Departure of artistic director shines light on troubled festival

The sudden departure of Rachael Thomas from her post with Dublin Contemporary throws into sharp relief questions over the long…

The sudden departure of Rachael Thomas from her post with Dublin Contemporary throws into sharp relief questions over the long-awaited art festival that has yet to release any concrete plans or programme, writes AIDAN DUNNE

WITHIN THE past few days, all references to Dublin Contemporary’s artistic director Rachael Thomas have disappeared from the event’s website. This follows on from intense speculation about her position over the past month. Given that late last week Thomas was still very active as artistic director and said she had no intention of stepping aside, this suggests she had an abrupt change of heart. A founder of Dublin Contemporary, Thomas has been its driving force for several years.

A spokesperson for Dublin Contemporary says that Thomas, who was on secondment from her position as Head of Exhibitions at Imma, is returning to the museum. There is no artistic director of Dublin Contemporary at present, though developments will be announced early next month.

Thomas’s departure throws into sharp relief questions that have hung over the international festival of contemporary art, scheduled to take place in Dublin later this year, since it was launched with some fanfare last July. In fact it was launched several times: twice in Dublin, once in London and once in New York.


Just how many times, one arts administrator asked recently, can you launch an exhibition without putting any flesh on the bones? The reference was to the fact that while it’s being billed as a huge international event – on the scale of such established exhibitions as Documenta in Germany – virtually nothing concrete has emerged about its substance. Given the vague, outline nature of the enterprise, it’s probably not surprising that the multiple launches haven’t generated much of a buzz. Some of those present at the London launch during Frieze Art Fair, for example, observed – and were concerned — that the turnout was distinctly disappointing.

Most recently, a list of participating artists was promised sometime during the month of March. Oliver Dowling, who is on the curatorial panel in an advisory capacity, originally proposed an international show for Dublin in 1999 when he was visual arts officer with the Arts Council. By common consent, the idea was deemed promising but premature.

Thomas, a curator at Imma, then approached him in 2005 when, as she put it, “I had the idea of a major international exhibition for contemporary art in Dublin”. This time it seemed more opportune and the pair have been pushing for it since. What’s changed calamitously, of course, is the economic climate. Despite that, last year the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport gave its backing to the project, committing some €4.5 million to it.

Originally, Dublin Contemporary was planned for 2010, then pushed back a year, and then pushed back again, from summer to autumn. Even that now seems like cutting things a bit too fine, especially if Dublin Contemporary wants to make an impact internationally, which is after all a large part of its rationale. Everyone, including the city’s commerical gallerists, has been well disposed towards it. Private gallerists were asked to schedule exhibitions with it in mind, though on the general understanding that they would not be in line for funding. In theory they, with the city in general, will benefit from the associated publicity, Dublin’s heightened artistic profile and the predicted presence of thousands of visitors, including important art collectors and professionals.

However, more than one gallery has noted that Dublin Contemporary has been very much a black hole in terms of information and advice: everything goes in and nothing comes back. Communications have not been handled well. Bland, jargonistic generalities have too often taken the place of hard information. Those not directly involved might eventually feel they are being taken for granted. And the art world has been abuzz with rumours that Dublin Contemporary HQ is not a happy camp.

Then there is the role of the St Patrick’s Festival, charged with delivering the substance of the event. Its chief executive, Susan Kirby, is also Dublin Contemporary’s chief executive. The St Patrick’s Festival organisation has considerable experience under its belt, but not in the arena of the visual arts, still less in the international visual arts world, and there has been much speculation about the feasability of the match.

There has been criticism too, from Dublin City Councillor Gerard Mannix Flynn and others, that the funding would be better directed at supporting Irish arts at a time when the sector is particularly hard-pressed. When Dublin Contemporary was launched, it was claimed the event could bring up to 150,000 visitors to Dublin and €13.5 million into the Irish economy. Those figures have been routinely trotted out in its publicity material but again, they are based on the presumption that Dublin Contemporary will be on a par with Documenta and other established exhibitions.

That’s quite a presumption.

The reality is that it’s an unknown, a gamble, and there is really no reliable yardstick by which to judge its revenue potential. Meanwhile established international exhibitions, notably Limerick’s EV+A, may be right to feel aggreieved in terms of the assigment of scarce resources.

THERE IS AN ODD ambiguity about Dublin Contemporary's thematic identity, which is based on two distinct, unreconciled propositions. The first is that the event is Joycean in the way it is to be woven into the physical and pyschic geography of Dublin City. That sounds promising: Joyce is a huge international draw. Dowling's idea was that it bring the visitor through the city in a Ulysses-like urban odyssey. In an interview with Jason Oakley in the Visual Artists' News Sheet he described it thus: "My vision was for a pathway through Dublin – along the river from the Custom House through College Green/Temple Bar and to James's Street in venues not ordinarily used for art. And also utilising the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane and the Irish Museum of Modern Art." So far, so good.

That was echoed by Thomas, who referred to Leopold Bloom’s journey through the city, and described the exhibition as “a visual portrait of Dublin”.

But then, we’re told, the theme is actually Silence, evoking John Cage’s iconic composition 4’33”, which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of ambient background noise, and non-activity on the part of the musicians. Thomas, who came up with the theme of silence, said it has occupied a central place in Ireland’s cultural life as far back as the early monastic communities. Yet, she also said the show aims to emphasise not silence per se but the oral, storytelling tradition, as opposed to visual art’s more characteristic emphasis on, as she put it, “visuality”.

Can Dublin Contemporary go ahead without the input of the person who shaped its as yet uncertain identity, the person who is certainly responsible more than anyone else for its existence? Presumably it could go ahead in some form or another. The unpalatable truth may be, though, that Dublin Contemporary shouldn’t just be postponed, it should be cancelled and rethought from the ground up. The evidence so far suggests that it needs a more inclusive, strategic approach than has been evident, with closer involvement from all interested parties – including the main galleries in Dublin and other cultural bodies.