Careers in the arts: National Gallery of Ireland curator Sarah McAuliffe

Libby Phillips speaks with the curator about collaboration, diversity, and reaching modern audiences

To the untrained eye wandering through the halls of a gallery, one may be unlikely to consider why a painting is hung where it is. In fact, there is a myriad of questions posed when considering exhibition design. This is one of the many jobs a curator has at an institute such as the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). Sarah McAuliffe, a curatorial fellow at NGI, explained that “A curator has a wide range of interesting tasks and responsibilities from researching, planning and executing exhibitions to sourcing potential acquisitions for the Gallery and updating information on works within the permanent collection.” McAuliffe first became involved in curation at an internship during her master’s degree in University College Cork. Since then, she has worked in a variety of positions in the museum sector until recently gaining her current role at the Gallery.

Curatorial work is highly collaborative; McAuliffe works with every department in the Gallery, as well as with artists themselves. Any difficulties this may present, though, are faced head on by McAuliffe: “I think the only challenge is on oneself – when working with a living artist you strive, as you would for any other artist, to present their work in the best way possible for both them and the Gallery.” Artists typically have their own reasons for why their art should be framed or presented in a particular way, so McAuliffe finds hearing the anecdotes and stories behind their decision making and the subjects they depict especially interesting. What is really special about working with living artists is that “you can record their experiences for generations to come.” 

“McAuliffe said as a curator it is important… to always consider the question, “what can we expect people to learn from this exhibition?””

However, the Gallery also has works from as early as the 14th century. McAuliffe finds no less excitement in dealing with these pieces, though: “When it comes to working with more historical pieces, I love the element of surprise and by this I mean the occasional moments when you discover something new about a work that has already been investigated and written about extensively. I work with pieces dating as far back as the 15th century that are still revealing hidden stories and secrets of their making.” Whether it be modern or historical art, there is always something to be intrigued by at the Gallery. 

Currently, McAuliffe is working to ensure that the Dublin institution can reach modern audiences with its new exhibits. “There are no real restrictive limits on what qualifies as art,” she said of their newest exhibit View of Ireland: Collecting Photography. The exhibit, which will remain up until 2 February 2020, “explores the history of photography in an Irish context with works by Irish and international photographers,” which McAuliffe said viewers will find particularly interesting when seen exhibited together. A photography exhibition was a risk due to the fact it has not always been accepted as fine art, said McAuliffe, but “The Gallery works very hard to encourage audiences to consider such practices as a valid art form.” 

“Curating is not just about putting on exhibitions, it requires a lot of research and the ability to propose and introduce new acquisitions…”

McAuliffe was certainly in praise of photography, especially that in View of Ireland, for its ability to reach a broad audience. She expressed that the Gallery has already had visitors excitedly recognising places and buildings from 1960s Dublin in the pieces, and viewers are asked to come forward if they recognize anyone in the photographs. McAuliffe believes that photography is accessible to a much broader audience now because it is so present in our daily lives and “so immediate”: “If we can bridge the perceived gap between documentary photography and art photography then we are achieving what we’ve set out to do.” Although photography does find a place alongside fine art, the form is unique in its ability to connect with viewers on a personal level and reflect the lives of everyday people, something visitors of the Gallery are sure to appreciate. 

On a similar note, McAuliffe is enthusiastic for View of Ireland to kick-start a focus for her on the travelling community. She emphasised the role of female photographers in working to represent a community that is seldom seen in visual art institutions, saying: “Diversity is a key concept to all exhibitions.” This extends to both subject matter and audience. Another exhibit McAuliffe is involved with is the Zurich Portrait Prize exhibition. After 342 entries this year, the twenty-six shortlisted artists are currently on display until January, including entries of the Zurich Young Portrait Prize. Some of the most enjoyable artworks come from the six & under and seven-11 age categories. In McAuliffe’s words, “They see the world in such different ways and it’s important to give them a place to be seen and heard, as well.”

“She believes that at its core, art is subjective and museums have a duty to honour that by making sure their exhibits appeal to as many people as possible.”

Putting these exhibits together is no easy task. McAuliffe is relatively new to the Gallery team and said she has learned the valuable lesson that “curating is not just about putting on exhibitions, it requires a lot of research and the ability to propose and introduce new acquisitions to the Gallery’s collection.” McAuliffe said as a curator it is important to always approach projects with passion and energy, and to always consider the question, “what can we expect people to learn from this exhibition?” In that vein, curatorial work is not insular. McAuliffe meets with an education team early on in the planning stages for an exhibition to ensure that the space is curated to be accessible to individuals of all ages. In putting together View of Ireland, McAuliffe spoke of the decision-making process for labelling the art. With over 100 photographs, not every photo could be labelled due to concerns of overwhelming viewers. Additionally, McAuliffe has a commitment to guaranteeing audiences could “make up their own mind about what it is they’re seeing.” She believes that at its core, art is subjective and museums have a duty to honour that by making sure their exhibits appeal to as many people as possible. 

You can see View of Ireland and the Zurich Portrait Prize exhibitions on view at the National Gallery of Ireland now. Additionally, McAuliffe’s third project, Moment in Time: A Legacy of Photographs | Works from the Bank of America Collection, will be open to the public on 30 November. This exhibit will focus on multiple themes such as “art photography, people, documentary, urban and nature,” presented over nearly 120 photographs. As you spend time in the Gallery, consider not only the artwork, but how it is being displayed and the people, like McAuliffe, who have worked to make it available to you. Ultimately, the curator can be seen as a translator between the art world and its audiences. Curators can be incredibly influential in how we, as viewers, understand art. Therefore,  it is important, as McAuliffe has emphasised, to appreciate when they account for broad and diverse audiences.