RHA renaissance

Siobhán Power on the re-opening of the Royal Hibernian Academy on Ely Place

Siobhán Power on the re-opening of the Royal Hibernian Academy on Ely Place

The Royal Hibernian Academy has finally reopened its doors to the public after a year of refurbishments,
and much has changed in the gallery on Ely Place. Bigger and better than ever before, the R.H.A has re-launched itself, getting underway with its 178th Annual Exhibition showing a staggering 550 works from a mixture of established and up-and-coming artists of all disciplines.

The R.H.A has been an integral part of the Irish arts for many years. It is an organisation
run by artists from a wide range of specialities, including Painting, Sculpture, Photography, and even Architecture, for the promotion and education of budding and established Irish artists, giving them a platform
to exhibit their work to the public. As well as this the R.H.A tries to introduce international
artists to the Irish Art scene.

The Academy has come a long way since its establishment in 1823. After its Lower Abbey St premises burned down in the Easter
Rising the gallery was left homeless until 1939, when it moved to its present location at 15 Ely Place. Plans to renovate the ill-suited
spot had been trying to get of the ground since the 1970’s and after many false starts it has finally been achieved.
When compared to the dull and outdated
building that was there before, the overhaul is even more impressive than expected.

The new exterior is fresh and clean, clad with smooth white Portuguese limestone
with The Royal Hibernian Academy’s name standing out against a panel of green glass. A glass porch houses a small unassuming
bookshop and a new café run by the renowned Unicorn restaurant.
The asymmetrical entrance hall leads into a bright two storey atrium space in the centre of the building. Natural light floods in from a double height window wall, and a stairway descends from the first floor down to the atrium. This large airy space leading off into the Ashford gallery is a far cry from the disjointed and badly laid out interior of the former building. In the vast Charles Gallagher
gallery on the first floor the removal of the old main staircase has opened it up into a vibrant space, blank and white; ready to display anything from the smallest painting
to the biggest installation.

The new renovation uses a range of materials
– stone, glass, steel, concrete and timber
all seen coming together harmoniously in the atrium. This diversity of materials mirrors the variety of artists and mediums that are brought together for the Academy’s Annual Exhibition now in its 178th year and boasting the biggest collection to date. The Annual Exhibition was the foundation of the R.H.A and still takes pride of place as its most important show of the year. Usually held in the spring, it was pushed to November
this year so it could be the opening exhibition
of the new building. Running until the 13th of December, the exhibition fills all the wall space in the gallery right up to the ceiling with many forms of art on display together side by side. From photography to glass sculpture to plasticine and even little plastic men, there is something for everybody
in this exhibition whatever your taste. There are no prevailing themes or ideas running through the exhibition and yet all the works merge together to make one coherent

Familiar names in Irish art such as Pauline
Bewicke, Geraldine O’Neill, Martin Gale, John Behan and Dorothy Cross can be seen among lesser known (for now) artists such as Darren Murphy, whose work merges elements of Japanese print and landscape, or Stephen Forbes, whose canvas is buzzing with activity and colour.
In no other exhibition in Ireland is it possible to see such a comprehensive collection
of contemporary Irish art all in the same place.

Upcoming exhibitions in the R.H.A include “Between Us” by Eileen Neff, an American photographer, beginning on the 8th of January. Neff explores the transition from camera to computer in photography through her landscapes inspired by the poetry
of Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. Another exhibition starting on the same day and running until the 15th of February
is that of Ciarán Lennon, an important Irish artist who has pieces in the Hugh Lane Gallery and has had solo exhibitions in the IMMA and numerous galleries all over the world. Through his painting Lennon looks at painted objects and their relation to the real and the material. Lennon plans to create
a unique installation of his work for the new gallery space.

Stephen McKenna, president of the R.H.A. foresees that its new look will be a turning point for the Academy, hoping that “the building in its new form will enable the Academy to realise all of its potential as a positive force in the visual arts in Ireland.”

A new hub of Irish art has been created, now more accessible and welcoming to all manner of visitors and indispensable to Irish artists who can make use of the numerous
new rooftop studios that have been built as part of the R.H.A school which will be fully operational in 2011.
Already a great place to spend an idle hour wandering around if in town, the planned auditorium will attract even more visitors, offering public lectures on concurrent
exhibitions as well Irish art in general.

The significance of the renovation of the R.H.A may not be fully realised at once, but it will hopefully go further than ever before in encouraging artists to produce and exhibit
art; and the viewing public in seeing it in its dynamic new surroundings.