Méabh McMahon speaks to Fiona Kearney, Director of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, about Irish attitudes towards art, the Repeal the 8th campaign, and previous exhibitions at the Glucksman. Ms Kearney has won scores of accolades over her career, including the Jerome Hynes Fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme, which is the highest individual award offered by the Arts Council of Ireland.
As Director of The Glucksman, do you consider UCC students and staff to be your primary audience, or do you reach out to people further afield?
Future, current and past UCC students are perhaps our most important audience – we want to be a place that encourages students to try art as an audience member, or as a creative participant. A recent article on Cork City in Cara Magazine (Aer Lingus In-Flight magazine) was by a UCC student who said she spent most of her time in college at the Glucksman… I’m not sure we are always aiming for that level of cultural commitment! I also know there are lots of students who might never set foot in the building, so in the best possible way the student body challenges us to remain relevant. Of course, we also work with colleagues across all four colleges and encourage teaching in the Glucksman, as well as offering our own PhD accredited module on curating in the public realm for UCC students. I’d like to think that as a public space, we are a place that enables graduates to come back to visit, and if not exactly relive their student years, at least know that they are welcome on campus.
What kind of outreach programmes are The Glucksman engaged with?
We are very committed to wide access to university education, and we do a lot of work with schools, teachers and disadvantaged groups who might not have a tradition of attending university. UCC Students often intern and volunteer with us to support these outreach activities, such as our work with children living in Direct Provision. In some sense the Glucksman beckons people to come through the Main Gates (a bigger barrier than I realised) and see that UCC could be a third–level choice for them. We also do music gigs, screenings, events with student societies, and perhaps even the great coffee in Fresco might help to bring people in to check the art out for themselves!
The Gluckman previously held an exhibition called “Living Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art.” Illness is often a deeply traumatic experience for people and their loved ones. Was it difficult for you, while curating the exhibition, to find pieces that did not inadvertently glamourise illness?
The artist, Jo Spence, took on this very theme in photographs in the exhibition that documented her own experience of breast cancer, and leukemia. She took self-portraits posing as a glamour model with her removed breast clearly in view – it is challenging work for the viewer, but it reminds us to think about illness from the patient’s perspective.
I was very fortunate to work closely on the development of the show with UCC colleagues in Medicine & Health, and I was reminded by Professor Fergus Shanahan not to forget about the rage that the patient feels as well as the sense of dread, loss and relief that accompanies different stages of treatment.
What was the public reaction like to the exhibition?
Well, we’ve all been sick, and I do think the Irish like to lament about their health, so it was certainly a popular topic. It had excellent reviews in the Irish Times and the Sunday Times – we even had a full page in the medical journal The Lancet. Perhaps more importantly, our comments board was full of appreciative notes from people who had been seriously ill or who had relatives and friends that were suffering. The impact of the exhibition continues to reverberate and I think that is not just because of the calibre of the artwork, but also because audiences left with a feeling that their experience of illness was shared and understood. Just the other day I was contacted by a project officer in Headway to let me know about a group of brain injury patients she had brought to see the show, and how one of them, who by his own admission had quite conservative tastes, turned around and told her that he ‘never knew art could be like this’.
There is currently an artists’ campaign to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland. Would you consider becoming part of the campaign?
Yes, I am proud to stand beside the other 2,757 artists who have signed. The Glucksman shop is also proud to stock the Artists Repeal the 8th badges.
There has also been public outcry about the removal of ‘Repeal’ graffiti in Dublin. Should artists be free to express potentially upsetting opinions in public spaces? If so, what about Pro-life messages and artwork?
I wrote to Cian O’Brien, Director of Project Arts Centre to express my support of the Repeal artwork, a centre that has a distinguished history of advocating for social change in Ireland. They received far more expressions of support than complaints, but the mural had to be removed for planning reasons. Artists, like all individuals, are free to express their opinions in public spaces, as long as they do it lawfully. As someone who has had IVF, I found the some of the No campaign posters on the marriage equality referendum very upsetting, but on another level it only deepened my commitment to change. Shock value is overrated I think. Much more compelling is the creativity of some of the repeal and equality campaign actions. For instance the #KnowYourRepealers hashtag on Twitter revealed the breadth and diversity of the voices seeking change.
Speaking of the the role of art in social change, previously you’ve described Belfast and the moment ‘’between the headlines… the uneasy quiet of an all too tenuous peace’’. Do you think art about the Troubles can be used to construct a unifying Northern Irish identity, or will it just continually bring up past traumas?
I think the reason I sometimes write long essays about art is to unpick the many complex issues raised in your questions above. I think that art invites us to consider and inhabit other perspectives, to see things from a different point of view, and perhaps with that, comes understanding. Art is nuanced and its power lies in its ability to be both direct and layered in its meanings.
Given the impact that art can have, do you believe that Ireland is currently attuned to the needs of its artists?
I think that people in Ireland have a great love of the arts and that in general we celebrate & delight in the success of our artists, which helps reinforce a creative identity here and abroad. Unfortunately, the Irish State does not invest enough in the arts, and Ireland is at the bottom of the EU league table for spending on Arts and Culture. We need to change this. The National Campaign for Arts is a grassroots movement that lobbies to protect funding for the arts. It is nonpartisan and does not receive public funding, and yet is at the forefront of supporting art spending both locally and nationally. Check out more about the campaign at ncfa.ie.
There is a lasting perception in Ireland that if you want to be successful in the arts, then you must study and practice outside of the country. Is this accurate?
Ireland has some of the best courses in the creative arts- including UCC – so definitely don’t leave to study, except for Erasmus! I think it is good for all of us working in the arts to experience and learn in other cultures and countries, but that should be for the benefit of your practice and not as the only way to be successful. The state needs to ensure that there are professional opportunities across all artistic disciplines and perhaps we all need to amplify and celebrate the work of artists who live and practice in Ireland
Do you think gender is still a significant factor in determining opportunities for a young artist’s success?
As with most disciplines, the closer you get to the centre of power, the less women are present in decision making roles, so while I have many trailblazing role models, inspiring peers and emerging artists and curators I greatly admire, it is still more difficult for women to succeed professionally, particularly at the highest levels. I’m in awe of the young female artists and curators I see working today, but devastated to hear of the sexism and inherent bias that discriminates against their success. I’m glad to feel an activism and sense of urgency from current students to see change in Ireland, both young women and young men who want to live and work in a more equal state and who support each other as future parents and professionals. I’m optimistic about the future.
What would you say to young Irish artists, or indeed anyone considering getting into that line of work?
I hope you stay with it, stay creative, curious and appreciative of the arts. I think an education in the arts or indeed the humanities, produces people with exceptional critical thinking and imaginative approaches to the world, and that seems a very valuable skill set right now, whatever line of work you eventually choose for yourself.