With Eva International, Ireland’s biennial of contemporary art, set to open this month, we take the pulse of Dublin’s visual arts scene.
Working in the visual arts in Dublin for more than ten years as an artist, studio manager, curator and gallerist, I have felt the pressure. We compete for resources and grasp opportunities as projects launched with passion and optimism come and then go in a city all too familiar with the cycle of boom and bust. But, despite the constraints facing the sector such as limited studio space, financial support, and a lack of Irish buyers, world-class work is being produced and presented in our capital city in a clash of opportunity and challenge – you just need to know where to find it.
I talk to five people shaping the visual arts in Dublin in 2018, from galleries and graduates to government bodies, about creating opportunity in an art scene in flux.
“Come see the unfamiliar!”
Mother’s Tankstation Limited’s gallery is a small, renovated, sky-lit Dublin factory, itself a constant work in progress. Founded in 2006, on Watling St. Dublin 8, artist and academic Finola Jones combines the fearlessness and freshness of the artist with creative and entrepreneurial risk-taking that sets Mother’s Tankstation apart and propels it onto the international stage.
“We have always understood ourselves as an international gallery that happens to be located in Dublin. We make an average of five exhibitions a year in the Watling Street space and more than ten in an international context, either at important art fairs globally, or newer collaborative inter-gallery ventures, like Condo, in London, New York and forthcoming in Shanghai, or Paris Internationale in the Autumn each year.” Although these international projects “are budget-sapping to achieve, they have to count – culturally as well as economically – for the gallery as well as the artists, who have to live from what they do after all. The off-site shows not only internationalise the gallery, but reach out to great collectors globally, without whom, we could not do what we do”.
In Dublin, however, Mother’s Tankstation values community engagement with their exhibitions, visually and intellectually, over sales. “It’s crucial that the gallery continually challenges perceptions and evolves, showing unexpected things to a growing audience. We should grow together.” Anyone can go see the art that Mother’s Tankstation is presenting, absolutely free. “Art doesn’t have to be about collecting it, seeing it in person is more important.” Finola mentions a recent film series project curated by Maeve Connolly, Being Infrastructural, where all the works involved were on loan from international galleries or major institutions. “I was contacted about the project by a journalist from the New York Times who simply could not comprehend the mould-breaking logic that nothing was for sale.” She says there are some very open-minded collectors in Ireland, but “it is still a rare pleasure to place a great artwork in an Irish collection.”
The gallery has recently expanded with the addition of a London space, Mother’s Tankstation, London, which Finola describes as “astonishing and totally invigorating”. She sees it as “a solution, even a short-term one, to a potential issue caused by a narrowing cultural climate and exacerbated by the UK’s Brexit decision.” The London art scene has fully embraced the gallery which is currently exhibiting work by Mairead O’hEocha, Noel McKenna, and Sam Anderson, from Ireland, Australia and the U.S. respectively, all of whom are showing in London for the first time.
Finola wants to challenge the public to take advantage of the opportunity, provided by galleries such as her own, to see artists who are soon to become international stars but are not yet familiar names. “One of the many examples we have of this happening was an exhibition at Mother’s Tankstation in 2015, of the Shanghai-born painter Cui Jie. It was the first solo show in any Irish gallery or museum of a living artist from mainland China. Her work is subsequently becoming the stuff of legend. Come see the unfamiliar!”
Business to Arts
“We wanted to look as far and wide as possible for artists who could find something beautiful there.”
Business to Arts (B2A) connects businesses, artists and arts organisations to generate creative opportunities in Ireland. Over the last 30 years it has been a “celebrant of the arts”, across all art forms including film and music, but supporting many high profile visual arts projects including the ongoing Women on Walls series, and an upcoming project which will place work by NCAD students in Dublin Airport.
In 2017, Port Perspectives brought together artists, via open call, working around the theme of port, river and city. Andrew Hetherington, the organisations chief executive explains, “There are a lot of really unique spaces around Dublin Port that have influenced people and we wanted to look as far and wide as possible for artists who could find something beautiful there, or tell the stories of people from the port area.” The project aimed to strengthen the bond between Dublin Port and Dublin City, while bringing together local groups and creating opportunities for catalysing artistic activity. Dublin Port see the importance of their role as a positive community participant while handling 50% of all trade in the Republic of Ireland. “In Dublin Port’s case it’s understanding that the port is changing, the city is changing. Understanding that it doesn’t have to be the hard message of goods coming in and out; Dublin Port look to collaborate with partners to achieve the softer side of what they do, including corporate responsibility, commissioning projects sponsorship.”
B2A also assists businesses with their private collections, from helping a nursing home to programme and curate an art collection for its residents, to working with large firms such as Arthur Cox Solicitors, who recently commissioned Caoimhe Kilfeather’s lean, a large site-specific metal and glass sculpture outside the firm’s offices on Earlsford Terrace.
Andrew would like to see a funded national artists residency scheme which the corporate world would be keen to support. “For example, you could support an artist in your local community to work with you and the community to produce and artwork for your firm’s space, or for a community space. It would provide visibility and a source of income for the artist, and the resulting works would help the community to understand what artists do.”
Office of Public Works (OPW)
“The State Art collection is a living collection that spans multiple decades, is continually growing and represents a broad diversity of ideas and styles.”
The State Art Collection is essentially a giant lending library, constantly on the move. Managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW), the collection is exhibited in public buildings spanning the length and breadth of the country, from West Kerry to Dáil Éireann. Jacquie Moore and a small specialist art team based at St. Stephen’s Green manage some 18,000 works, including historical and contemporary paintings, original prints, sculpture, fine art and decorative objects. As the custodians of Ireland’s cultural heritage, Jacquie explains that the State Art Collection is “a living collection that spans multiple decades, continually growing and expanding, and represents a broad diversity of ideas and styles.” The OPW buys photos, prints, painting and sculpture across media, actively supporting work by emerging and mid-career artists, such as Nevan Lahart and Barbara Knezevic, through their acquisition strategies.
Commissions are, to Jacquie, an essential part of the OPW’s public service. “My role in serving the public is to support artists living and working in Ireland, to put money in the pocket of the artist on behalf of the OPW, and hence on behalf of the Irish public.” A lot is done on an individual level with small but vital funds – “small is beautiful,” as she puts it. Many artists are supported by the Per Cert for Art scheme, a 40 year old government initiative whereby 1% of the cost of any publicly funded development can be allocated to the commissioning of a work of art, allowing the OPW to acquire works from graduate shows, galleries and directly from artist’s studios. This scheme recently enabled the commissioning of Joseph Walsh’s Magnus Modus, a seven metre tall sculpture of looping, sweeping olive ash, resting on a small Kilkenny limestone base, for the new interior courtyard of the National Gallery.
The placement of art in publicly-owned spaces can be a highly personal process. Jacquie assists with selecting art for government offices, and the choices are sometimes surprising. As she says, “We can learn a lot about each other when people are selecting art. A piece can transform a room and have an impact. They are conscious of the power of art in the room.” Perhaps no politician is more conscious of the power and necessity of art in public life than President Michael D. Higgins. As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the mid-1990s, he drove the Per Cent For Art policy document that provided the framework for the OPW’s support of artists to this day.
When I asked Jacquie if she had any thoughts on how the visual arts industry in Ireland could be invigorated, she mentioned the Own Art scheme in the UK, a state-funded scheme that helps members of the public to purchase artwork from hundreds of galleries across the UK by offering interest-free loans and spreading the repayments. A scheme like this in Ireland could generate a huge new market of potential buyers to support our homegrown artists and galleries.
GUM Collective, Alex de Roeck and Stream
“You come into the space for dialogue, for open discussion, a safe space to explore ideas.”
GUM Collective was established in 2015 by eleven artists from NCAD’s Print Department. I met with one of its members, Alex de Roeck, to talk about his practice and the collective mentality that drives his work. Alex is a printmaker who employs “low brow” print techniques, looking to print fundamentals and the ethos of printmaking to build up images. Though the roots of the GUM collective are in printmaking, they have managed to “ditch any notion of using print as a mechanism to deliver artworks, looking for something much more immediate, prioritising the image making, utilising technology both in the exhibition and in the image making process”.
While GUM works as a collective in “having a space together, preparing shows together” each member maintains their own individual practice. “You come into the space for dialogue, for open discussion, a safe space to explore ideas. As a group, we’re now beginning to explore how to create a framework for the disparate entities within the collective to work and coexist, getting into the idea of building structures that hold and contain the artworks.”
While Alex and the GUM collective look to technology for exhibition opportunities – he notes that “artists have started to embrace concepts of online galleries and creating 3D spaces where art can live outside of the gallery context; that could be an interesting way to build up shows…” – the physical space of the gallery is still important to the art making process. STREAM is one such physical space, a platform for presenting works by emerging artists run by Mark O’Gorman and Paul McGrane at the Complex building on Little Green Street. It is the only artist-run space in Dublin that works primarily with emerging artists.
Alex thinks what is needed by emerging artists is “just more opportunity, like a 126 [artist-run gallery in Galway] but in Dublin. A cheaper way, in which someone with ambition could rent a space and be involved with artists – could almost be a scout. I don’t see selling of the work as essential. You want to be able to show it, photograph it and gain opportunity off it. Deliver experiences to people rather than a price tag.“
“I feel I’m still discovering that role.”
Since graduating from Cork’s Crawford College of Art in 2014 and coming to Dublin, Róisín Bohan, now working at the RHA, is moving away from art making and into the business of curating. In 2018 she was selected by the Black Church Print Studio under their graduate award scheme to curate their gallery space in Temple Bar. She had the budget and time to generate ideas and select the artists she was interested in working with.
Discussing her curatorial influences and her process of curating, she mentions a recent interview she read with the director of Eva International, Matt Packer. “He described it really well, saying you need to find a balance between having a curatorial dictatorship and helping artists to blossom in their own right. I really agreed with that and I think curators also have a role in helping to make sense of what’s going on. I feel I’m still discovering that role. Even though it’s the artists that are showing their work, there is still an element of creativity involved with the curatorial aspect where you are showing your own creative thoughts in a different way”.
Curatorial work also involves bringing the right people together. This was what happened in her first show at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Myths of The Future Exotic where Holly O’Brien, in collaboration with musician Dan Guiney and sound artist Liam Slevin, combined elements of theatre and nightclub with dance, costume design and music. Other projects in this series included Celina Muldoon’s Untitled and Sara French’s Rooting For Wimps, all of which looked to examine live art performance through the lens of visual art.
Roisin has received Dublin City Council funding to deliver a project later this year, working with only one artist, Bren Smyth, who does contemporary drawing work. Roisin states “I think she’s really great and I want her work to be shown and to be seen more”.
Asked about obstacles to development and delivery of projects, she cites space for exhibition work as a problem as “it’s all well and good doing an independent curatorial project, but unless you have a really good mailing list, it’s a lot harder to get the word out about it.” With many curatorial funding opportunities in Ireland only open to international candidates, she also sees a gap in arts funding for homegrown curators to develop projects and careers.
Words: Peter Prendergast
Photos: Tristan Hutchinson
Cui-Jie Guangzhou Telecom-Building Oil-on-canvas 200 x 150cm 2017