The Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Bernard O’ Rourke talks about the Irish Museum of Modern Art…

An imposing seventeenth century building, the former Royal Hospital at Kilmainham is now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art – IMMA. The building itself has come to reflect its purpose, and visitors will find the magnificent piece of past architecture, complete with formal facade and elegant courtyard, surrounded by examples of modern sculpture. Flanking the main door is a slightly demonic 15 foot rabbit beating a drum.

IMMA was opened by then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in May 1991, with the intention of providing a service that was previously missing in Ireland: a national institution for the presentation and collection of modern and contemporary art. In its early years, under the direction of Declan McGonagle, the focus was on developing a completely new kind of museum, one which could constantly display innovative exhibitions which had never been seen before. Central to the goal of the museum was a visitor centred ethos, which led to innovative developments such as the National Programme and the Education Programme.

IMMA’s National Programme was majorly innovative for the time, sharing the collection with galleries in the city, but also around the country and in the North. For the past 13 years IMMA has worked with relatively modest institutions (not only galleries but also hospitals, schools, and community groups) lending them artwork and helping to install it so that the work is displayed at the very highest standard.

IMMA was thrown into chaos in 2000 when McGonagle came to the end of his second term in office, leaving the museum with little direction. It was February 2003 before the issue was finally resolved and Enrique Juncosa was appointed IMMA’s second director.  Juncosa took a very different approach to McGonagle, moving to develop the permanent collection at IMMA, something McGonagle had largely ignored. When IMMA started, McGonagle believed that this new kind of museum did not need to rely on a collection.

Institutions such as Bank of Ireland donated significant collections of works, taking advantage of the Tax Relief Scheme enshrined in the 1997 Taxes Consolidation Act, which grants the donator’s tax credits to the value of the donated work.

As well as developing the collection, Juncosa attempted to make the museum work through an international network, in order to collaborate with other international institutions abroad. Juncosa also took a personal interest in improving the quality and quantity of the publications at IMMA, and has personally written the foreword for many of these during his time there. He also continued the work done by McGonagle with the National Programme and the Educational Programmes, increasing the viability and accessibility of these programmes.

For Juncosa, 2011 is doubly important. The whole year is being dedicated to the celebration of IMMA’s twentieth anniversary, but it is also the final year of Juncosa’s directorship. To mark his time at IMMA, Juncosa began the year with a programme that celebrates Irish modern art in a truly comprehensive way. ‘The Moderns’ draws heavily on the permanent collection built up by Juncosa, but also draws on outside loans to present what Juncosa has described as “a historical narrative” of modern Irish art.

The exhibition begins in the early 1900s (borrowing work from the National Gallery of Ireland and others) as this provides an important context for everything that came afterwards. Context at the forefront of ‘The Moderns’ and Juncosa has done a lot to integrate as much contextual information as possible, presenting film and photography alongside more traditional forms of art.

Currently showing at IMMA is the exhibition of the paintings of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the husband and wife modernists from Mexico. International exhibitions such as this are of huge importance to Juncosa: “Modernism was very international.” In light of this, Juncosa has attempted to run “a very international programme”.

In the case of Kahlo and Rivera, says Juncosa: “they are very famous twentieth century artists, so it doesn’t really matter where they are from. Mexico was a very important cultural centre in the 1940s. After the war a lot of people immigrated there, not only from Spain but from all over Europe. A lot of well known artists ended up there.”

While Rivera was already famous in the 1940s, he and his wife “have become almost icons today, Frida even more so than him [Diego]. Her style of feminism and art relating to the body became very prominent in the 1960s and 1970s”.

In May, IMMA will hold the main celebration of its anniversary, timed to coincide with its date of opening. The celebration centres on an exhibition called ‘Twenty’. It will feature 20 Irish artists, some with an international profile and others with less status. This, according to Juncosa, is “to show the commitments of the museum to developing new talent” and the real point of ‘Twenty’ is to show some work that has never been seen alongside more famous pieces.

As well as ‘Twenty’ there will also be special events running every week in the month of May. These will include a series of performances, encompassing contemporary music, contemporary dance, and poetry readings. When the celebrations end for IMMA, there will be more serious issues to deal with, like appointing a replacement for Juncosa. This is made difficult by the fact that IMMA cannot officially hire any new staff without approval from the Department of Finance under the embargo on creating new public sector jobs.

Perhaps it is fortunate then that IMMA will be closing its doors for 14 months from November 2011 until January 2013 for necessary refurbishment work. The historic building is in dire need of improvements to the lighting, security and fire systems. However, according to Juncosa, this closure will also serve another purpose, as any new director “will need a period of one or two years to decide how to deliver the new programme”.

On his departure, Juncosa thinks that it is necessary: “I don’t think a director of a museum should be there for 30 years, that’s a bad idea. I think it is more exciting if you know you will only work there for seven or eight years. You will try to do all you can in this time.”

Thus, for Juncosa, the appointment of a new director (when it occurs), and the refurbishment of the gallery, are necessary actions for a renewal of IMMA’s commitment to its goals. No matter how much economic trouble the country is in, the shutdown of this space would be unthinkable. “The idea that a European country would have to close its museums, that’s a major disaster. It would be like not having roads. They are needed by people. That is why I think the future is kind of safe.”

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