The Office of Public Works’ (OPW) Irish State Art Collection (ISAC), where I work as one of a team of registrars, comprises 14,000 works across painting, print, photography, sculpture, ceramics, glass, installation, video, drawing and textiles. The ISAC is akin to a corporate collection in that the vast majority of artworks (around 90%) are on display rather than in storage. The artworks are located in government offices and other state-owned properties across the country.
The ISAC is part of the greater OPW suite of collections, most of which are contained within many OPW-managed historic properties and national monument sites throughout the country. The OPW – or Board of Works, as it has also been known – was established in 1831 by an Act of Parliament: An Act for the Extension and Promotion of Public Works in Ireland. Since that time, its staff have been the custodians of a growing number of heritage assets, including many artworks. The Art Management Office (AMO) in the OPW was set up in the late 1990s to manage cataloguing the art collection and to take responsibility for the implementation of the OPW’s Percent for Art projects. Since its establishment, the AMO has concentrated on supporting Irish-based artists and the marketplace in which they exhibit. This is done by purchasing contemporary art from exhibitions as well as directly commissioning site-specific projects. The AMO is also involved in commissioning portraits (paintings and sculpture).
In 1978, the OPW introduced the principles of Percent for Art to Ireland. This has developed over the decades into national policy extending to all government departments and local authorities and it has expanded in scope. Under Percent for Art, 1% of capital spending on building, infrastructure and renovation works is allocated to art projects within specific budget limits.
Over the last two years, the AMO has been implementing a new collection management system. This system will eventually consolidate all of the OPW collections, including those of National Historic Properties sites and the many National Monument sites. While they remain separate, amalgamating them under the same digital umbrella enables much greater collaboration between the OPW collection teams. As part of this process, an online portal is being designed, where the public can search for items. It is planned to go live with the first tranche of object records next year.
Another facet to the AMO’s activities is the exhibition programme. Annually since 1991, it has run a series of themed touring exhibitions to showcase to wider audiences (mostly newer) work from the collection. Since 1997, this has been in collaboration with our counterparts in Belfast who manage the Northern Ireland Civil Service Art Collection. The AMO also runs other exhibitions outside of this touring programme, one of which I have curated: ‘Double Estate’, currently running at the Pearse Museum, in St Enda’s Park, Rathfarnham until the end of the year.
Brian Crowley, the museum’s curator, was looking for an exhibition that spoke to the history of St Enda’s, which was home to Patrick Pearse’s Scoil Éanna, an institution he designed to offer “education distinctly Irish in complexion”. It had a strong arts slant to its syllabus and Patrick’s brother William, a professional sculptor, was the art teacher. ‘Double Estate’ is a group exhibition that considers the human form through a selection of over fifty works from the ISAC across print, painting, photography and sculpture. These are offered against the historical backdrop of William Pearse’s figurative sculpture from the collection at St Enda’s and Patrick Pearse’s writing on physical archetypes and how he felt his students should be the embodiment of heroic Celtic ideals. This was exemplified in both Gaelic games and historical drama, activities in which brotherhood was preeminent.
Excepting individual portraits of the Pearse brothers, ‘Double Estate’ is not an exhibition of portraiture, however abstracted. Sitters have been anonymised; historic and religious figures have been reimagined; an air of intangibility pervades and the normal world seems far away. A portrait is more about its named subject than the stylings of its artist: the sitters being the answer to the ‘why’ of an artwork’s creation, rather than the indulgence of the creator and it is this indulgence that we dwell upon in this exhibition. Artists reveal themselves through the collected language of their output. At the other side of this equation is the viewer, looking on and taking in. They react, connect and dwell on imagery that uncovers latent inclinations which can be a surprise to them, the (be)holder.
Art, imagination and the power to create fantasy are all forms of magic. They go beyond instinct and logic to put humans in the ascendency and it is not a stretch to imagine our ancestors holding them sacred. Rock art almost always focused on the animate – on that with a soul – rather than the landscape or object. This sacred, figurative imagery cast a long shadow; the hunters of prehistoric cave paintings present abstracted archetypes which belie the skill of the artists. This duality would come back strongly to the fore in twentieth-century art, when artists, and even entire movements, eschewed realism wholesale. The art of the everyday sacred endured, and over time, the figures were increasingly staged in the tangible world. However, as ‘Double Estate’ demonstrates, it is still common for the environments of figurative art to be little more than ancillary.
That a splintering of what it means to represent the body in the art of the last 100 years (60 of which are covered in this exhibition) has occurred, brings its depiction more into the realm of all our true, varied realities. Likeness is not a question to concern ourselves with in this sense. Instead, it is the likeness of myriad pronouns. We might relate the pictures in this exhibition to ourselves, to those we know and to those we may imagine. We might be repelled or attracted to these, but our eyes will likely linger regardless.
Davey Moor is a Registrar of the Irish State Art Collection at the Office of Public Works.
‘Double Estate’ opened at the Pearse Museum on 25 May and will run until the end of the year. Booking is recommended, as numbers permitted in the museum are small. A 64-page full-colour catalogue, designed by Oonagh Young, accompanies the show and is available free at the museum.