European bases, but include some Irish works. The galleries unfold chronologically now. The thing you want to avoid is being the same as everyone else. Since we have these different collections under one roof, I believe we should show them in a distinctive manner. Irish art becomes identifiably Irish later than other national schools. It is also gradual in the way it is defined within art history, beginning with [Walter] Strickland a century or so ago, and gaining clearer contours after the Second World War, when the Arts Council here was established and began collecting. The Council began to look at Irish artists working in Ireland and built a public collection. If you go to the auctions, of course there’s always Yeats, Jellett, Hone, Leech, Henry and Osborne that are offered. The Tate used to lend [Jack] Yeats paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland because they rarely showed them in London. In the last thirty years—when I worked there for twenty years and the time since— I’ve seen one of their Yeats go up once, if I recall, but it’s a great painting.
Rail: Art history itself is going to change. The idea that there’s this narrow group of artists and that’s all that matters, that will disappear—you’ve got all these different national traditions.
Rainbird: If you look in America, there are many Irish studies courses in various guises and at various universities. But vanishingly few, if any, modules are about Irish art. If there’s anything about Irish culture, it’s probably more directed to literature. The strong identification with Irish life and culture through the diaspora, though, has led to high levels of interest and involvement. You’re not creating a false nationalism; you’re saying, “actually there is a national sentiment which can be manifested through art.” It is very much my ambition to say, “Let’s define what we mean by Irish art for audiences outside Ireland.” We have to give shape to that and then find partners who could help us expand knowledge about, and enjoyment of, the collections here.
Rail: It also gives people like me a reason to come here because if you’re just trying to duplicate the standard international collection, then in a sense, you’ve seen it. Whereas this is an idea where it’s really a whole other tradition that you should be looking at.
Rainbird: The really lovely thing about this collection is that it will always have by-ways as well as highways. You’ll dive down a rabbit hole and suddenly find yourself looking at something that you had no idea we have. We have decorative arts, in fact we’re sitting in the company of some of them in my office, because when Russborough House was inherited in the late nineteenth century we were given not only two hundred paintings, but also furniture and silverware from the house in Blessington. So we can also display furniture and decorative art in the style of a country house, if we wish. Among the objects are Irish gilt mirrors from the eighteenth century. They are some of the great glories of Irish craftsmanship. Two of them hang in the Grand Gallery upstairs. Another significant achievement in Irish art is the tradition of stained glass. We have installed a wonderful room with works from the early twentieth century by Michael Healy, Evie Hone, and Harry Clarke, which you wouldn’t find, I think, in any other national gallery.
Rail: Independently of art history you are leading the way in terms of things you propose people to look at and take seriously.
Rainbird: I think art history itself can be both broad-minded and flat-footed. You can sometimes resist change for the wrong reasons—perhaps for ideological reasons. I had twenty years at the Tate, so I was inculcated in a way of seeing the world, to a degree. Then you realize that there’s a whole group of people who earn a living, sometimes a really good living, by painting portraits, for example. Now, many of them do not fit into the modernist or post-modernist mainstream, but many are highly accomplished and have very successful careers. And of course there’s a whole other raft of people with a more commercial appeal—people like Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook, who you hear about quite a lot. What kind of artists are they? Are they serious artists? How do we evaluate them within the vast range of art being made? Visual art is a pretty baggy suitcase; you can get a lot of things in there. Ultimately, with any collection such as ours in Dublin, you show what you have. If you find that there are parts of it that are hidden from view, then you have to periodically rediscover them. You have to continually ask yourself, “Why haven’t they been shown?”
Rail: That’s reason to be optimistic.
Rainbird: I’m a professional optimist and a practical pessimist. [Laughs] After the broadcast of the film about the Gallery’s refurbishment last year, people stopped me in the street—because I was for a while “the man off the tell”—saying, “This was a good use of taxpayer’s money.” I’d never heard that sentence before. I said to the Board, “We shouldn’t rest on our laurels. What we need to do now is complete the final phase of our master plan. Completing the building project gives us all the amenities we need to fulfil visitors’ expectations for a cultural institution in the twenty-first century.”
Rail: Your government funding is unlike the American system where everything is from private donors.
Rainbird: The American system also yields some tax benefits, perhaps around thirty percent of the costs. So in some sense, everyone is paying something to support culture. Nothing comes for nothing. Here the government—instead of paying it all—increasingly expects us to contribute. We have to increase the philanthropic contributions. We need to point our Board and ourselves in that direction. There’s a lot of work to do.
I’ve turned down a couple of opportunities to work in America and elsewhere. One of the things that didn’t attract me was the necessity to spend so much time raising funds, which would mean less time with collections and artists. I always wanted the balance to be tilted towards the art, which you can still find in some European institutions. Perhaps in ten years, at a senior level, we will also be spending as much time fundraising as with the art.
We have artists involved in the various public and educational activities; drawing days, workshops for autistic people, whatever it might be. We have artists copying in the galleries. We have artists doing a whole range of things, and not only visual artists: we have musicians, dancers, actors, and writers all of whom ultimately create another aspect of this Gallery. It has a cultural place in this city and in the country. It is situated right next to the seat of government, so on occasion state events take place here too. It is a place for many good things to happen.
Rail: You’re the optimist speaking because you have to hope that the institutions will reflect this bigger art world. So classes are one of the things you’re talking about?
Rainbird: When we did the Vermeer exhibition [Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry] last year, our co-curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. visited from [the National Gallery of Art in] Washington. He was astonished by the level of public programming around the Vermeer show. I think in Washington they do it slightly differently; most of their public program is organized around the collection, and not so much around the exhibitions. We do both, but there is as much of an emphasis on the exhibition program. Before we even printed the brochure one of the lectures had sold out. It was crazy. We had a hundred percent attendance and only a very small education team, so that uptake is very rewarding. Over a hundred thousand people registered for some kind of educational public event in 2017. That is about ten events every day, a massive number for a very small team. It’s a hectic pace, but it’s extraordinary what they manage to do.
Of course then you can say, “Are you, as a public organization, reaching out to all parts of society or only to certain groups?” If you’ve done a dementia workshop or you’ve worked with Fighting Words, a group that uses language and poetry, or you’ve done something for an autistic group—either through a charity or you’ve just opened the doors for anyone to come inside—you have to ask what else should we be doing? Then you say, “Well what are we doing for the traveler or the LGBTQ community?” You have to ask yourself more questions and look to build partnerships. We have to look how we might influence education policy on the teaching of art in schools. If you’re not doing enough or missing individuals or groups you have to ask what else you can do, and, if appropriate, with whom. And you can sometimes have a bit of fun. For Valentine’s Day this year we staged an anti-Valentine concert where Lisa O’Neill came and sang songs with tragic and miserable lyrics. It was very dark, but cut through all the clichés and was incredibly well-attended by a demographic that doesn’t always come to the Gallery. These are the things we ought to do too.
The ongoing struggle is to present a consistent and continuous exhibition program. Because historically the Irish didn’t have to pay to get in, and some think everything should be free, even exhibitions. But I can’t run the exhibition program if I cannot cover the high costs of mounting them. Our question is how to convert the visitors to the collection into paying visitors to temporary exhibitions. We’ve got a great show being installed at this moment on Roderic O’Conor. Although he has a good Irish name, he never really spent much time in Ireland. He had independent means and he also collected himself. The show is about his dozen years in Pont-Aven, beginning in 1892. He had an intense artistic exchange with a Swiss artist called Cuno Amiet —whom people don’t really know about outside Switzerland—and there is a very interesting dialogue. We’ve put their work in the context of other great artists of the time, van Gogh and Gauguin among them. Even with such stellar works it will be a challenge persuading people to visit the show.
The Irish have not had a very extensive confrontation with international modern art either in collections or exhibitions. For instance, there has only been one small Picasso show, and there are many really significant artists who have never shown here at all. Somehow we have to build an expectation—whether it’s for the tourists or citizens of the country—that communicates the message: “This is really special and it’s worth the money.” One of the routes is to build your friends since they are closest to the Gallery and will return frequently.
As you see, we’re pushing ahead on all fronts.
Rail: You’re looking to include Irish artists but also looking for the tourists to come to see international art at the Gallery?
Rainbird: Yes. After O’Conor, at the end of the year we are showing Canaletto from the Royal Collection (Canaletto and the Art of Venice), which is currently in Edinburgh. It’s quite a phenomenal holding of works in several media, all collected during the artist’s lifetime. It will be shown for the first time in Ireland.
Rail: A reason to come back.
David Carrier (Rail): Barbara, Joachim raised some questions about the history of this museum that I would like us to discuss. Hugh Lane in 1908 was the creator of a modern art gallery. Americans think of MoMA as the first such museum, but MoMA was only created in 1929. So, one earlier museum of modern art was here in Dublin.
Barbara Dawson: Yes I believe it is the oldest public gallery of modern art and was founded in 1908 by Hugh Lane when he was just thirty-two. He was one of the most important cultural figures in modern Irish history and he made his fortune from art dealing. His family was from Cork and Galway but he was brought up in England. His Aunt Augusta, Lady Gregory, was a very powerful and important Irish literary figure who championed the Celtic Literary Revival at the turn of the 20th century. One of her great friends was the poet W. B. Yeats and they went on to found the Abbey Theater. Dublin was an exciting place to be at the turn of the 20th century. There was so much happening especially in theatre and literature. Lane was caught up in this excitement and believed that the “sister art” to literature, visual art, should also be supported. And so in 1901, he set about founding a gallery of modern art for Ireland. He visited Paul Durand-Ruel galleries in Paris in 1904 and bought from him the magnificent Eva Gonzalès by Manet as a seminal work for the future gallery. He later bought others Impressionist masterpiece from the French dealer for his gallery. In late 1904, he sought public support by organizing an exhibition of the collection of the Scottish Industrialist James Staats Forbes together with works borrowed from Durand-Ruel. This was in advance of Durand-Ruel’s now famous Grafton Gallery exhibition in London in 1905. Several paintings were bought by Lane’s supporters and donated to the gallery. He himself also continued to purchase for the collection. He bought Renoir’s Les Parapluies as a birthday present for himself and subsequently gave it to the gallery collection. Hugh Lane’s support for Irish art was new in that he was wealthy and was willing to support contemporary artists through commissions. He commissioned W. B. Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, and William Orpen to paint portraits of the notable Irish men and women for the gallery’s collection. He also organised the first ever exhibition of Irish art in the Guildhall, London, in 1904 which was a tremendous success. The gallery opened in a temporary location Clonmell House in Harcourt Street in January in 1908 to great international acclaim. Lane had put together an outstanding collection in such a short space of time—the germ of the idea was in 1901—Dublin had the first public collection of French Impressionists in these Islands and the gallery saw Irish artists hanging side by side with their European peers. What a boost for Irish art! Looking back Hugh Lane may not have been at the cutting edge of collecting contemporary art in that he ignored the Post-Impressionist artists, but he was at the cutting-edge in terms of philanthropy, giving something of enormous cultural value to Dublin and Ireland for everybody’s enjoyment, for the greater good. That type of philanthropy is rarely seen today.
Rail: Can you explain the complicated history? Hugh Lane had a will leaving the paintings to Dublin, but he didn’t sign it. So when he died in the Lusitania his thirty-nine paintings did not all end up here but remain divided between here and London.
Dawson: Sir Hugh—he was knighted in 1909—died aboard the Lusitania in 1915. He was only 39. He wanted a modern building for his collection and wanted it built in the center of Dublin. The problem was finding a suitable site. Sir Hugh greatly admired the English architect Edwin Luytens and invited him to identify a site and design the building. After many rejections Lutyens came up with the idea of building a gallery across the river Liffey on the site of the Ha’penny Bridge. However, when the proposal went to Dublin City Council they lost by two votes. Sir Hugh was furious. He wanted to show Dublin how great these pictures were and how they deserved a purpose-built gallery. He thought that if the National Gallery London exhibited a selection of these paintings, people in Dublin would appreciate them even more. London was constantly making overtures to Lane to lend or bequeath his Impressionist pictures to the National Gallery. And so despite all of the entreaties from his supporters in Dublin, Sir Hugh removed thirty-nine paintings—including all his Impressionist works—from the gallery and sent them on loan to the National Gallery London. In response to the lack of support for Sir Hugh, W.B. Yeats wrote his fiercely polemic poem September 1913.
Removing the paintings was a gamble on Sir Hugh’s part to get the authorities in Dublin to really appreciate the value of his gift, but alas, it backfired. The problem was that the National Gallery London did not appreciate them either, and the Board was split. Several of the Trustees did not like Hugh Lane and thought of him as an upstart art dealer. Despite being promised an exhibition of all thirty-nine paintings, the Trustees refused to show them all, relegating some of the Impressionist works—including the Renoir—to the basement. Then they made the stipulation that Sir Hugh would have to promise to bequeath them to the National Gallery before any exhibition went ahead. Sir Hugh was extremely annoyed and refused to reveal to them his ultimate intentions for his paintings, despite him having made a will in 1913 in which he left them to the National Gallery. The exhibition never went ahead and the paintings languished in the stores of the National Gallery.
Then, in 1914, Sir Hugh was appointed director of the National Gallery of Ireland much to the delight of his supporters. It brought him back to Dublin and they hoped he would change his mind regarding his pictures. During his brief tenure, the National Gallery benefitted hugely from his generosity with gifts of over forty paintings including works by Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Titian. He did not draw down a salary, but was allowed to continue his art dealing. Due to the economic collapse of one of his largest collectors, Arthur Grenfell, all of Grenfell’s collection was put on the market in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. Sir Hugh bought back several works which he had sold to Grenfell and this cost him financially. So when, in 1915, Lloyd’s Insurance Company asked if he would go to the U.S. as a professional witness to assess the damage to paintings which had been aboard a ship that had caught fire, he reluctantly agreed if they paid him and insured his life while travelling. But before he left, he wrote the codicil to his will of 1913 leaving the thirty nine paintings to Dublin. However, although he signed it, he didn’t have it witnessed. This was deemed not legally binding. His intentions were not honored by the National Gallery London and they kept the paintings. After his death when the codicil was discovered there began a huge controversy with demands made by Ireland for the return of the paintings. An agreement to share the paintings between the Hugh Lane in Dublin and the National Gallery London only came about after a daring ruse by two Irish students in 1956. Tipping off journalists beforehand, they removed Berthe Morisot’s Jour d’Eté (one of the thirty-nine paintings) from the Tate causing a huge furor. They hid the painting for a few day before giving it back. And so the first agreement came about in 1959 and there continues to be agreements between the two institutions renegotiated every twelve years. These paintings really belong with the rest of the original collection which Sir Hugh brought together for Dublin. For the gallery’s first centenary celebrations in 2008, I negotiated the return of these paintings which were exhibited together with the rest of the original collection for the first time since 1913. When they all came back and were put with the rest of the collection I was astonished at how well they fit in—it was not just the Impressionists that shone—the lesser-known artists such as Forain, Maris, and Diaz looked so well together. All the Mancinis’ looked really strong, and then of course having all the great Corots together was marvelous. The original collection is a perfect example of an early 20th century aesthetic. This collection, it is true, was not the most revolutionary or cutting-edge compared to, perhaps, German or French collections, but in these Islands it was very, very significant.
Rail: Is there any hope in the future?
Dawson: Well I have always enjoyed very good relations with the directors of the National Gallery London. There is certain collegiality and we like to work together so I’m hopeful that when we’re negotiating the new agreement, we will progress towards a greater recognition of Hugh Lane’s wishes, which were to have these paintings in Ireland. I’m hopeful that we will progress down that road in a positive and collaborative manner.
Rail: This would change the way your museum would look, would it not?
Dawson: It certainly would. They would be a wonderful addition to the collection. Let’s take the two Manets he bought—The Portrait of Eva Gonzalès—his only pupil—and La Musique aux Tuileries. They are seminal works which he bought for Dublin. It’s terribly interesting to have artworks that have an international renown exhibited alongside artworks that, while greatly respected, do not have that cache. When you visit the Hugh Lane gallery you will see renowned painters like Monet, Manet, Corot, Francis Bacon, and Agnes Martin shown alongside painters that are excellent but you may not know them so well. That is illuminating and I think the Gallery has this responsibility to inform. I find it always interesting to see artworks by artists that I may not know very well alongside the more famous. You do not want—and certainly I don’t want—a city art gallery that’s a mirror image of other European city art galleries displaying just the artists that are currently in vogue with international reputations. We would be clones! That I think would be a mistake.
Rail: Yesterday we talked to your colleague Sean at the National Gallery and he had a very similar thought. How do you balance those two sides of a collection? On one hand you want the international things, on the other hand you want to show your national tradition.
Dawson: Yes, you want to show your national artists, but some of our national artists are of course internationally known and some of them deserve greater international recognition. If you look at an artist like Jack B. Yeats, he should have had greater recognition. Sometimes smaller countries don’t have the leverage, the finances, or the support of their governments to promote their artists. Exhibiting abroad is one good way of bringing recognition to artists. Some years ago I organized a touring exhibition in Japan, A Century of Irish Art, focusing on 20th century art, including contemporary artists, which was a tremendous success.
One of our forthcoming exhibitions is of the work of Eugéne Boudin and Nathaniel Hone. Boudin is of course known internationally. The Irish artist Nathaniel Hone was a contemporary of Boudin and spent seventeen years working in France. They have a shared sensibility in their love of landscape and the ever changing skies that come with the climates of Ireland and the north of France, Normandy in particular. It will be the first time they are exhibited together.
Rail: Yeats is someone who should be collected in America.
Dawson: Well, I believe he is to a certain extent. The great New York collector John Quinn supported his father John Butler Yeats who was also a painter and he also collected Jack’s work. Lucian Freud thought Jack was the one of the greatest painters. He first saw his work in 1948 at an exhibition in London. Now in contemporary art, it’s different, we have Irish contemporary artists who are certainly successfully navigating the international stage and achieving their due recognition. I think it’s much more fluid nowadays—travel is easier, images are easier to convey, there is a social network—all of that has been a great help but it is still difficult financially. Government support continues to be essential for highlighting the excellence in Irish art practice and supporting Irish art in significant exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale. We have organized exhibitions of some artists who have subsequently been selected for Venice: Eva Rothschild, Jesse Jones, Sean Lynch. That’s really helped.
Rail: You’re funded by the city of Dublin.
Dawson: Yes and I think it’s a very good model. The gallery is a part of our culture, our society. Established in 1908 it was the most important cultural event in the birth of modern Ireland. However as well as public funding I think we all have to look for private/corporate patronage and sponsorship as well. Building up funds and financial supports is tough but it is essential. And through development/fundraising you also build up awareness of your brand and that is extremely valuable. Building up diverse audiences is also crucial to our brand. We have terrific art education programs in house all year round. As Dublin’s city gallery we focus on Dublin’s communities in our out reach programs. We have just finished an E.U. supported project with “CAPP,” the Creative Artists Partnership Project. There are six member countries in the program and the lead partner is Create The Irish National Agency for Collaborative Arts Practice. We teamed up with Create and invited submissions for a community based project in the neighborhood from artists in the CAPP countries who have collaboratively based practices. The Irish artist Seamus Nolan was successful and his project investigates the idea of archive, deconstructing ideas on heritage, engaging with the Traveller communities in Ireland and with Traveller archivists and activists
Part of the project is an exhibition in the gallery which comprises scanning the only archives on Travelling Communities loaned by Ulster University to create a website and duplicate bank of information. This is accompanied by portraits of members of the Traveler community painted by Mick O’Dea examples of work by tinsmith James Collins, and flowers created by the women of Paveé Point, the Traveller Community Centre. And so those projects happen with public/EU funding enriching the community and enriching society.
Rail: And you’ve been able to preserve free admission, which seems to me very desirable.
Dawson: Ireland and the U.K. have this tradition of free admission. Continental Europe doesn’t. In today’s culture do people appreciate something more if they pay in? But then how do you manage repeat visitors and our artist communities which we must support. Paying in to special exhibitions is an option, but paying in to the collection is another issue.
Rail: You have 170,000 visitors a year.
Dawson: Yes and increasing slowly. We are located in Charlemont House, one of the beautiful townhouses designed by William Chambers in 1763. We’re situated in the oldest part of the city, which is neither a commercial nor retail center. Footfall is low—every visitor is very hard won. We’ve come out of a very bad recession but we’re now readying up with a new five-year strategic plan, which includes more focused marketing campaigns. A new city library is planned for the Square beside us and that should increase footfall to the Square. Construction hasn’t yet begun. In the meantime we are ambitious for an increase in our visitor numbers. Some are repeat visitors— about thirty-five to forty percent—so that’s a steady support. Many come to see the collections and then others come specifically to see Francis Bacon’s Studio. It has become a must see destination for so many people and is increasing in popularity ever since we opened it to the public in 2001. Our Education program is a significant attraction for many with its in-house events, workshops, classes, lectures, and tours. We are also committed to increasing our local community audiences through our outreach programs. These programs bring diverse groups to the gallery, who would not ordinarily visit an art gallery. Such a mix of audiences creates a gallery that becomes a civic space enjoyed by all.
Rail: You have so many temporary exhibitions, you really are massive.
Dawson: Our exhibition program is one of the essential dynamics within the gallery’s operations. Our remit is from circa 1850 to today and we support Irish and international art practices. In 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, we began the theme Artist as Witness in Society. Being a modern and contemporary gallery we were challenged as to how we would celebrate this centenary as we have few works in the collection from which to base any historic exhibition. Using the theme “Artist as Witness,” we programmed exhibitions looking at the politics of 1916 and the execution of Sir Roger Casement for treason, as well as exhibitions examining what it is to be in contemporary Ireland, what makes up contemporary society, and also championing recognition of women and their achievements in our history and art. We continued the theme in 2017 with “Artist as Witness: Migrations” and this year with “Artists as Witness: Identities.” We have organized several solo exhibitions over the past number of years including: Francis Bacon, Sean Scully, Richard Tuttle, Ellen Gallagher, and Tacita Dean. The current exhibitions are primarily video and film based and, in exploring identities, they investigate and commentate on current political and social issues. Keeper [exhibition] focuses on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which is twenty-years-old this year. When we started discussing this exhibition with the artist Amanda Dunsmore, Brexit wasn’t an issue and there wasn’t any threat to the stability of this very significant agreement. We were looking at the protagonists and the events that lead to this extraordinary event which, of course, was so beneficial to all societies in Northern Ireland and indeed the whole of Ireland. With the event of Brexit this agreement has been thrown into sharp political focus. Alongside Keeper we have Rachael Maclean’s exhibition Just be Yourself. Maclean creates fantasy visual narratives using green screen technology. Included in this exhibition is Spite Your Face (2017), a satirical parody of the culture of political misinformation and disregard for factual accuracy or what she calls the “post truth era” referring specifically to the divisive campaigns that lead to the Brexit vote and the U.S. Presidential election.
Prototypes is by Dioreann O’Malley, an Irish artist based in Berlin. Investigating transgender issues, O’Malley works with CGI (computer-generated imagery) and Virtual Reality in relation to the construction of trans bodies and subjectivities. It is an interesting layering of contemporary forms and complex identities in the digital age.
Rail: People will come to temporary exhibitions; they won’t see this for the permanent collection however great that collection is—is that right?
Dawson: I don’t think so. Some people always come to see the permanent collection and others come to see the temporary exhibitions and the collection. They have their favorites, but due to shortage of space we rotate the permanent collection. Our new wing, which opened in 2006, has helped but we still don’t have enough space. I think that positioning the contemporary, or the new, against the traditional creates a good friction. It annoys some people, perhaps unsettles them, but I think it is important because a gallery should not only be reassuring by presenting people with the familiar, you also have to provoke and show what an artwork can be today.
Rail: You have a booming tourist market.
Dawson: Dublin had 5.9 million visitors in 2017. Tourism is a huge industry for Ireland. The cultural tourist is a very desirable audience for us, so a good marketing and promotional plan is essential. We have to be the magnet for this area of the city, Parnell Square, which is on the north side of the river Liffey. The Liffey is like a demarcation line between the north side and south side of the city and most tourists concentrate on the south side which has the stronger retail and commercial centers. But the distances are small. You can walk from Trinity College on the south side to the Hugh Lane in fifteen minutes, but it is a challenge to attract people.
Rail: Your facade is so beautiful.
Dawson: Yes, isn’t it? Charlemont House was built in 1763 and the limestone facade is still intact. The downside is that it is difficult to advertise our presence as it is a listed building so there are few opportunities for outdoor advertising.
Rail: What’s Irish about Irish art, what’s international? Maybe for the practicing museum director those are not questions of the pressing moment; you have art and it comes from different places and you want to mix it together.
Dawson: There are sensibilities that are uniquely Irish and, just as in literature, the visual arts have unique ways of expressing their concerns and responses to what they observe and experience. The issues may be global but the responses are particular. For example we have identity issues but we’re not the only country or people that has them, so platforming Irish art, which concentrates on this issue, will resonate globally.
It’s important that visitors come in to the gallery and say, “I’ve never seen or heard of that” as well as seeing works by artists that they do know, that have an international renown. When I go through a gallery or a museum, I like to see things and go “Oh that’s an interesting Delacroix I haven’t seen before,” or “that’s a curious Goya,” or “that’s how that Rauschenberg looks in the flesh.” Then you see art works that are not familiar and you ask “who are they?” And even if you have never heard of them before you have discovered really interesting work. And that is what happens in the Hugh Lane. You may leave going, “Hmm, not too sure about that exhibition or that artist.” But if it stays with you, then I’m happy. You have to make people curious as well as inform them. What I really enjoy seeing is that people are taking longer to look.
Rail: To stop.
Dawson: To stop and look, because people maybe see a work—but do they really look at it? It’s an encouragement to look and it’s an encouragement not to rush.
I remember when I was working with David Sylvester on our exhibition Francis Bacon in Dublin—a spectacular exhibition—we were discussing the layout and where to place some of the famous triptychs. Hanging them in not so obvious places David said, “Always have a surprise for people.” I think should be part of the gallery or museum—informing the informed visitor that on something they did not know much about.
Rail: Irish literature is a strong kind of identity, the visual art is harder to . . .
Dawson: —harder to unpack. What did Brian O’Doherty say? “Irish literature is the big house and Irish art is the gate lodge.”
Rail: Ah, that’s perfect!