For 200 years, it might have been possible to imagine that the world’s great art museums reflected the most significant art of their eras. If you happened to be wealthy, white and titled, that might even have been true. But the likes of the Louvre in Paris, and the National Gallery in London, which opened in 1793 and 1824 respectively, were founded on the collections of kings, queens and the otherwise ennobled, and their art habits lent themselves to owning a certain kind of stuff.
That skewed our ideas of art, as the works that survive are the ones that have been collected. Equally, those who value art through the scales of price and prestige find themselves drawn to a core body of art made by those lucky enough to thrive at the heart of wealth and power — usually, until now, white men. In that sense, museums are always museums of themselves, reflecting the elite standards of particular eras, and proving that art isn’t actually eternal, but a symptom of each age.
Today there is a certain rebalancing, as museums and galleries have been forced to face up to the inequalities of past eras. But that brings the conundrums of how far you should shape taste through your own choices as a curator. To put it another way, if you’re tasked with acquiring works by artists who weren’t valued at the time, how much are you conferring value through the lens of your own ethics? The “value” question is also significant in more ways than one, as being collected by a national institution raises the price of an artist’s work.
These questions will be on the minds of the curators and directors of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), and the Crawford Art Gallery, as the Minister for Arts (and lots of other things) Catherine Martin has just announced a fund of €1.5 million to be shared between the two institutions. The fund is to be used specifically for purchasing works in new media, and on issues including climate change, diversity and global migration.
‘My son just remains in his room, very angry, always complaining of tiredness, eating junk, no sunlight, and just coding all day long’
The fund builds on the €1 million provided to IMMA and the Crawford in 2020, which was then aimed at addressing the gaps in their collections due to the recession. While one might be tempted to wonder if a series of empty rooms might best have reflected the zeitgeist of Ireland’s economic collapse, the initiative was hugely beneficial to artists, adding 422 works to the National Collection by 70 artists, including Bassam Al-Sabah, Amanda Coogan, Eithne Jordan, Alice Maher and Atoosa Pour Hosseini.
So what might today’s new funding bring? When it comes to climate change, Irish artists are at the vanguard of engagement. From Ruth Le Gear’s Arctic investigations to Séamus Dunbar’s explorations of fracking, Christine Mackey’s seed bank works, to Siobhan McDonald’s studies of our changing landscapes, there is a true wealth of material for the curators to explore.
The Lay of the Land collective has been exploring the issues over the past years, while Creative Ireland has been supporting artists addressing climate change, including Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly’s solar powered Eco Showboat, touring Ireland this summer. As John Gerrard’s LED Flare (Oceania) 2022 rises above the harbour at the Galway International Arts Festival in July, it might mean that museums can actually catch up with what matters most to many artists working today.
The Galway International Arts Festival runs from July 11-14th; giaf.ie
Find Eco Showboat at schooloflooking.org, and see also layoftheland.ie