Could you tell me something about the gallery’s relationship with Trinity College, and how it came to be on campus?
Michael: Originally the gallery was set up by genetics professor George Dawson. He collected art and tried to get it shown in the college, because there was no gallery in the college, or really in the country that was showing much contemporary art at that point [circa 1959]. The exhibitions were originally shown in the basement of the Berkeley library. He got a permanent gallery space in the college, and started having exhibitions. Then they built this extension to the arts building, specifically as a gallery. In the beginning the exhibitions were chosen by a committee of staff and students. Over time the gallery got into difficulty financially, so the arts council stepped in. Now Trinity provides the space, and the Arts Council provides a contribution for the exhibition programme and for operating costs.
It’s in an unusual space; when you’re walking through the permanently busy corridor and you look in here, it’s like a whole different world. Do you think that the gallery benefits from its location?
Michael: Yeah, it’s kind of nice because it bridges the gap, literally, between the city and college… It’s a way of drawing the public into the college.
Rachel: We get a lot of people coming in who are here specifically to visit the Book of Kells, and they see our sign and that attracts them to come in here as well, so that’s a benefit of our location here. I think that works both ways, it’s really good for Trinity to have a good contemporary art gallery. Other universities are doing it, like the Glucksman in Cork [the Glucksman Gallery is on the campus of UCC]. I think it’s something that universities would aspire to have.
Michael: When international artists exhibit in this gallery, often it’s the first time they have been seen in Ireland. I think it’s quite good to bring a different sort of cultural awareness, through knowledge of what artists are doing around the world, to the university.
We get a lot of people coming in who are here specifically to visit the Book of Kells, and they see our sign and that attracts them to come in here as well, so that’s a benefit of our location here.
Being here day to day, do you notice much engagement from students themselves with the gallery? Do you think its something students are interested in?
Rachel: The Visual Arts Society come in a lot, especially this year. They come in for tours of new exhibitions. It used to be more infrequent but this past year they’ve been coming in for every show. That’s really good, they’re always really engaged and interested. But I did feel like when I went to college here, it wasn’t emphasised to us.
Michael: Something we’re trying to do more regularly is our Gallery 3 project, which is a project that takes place outside of this building, on campus. It’s a way of engaging with different kinds of audiences. Usually it takes on an unobtrusive format, so people might encounter art installations or performances just by going about their daily journey.
What was the Gallery 3 project this year?
Michael: It was in June or July, and it was two quite young artists from Dublin, Ruth Clinton and Niamh Moriarty. They did a really interesting project in the Old Library, the Berkeley library, the Museum Building, and a few outside areas around this kind of circular route. People came and picked up a map and instructions from here and then went on this trail. There was a fictional narrative, a conversation between different departments, about the idea of Trinity and the archives, the books in the library being this really substantial idea of knowledge and permanence, but mixed in with conservation elements. The stone gradually deteriorates all the time, and the books too, the paper and the ink…
Rachel: It was great, really interesting. I think Ruth had done her masters research in the library archives, so she had a lot of information about and connection with the place.
Does the gallery have a specific focus, perhaps on international artists, Irish artists, or certain types of art?
Rachel: It started off with an international focus. It was one of the only galleries in Dublin showing contemporary artwork at the time that it opened , so the focus was on major international artists. As the years went by and other places opened up, such as IMMA, it became more focused, and a lot of the artists now would be people who maybe haven’t shown in Ireland before, or have been overlooked, or haven’t yet become well known, outsider artists. Then we also have a lot of ethnographic and craft things in Gallery 2.
What is the motivation behind the focus on ethnographic and craft exhibitions in Gallery 2?
Michael: So me and Rachel are the two full-time staff and then there’s the director, John Hutchinson. He’s interested in drawing connections between contemporary art and things which aren’t really considered of value in the art world – for example craft and ethnographic artefacts and objects, which often have a great spiritual or sacred value placed upon them in their own cultures. They can act as a way of developing parallels and contrasts with contemporary art
What is the process by which exhibitions come to be put on here? How do you find artists, and arrange the programme?
Michael: We’re funded by the arts council, so we have to put in an application every year. From very far in advance, about 18 months, we have to have a very clear outline of what we’ll be doing. We try to have a very consistent programme over the course of each twelve month period where the exhibitions relate to each other, not just in Gallery 1 and 2 but sequentially. There are two main strands to the audience: tourists who pop in on the spur of the moment, and a very regular body of art professionals or art students from different colleges… those repeat visits are really important to us because people get a lot from the connections between the different artists over the year. In terms of selection, the director does a lot of research, and talks to artists for recommendations. But once the concept for the year is slotted in place, it becomes much easier.
Often I wander in and feel a bit confused, so it’s interesting to know there is a theme being consciously developed. What was the theme or concept this year that connected the shows?
Rachel: We had a lot of artists who worked with modest materials and everyday things, things that maybe don’t have much value. For example in Peter Gallo’s paintings [showing at the time of the interview] you can see lots of things, like dental floss, all mixed in with the paint.
It’s really interesting actually, because you encounter the entire exhibition from above before you go down and see the individual artworks. You get a sense of the entire show and how things interrelate to each other, and the scale of things.
Michael: It’s an idea about austerity, using ordinary things in special ways or contexts. The Mongolian folk drawings [exhibited in Gallery 2 alongside Gedi Sibony in Gallery 1 last spring] were just kind of scraps and fragments, things that could have just been discarded, but they’ve got this significance or internal value that means that they’ve been preserved and kept.
The Arts Building is quite striking and the gallery, although an extension, was designed by the same architect in the same style. Could you tell me something about how the physical space affects the art you show and your arrangement of it?
Michael: It’s really interesting actually, because you encounter the entire exhibition from above before you go down and see the individual artworks. You get a sense of the entire show and how things interrelate to each other, and the scale of things. That means it’s really important when you’re hanging the work to build relationships between the pieces. The scale of the place means we can show quite large artworks, but they still look relatively small because of the height of the walls. So we make a lot of use of white space. Up close, you get the one-on-one experience of the artwork as well.
Could you tell me what your exhibition highlight of 2014 was?
Michael: My favourite was the Peter Gallo exhibition. I just think it’s really honest and kind of upfront, you can tell he has his heart on his sleeve. He’s confronting quite difficult subject matter in a very intuitive and caring way. It’s quite different to some of the posturing and posing you might see in other artwork. He has no agenda apart from trying to work out what’s going through his head, and I think that’s great.
Rachel: I think mine was the Giorgio Griffa show. He paints colours directly onto canvas and linen, then when he’s finished he just pulls them up and hangs them on the wall, and you can see all the lines and the creases where he’s folded them. I just found there to be something really relaxing, elegant and beautiful about them.
So you’ve got exhibitions by Mairead O’hEocha and Niamh O’Malley, two Irish artists, that opened in December. Was there a reason for starting off the year with these shows?
Michael: Niamh O’Malley’s work is kind of monochrome, and visually I think it suits the winter. It’s quite delicate and fragile, yet hard-edged in a way so it really does suit the time of year, but it’s not specific to that, it just worked out that way!
Shows by Niamh O’Malley and Mairead O’hEocha run until 25th February.