Journey Through the Centuries
KIRSTIE NORTH INTERVIEWS MARY MCCARTHY ABOUT HER NEW ROLE AS DIRECTOR OF CRAWFORD ART GALLERY, CORK.
Kirstie North: Congratulations on becoming the new director of the Crawford Art Gallery. I think all of us in Cork were delighted when we heard that you had been appointed. What first attracted you to the Crawford?
Mary McCarthy: Well I’m now three months into the job, but a lot of things attracted me to Crawford. The first is its potential, because it really has a very important legacy in the city, and nationally in terms of presenting shows of contemporary art and shows of the collection which are culturally very significant. These are shows that have a very particular accent and that look in a different direction; the organisation is grounded in its location in Cork, but it has amazing international connections. When it was founded in 1884, parts of the building had been here since the 1730s, so it’s an organisation with a lot of history. What attracted me to the post is the potential to connect those worlds – the realm of the collection and contemporary artistic responses – and the responsibility that this organisation has to both aspects.
KN: As you say, Crawford is quite unique in Cork and nationally, in terms of its history, collection and contemporary programme. Can you tell me a little bit about your short-term plans for the gallery?
MM: Yes, well I’ve arrived! We are working on a strategic plan that will establish a set of parameters for us all to work towards and benchmark where we want to go. That is quite a consultative process internally, with some external stakeholders. It will be a three-year plan, because we will be recalibrating physically in the next five to ten years. The board, the staff and I are all very committed to bringing this building up to standard. It needs investment to better facilitate visitor experience and artist experience alike. As we have three buildings from three different periods, there is significant work that needs to be done on the fabric of this site. We have the old customs house, where the restaurant is, which was built in 1734 while the building that houses the sculpture gallery and west wing originates from the 1830s. Then there is the most recent building, which was once a courtyard, built between 1998 and 2000. It’s very exciting to be a part of the new build, as the site will span four centuries. It’s a huge challenge to make sure that we create something that is of its time, but something that also enhances the legibility of these three existing sites. So short-term plans are quite externally focused, as we are looking at our visitor experience and how audiences navigate these spaces. Something I hadn’t really thought about as much when I took up the position, perhaps naively, is that the galleries are actually really busy. We have over 200,000 visitors a year and this figure is rising. We are now open seven days a week. This year, there were 20,000 visitors in the month of May alone. It’s a big social space in the heart of the city.
We also have a very strong programme of exhibitions over the next 24 months and we need to look at what resources we will need to support these ambitions, especially in terms of staffing, as we are a small team. Another key vision of mine and the team’s is that we collaborate more. We have done this very quickly with Sirius on the Brian O’ Doherty Project, and we are collaborating with the Midsummer Festival on a whole range of events that are not simply visual art events. These will bring in different audiences and facilitate different experiences of the building which is much more than just a gallery because of its heritage. For example, the extraordinary library is an example of how the histories of these spaces and their former functions are still present and are of real interest to our artists and our public. We probably need to start telling that story, either digitally online, or somehow discretely through our visitor experience.
KN: Perhaps also through artist commissions?
MM: Yes absolutely, artists very often want to go beneath the surface of the galleries and I’d like to provide resources for artists to have a longer lead-in to shows. I think that Crawford has always had a good relationship with contemporary artists, enabling artists to make shows for this building, and helping to stretch artistic practice. I’m keen to support younger artists through a number of rolling projects, rather than just big exhibitions. There will be new rooms for this, where artists can test out new ideas, so we want to support this type of risk-taking that pushes an artist’s practice. Also, in previous times, Crawford played a significant role in touring Irish artists’ work. For example, the exhibition, ‘0044: Contemporary Irish Art in Britain’, was a big show of Irish artists’ work which toured to PS1 in New York in 1999. So, Crawford’s legacy as an advocate for Irish artists is really important. We have a distinct voice, as we look to other Atlantic port cities for historic connections between Cork and London, Boston or New York; it makes sense to look at those points of resonance.
KN: So, in terms of long-term plans, you mentioned the expansion. Do you have an idea of what is going into that space yet, and how the new Crawford Art Gallery will eventually look?
MM: That’s a really interesting question, and one I asked immediately when I started. The answer is that it’s not yet fully formed. There are different options, but I think the masterplan is to restore the fabric of these existing buildings, to improve the wayfinding systems, but to restore them sensitively so that you still feel you are transitioning through the centuries. Our challenge is to make sure that we don’t lose the feeling of this very special place where you can have this intimate experience with art that is not over-monitored or over-monetised. By reconfigurating this building, for example, by having storage in the middle, we will have to take artworks into temporary storage off-site for a longer-term. The new-build that we are considering will be a tall structure at the rear of the site, where the lecture hall and restaurant is currently located. This new structure would house new administration spaces, so that the team can be in one space, as currently they are not and this has a detrimental effect on communication between staff. Excitingly, the explore and learn section of the gallery, which is very important to us, will have a central space within this new structure. The collection will also be housed here, in a new environmentally controlled space. It is desirable that there will be several galleries of a really exquisite scale; they won’t be huge, but they will be quite simple spaces, perhaps for singular artworks, large-scale work, digital works or work-spaces. Then there is the potential to have more spaces like the restaurant, offering coffee-pods and more rest-points for visitors as they move through the galleries. We also need to consider how we interact with the urban environment. At the moment there is one entrance; we would envisage a much bigger entrance, and potentially more than one, creating a much more open engagement with the heart of the city. The real challenge is how we engage materially and architecturally with the existing three sites. The quality of Irish architects is exceptional and their investment in the culture of this place leaves me with no doubt that this will be achievable. The real challenge for us is the pre-brief and getting this right. That’s why we are doing the two projects together, the refurb and the new-build, so we can see the space overall. Studio spaces are an option too. There used to be studio spaces here and these are on the plan at the moment. We would like to encourage research and to have artists onsite.
KN: I’ve seen that format work well in other galleries – having studios and spaces for research onsite.
MM: Yes, absolutely, and we get a lot of research requests from people who want to view the collection. We have a breadth of really interesting and seminal works from bequests and there are certain works that we might not have on display that people want to see. Sometimes we have researchers coming internationally who want to study an artwork, and at the minute that’s a little cumbersome – we would like that to be easier, to encourage live research on the collection. Artists and the public do not see the world as a separation of the historic and the contemporary, so we need to encourage this dialogue between past and present to create natural points of contact. It doesn’t have to be a curatorial agenda, its more about how these two parts of the house are activated together. We are going to embark on a whole programme called ‘activating the collection’ to unearth ways in which we can display three or four works, over an extended period, giving a whole new range of contextual information on those works. There are some really fascinating stories, such as how the Canova casts arrived from London, and how Sean Keating’s Men of the South (1921–2) was bought directly from the artist in the 1920s.
KN: This reminds me of how works from a historic collection and contemporary art can really activate one another as they did at EVA International this year. Sean Keating’s Night Candles Are Burnt Out, 1927, become a centrifugal point for contemporary art in a way that I thought was very affective.
MM: Yes, and sometimes these narratives are not necessarily linear for artists, they are more contextual I think. It will be exciting to look behind what we have. There are amazing stories surrounding our works and, in some cases, women behind those works. Take John Lavery’s painting The Red Rose (1923), (or Lady Lavery’s Rose), for instance. We recently did a whole restoration on The Red Rose and we know that there are lots of other faces beneath the surface, so the number of women, literally, who are behind that canvas is amazing. These are the things that I think will be interesting to escalate; the compelling stories that we already have.
KN: What excites you the most about becoming director of the Crawford gallery?
MM: For me, it’s just about being around art every day. I don’t take that privilege lightly. In terms of what there is to do, I am excited and deeply challenged by the new capital development. I am aware, and the institution is aware, of the responsibility within the many regulations and frameworks, to deliver something really great, something strikingly different and bold.
Kirstie North is an art historian and independent curator who lectures at University College Cork.
Phillip Toledano, from the photographic series Maybe, 2015; © Phillip Toledano. Shown as part of the exhibition, ‘Phillip Toledano Maybe: Life & Love’, in Crawford’s Lower Gallery (16 March – 24 June 2018).
Dragana Jurisic, 100 Muses, 2015, © the artist; courtesy of Caoimhe Lavelle. Shown as part of the exhibition, ‘Naked Truth: The Nude in Irish Art’, Crawford Art Gallery (13 July – 28 October).
Robert Fagan, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia, c.1801, oil on canvas © Private Collection. Shown as part of the exhibition, ‘Naked Truth: The Nude in Irish Art’, Crawford Art Gallery (13 July – 28 October).