JONATHAN CARROLL INTERVIEWS ANNA O’SULLIVAN ABOUT THE RELOCATION OF THE BUTLER GALLERY.
The Butler Gallery is moving to a new location after 44 years. The newly repurposed Evans’ Home is the most important addition to Ireland’s visual art infrastructure since the opening of VISUAL in Carlow in 2009. Anna O’Sullivan, Director of the Butler Gallery, who has spearheaded this development, spoke to me about the exciting move and the many challenges involved.
JC: Could you detail your efforts to make the move to the Evans’ Home, a former disused alms house?
Anna O’Sullivan: The journey to realise a new home for the Butler Gallery has been a long one. It has always been a long-term goal of the executive and its board to secure a permanent home for the gallery and its collection. While the Butler Gallery had a great experience in Kilkenny Castle for 44 years, there was never going to be space to facilitate the hanging of our collection. In 2004, a feasibility study was contracted by Butler Gallery, Kilkenny County Council and the Heritage Council to consider different sites around Kilkenny City. In 2005, I moved back to Ireland after 23 years working in the arts in New York City to take up my post as director. I had input on the feasibility study before it was delivered. Following a funding application to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Butler Gallery was awarded €2 million. This significant grant was our seed money and calling card to raise further funds.
In 2008, the Butler Gallery was given the Evans’ Home by the local authority to develop and relocate. This building is located right in the centre of Kilkenny City, behind the Carnegie Library, and overlooks the River Nore. This move to a building of great heritage value promises to hugely increase our offer, allowing us to expand our organisation’s output and sustainability for the future. We will be combining the histories and stories from the Evans’ Home site, with the long and rich history of the Butler Gallery. It is an important milestone for Kilkenny that this long-forgotten building is being brought back to life and transformed into a welcoming cultural space for the city’s inhabitants and visitors to enjoy.
Kilkenny County Council and the Butler Gallery went through the process of Public Procurement with 77 expressions of interest and shortlisted seven renowned architectural firms. The highly-regarded McCullough Mulvin Architects were appointed as Design Team leaders in 2009. The firm commenced design work and surveying in 2010 and there followed quite a few years of Part 8 Planning and two archaeological digs. The project was further delayed due to a change in administration in both the Kilkenny County Council and Fáilte Ireland. In 2017, the Council received a hard-won grant of €1.14 million from Fáilte Ireland towards the capital build. Various companies tendered for the job, which was eventually awarded to Mythen Construction Ltd. Sod turning happened in May 2018 and construction and refurbishment began in June 2018 with an opening date scheduled for 2020. A further €3 million came from Kilkenny County Council, without which this project would never have been realised. The Butler Gallery is in the midst of a three-year Fundraising Plan to raise an additional €250,000. We have raised over €115,000 towards the fit-out of the building and continue with our plan to raise necessary funds for staffing and programming into the future.
JC: I attended one of the fundraising events where you auctioned artworks, donated by artists with connections to the Butler Gallery. Can you discuss the initiative of including your ‘artist alumni’ in your fundraising plans?
AO’S: The Butler Gallery has continually sought to be a platform for presenting the best of Irish art today and our artist alumni have played an important part in this development. We don’t exist without the work of these artists, so I did a call out to past exhibiting artists and those who have had a strong association with the gallery over the years, for some much-needed help. We offered various commission options to the artists in the event of a sale, or to donate the work outright to our New Build Fundraising Campaign. I knew that this was going to be a very special ask on our behalf and was hugely gratified and moved by the response and generosity of so many of the artists we have worked with over the years. Many of these artists would have had their first major solo exhibition at the Butler Gallery and were really supportive in wanting to help out. In 2019, we did a September sale at Whyte’s Auctioneers in Dublin and a November sale in Kilkenny Castle and both proved of immense assistance to our campaign. In addition, we were successful in getting through to the Tier 1 level of the RAISE initiative run by the Arts Council of Ireland. Through this, we have gained a Development Director for the first time in our history. Rebecca Reynolds has been with us since April 2019 and has been a great addition to the team in developing our fundraising and marketing plans and activities, including our corporate sponsorship outreach, expanding our Friends Programme and in helping us to develop a more robust and sustainable earned income stream.
JC: The Butler Gallery is known for its bespoke solo exhibitions which suited the particularities of the space in the medieval Kilkenny Castle, or as you describe it on your website, “a contemporary space within a non-contemporary setting”. Now with the move to a space ten times the size, what curatorial challenges will you be faced with?
AO’S: We continue to be a contemporary space within a non-contemporary setting. The overall building is 1,000m2 and the Main Gallery for temporary exhibitions is 100m2 with a height of almost 6 metres. We now have a separate Learning Centre and Digital Gallery to facilitate our additional programming needs. We have seven galleries on the first floor which are dedicated to highlighting works from our collection of important 20th century Irish art and The O’Malley Collection. We are honoured to have been entrusted to caretake the artworks of Kilkenny-born artist Tony O’Malley, donated to us by his wife, Jane O’Malley. The extra space reduces our challenges, in accommodating our extensive programme. The main gallery space can be separated with four individual moveable walls. This was something I fought hard for from the start, as I wanted this space to be as flexible as possible for artists. I also wanted us to be able to recreate some of the intimacy we have had in the basement of Kilkenny Castle. We will continue our Open Submission process and hope to advertise for exhibition slots in our 2022/23 programming before the end of the year.
JC: Can you mention the opening exhibitions and any plans for showcasing the permanent collection?
AO’S: Our opening exhibition is entitled ‘The Bloods’, by the renowned photographer Amelia Stein, who has been photographing the Defence Forces of Ireland for several years, focusing on the men and women of the James Stephens Barracks here in Kilkenny. In addition, this body of work pays tribute to one of the Evans’ Home previous uses as a military barracks. It will act as an important opening exhibition for the Butler Gallery and for the people of Kilkenny. This exhibition is followed in late October by our third collaboration with Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, ‘Wolfwalkers: The Exhibition’, based on their new animated feature, which will be released during this time. This interactive and immersive exhibition will highlight the strengths and messages of the Wolfwalkers film, whose story is based in medieval Kilkenny and includes core working drawings and backgrounds. We had two other exhibitions planned for this opening year, but what with delays in sign-off for getting into the building and COVID-19 lockdown, they have had to be postponed until 2021.
The Butler Gallery Collection has flourished over the decades and reflects the broad character of art collecting in Ireland since the gallery’s establishment in 1943. The Collection consists of artworks purchased, donated or on long-term loan, including work by Louis le Brocquy, Evie Hone, Paul Henry, Mainie Jellett, Patrick Scott and many more wonderful Irish artists. Having a home for these works and being able to rotate the collection in seven galleries – four for the Butler Gallery Collection and three for The O’Malley Collection – is very exciting for us. I know that our longstanding supporters will be very keen to see the collection in its new setting. Our first collection exhibition will revisit beloved favourites, showcase new acquisitions and introduce new long-term loans. This selection reflects the broad character of the collection itself and embraces a variety of genres from painting, drawing and printmaking, to photography and media works.
JC: Do you have plans for the grounds that surround the Evans’ Home?
AO’S: We are fortunate to have such great outdoor space and the gardens will play a significant role for the gallery, especially in our current COVID-19 scenario. We have an archaeology garden, a sculpture garden, a children’s garden, a wildflower garden and a small orchard for visitors to explore. The garden as a whole follows a simple, elegant, bee-friendly scheme and all the planting will become established over the coming months. With its outdoor seating area, our café offers visitors a place to enjoy views of medieval St John’s Priory at their leisure. From the first-floor windows of Butler Gallery you can see the iconic landmarks of medieval Kilkenny: Kilkenny Castle, the Medieval Mile Museum at the former St Mary’s Church and the burgage plots of the merchant city. The sculpture garden includes works by Janet Mullarney, Alan Counihan and Ani Mollereau. This garden will be ever-evolving, with additional sculptural works added over time. So, as you can see, there are lots of plans afoot, with Butler Gallery offering something for everyone with an interest in the arts and heritage.
Jonathan Carroll is an independent curator based in Dublin.
Anna O’Sullivan is Director of the Butler Gallery.