Navigating the Art industry can be a daunting task for young artists and potential gallery owners alike. I sat down with Gerard Byrne, both a renowned artist and director of Gerard Byrne studio, to see what insight he had about careers within the Irish art scene. Byrne is one of Ireland’s leading contemporary artists with solo exhibitions stretching from New York to Singapore. Since he first exhibited in Harrison’s Gallery in 1996, Byrne’s been tiptoeing the line between gallery owner and a full-time artist. His current location in Ranelagh, established in 2017, is a half-hour walk from Trinity. The studio combines his artistic workshop and gallery space to create a less formal, more welcoming environment for viewers to enjoy his work.
“After leaving school at age 14, the opportunities to study art beyond the junior certificate dwindled, and Byrne subsequently joined a trade.”
Byrne took the less direct path into the art world. From getting his first set of oil paints at the age of 7, he always showed excellent enthusiasm for painting. But after leaving school at age 14, the opportunities to study art beyond the junior certificate dwindled, and Byrne subsequently joined a trade. After years of working as an electrician, he decided to become a full-time artist, and he stretched his savings as far as possible by being able to “live off air”. This allowed him to develop his artistic skills and confidence, before selling his art as a source of income. The community around him often fed him, viewing it as their way of “supporting the arts”. Although his early entrance into the art world was not easy, Byrne was determined that “’Nothing was going to hold me back”, “I was going to do this regardless”. When asked recently by an aspiring full-time artist how to make money in the field, Byrne replied that he was “going at it from the wrong perspective totally, you have to go at it with compassion, with a love and a want and then the money comes along as a bonus.”
After growing his confidence by exhibiting his paintings in spaces such as Merrion Square’s outdoor exhibition, his lifestyle’s financial restraints exhausted him. He arranged to meet an agent who would introduce him to galleries, and begin to launch Byrne’s work to the world. On that same Saturday morning, Byrne was left sitting in Bewley’s with his portfolio facing an empty seat. After this disappointment, he was heading home when he came across a gallery he was unfamiliar with. He shyly went in, introducing himself and his work to the gallery owner. The owner asked to see his pieces in person, so Byrne availed of the opportunity.
“Although knocking on galleries’ doors is a challenging way to introduce oneself, the determination and ambition that drives a person to do so, makes them inevitable to succeed, in Byrne’s opinion.”
By the Monday, Byrne had to bring in more paintings, as the seven he had brought initially had sold. Byrne’s art was selling consistently in Harrison’s Gallery to the point where the owner felt he was working for Byrne. He discloses now, that he feels many of these opportunities come about from a mixture of accident and his own enthusiastic and driven personality. He flags it as necessary for both young artists and potential gallery owners to put themselves out there. If he were in search of gallery staff, he would want “someone who is a bit open and a bit forward in the sense of willing to start a conversation and engage with people.” Many of Byrne’s earlier opportunities came about by putting himself out into the art Industry, even when his confidence in his artistic abilities were low. Although knocking on galleries’ doors is a challenging way to introduce oneself, the determination and ambition that drives a person to do so, in Byrne’s opinion, makes them inevitable to succeed.
With Byrne’s popularity on the rise, the owner of Harrison’s gallery interest in the business faded. He presented the option of running the gallery to Byrne himself. Byrne responded that he “wouldn’t know how to run a gallery, and I don’t really want to”. He saw the proposition as a return to a business-based career rather than focusing on art. He eventually agreed to take it over and stayed with the gallery for two years. The initial concern was still present though, with pressure from the business eating away at the time he could spend painting. He eventually decided to shift his focus back towards art and closed the gallery. Since then, Byrne has juggled both hats, a full-time artist and a gallery owner.
“His partner, Agata Byrne, feels that this harmonious combination of the work and gallery space provides a more relaxed environment than what is found in most galleries.”
His current gallery is his sixth, in which he combines both his artist’s studio and gallery space together. His partner, Agata Byrne, feels that this harmonious combination of the work and gallery space provides a more relaxed environment than what is found in most galleries. With this, they wanted to have people admiring the work, rather than feeling unwelcome because they didn’t intend to buy a piece. Byrne himself even admits that he can feel intimidated walking into a building that holds a gallery title. They wanted to encourage people to journey into the space and experience the work; enjoy his paintings whilst becoming inspired. Ideally, they want their gallery to become more of a cultural place, expanding into the possibilities of events, such as book launches and poetry readings alongside exhibitions.
The world of art is expensive for both gallery owners and artists, as Byrne himself says, “when you buy a painting, you’re not actually buying that painting, you are paying for the next one.” Yet, his Ranelagh studio stretches beyond the financial pressures associated with the art world and returns to why many young artists and prospective gallery owners choose an art career; the viewer’s pleasure. This allure to create art out of passion has been central in Byrne’s own artistic journey, which I feel would resonate with Dublin’s young artists.
“This is what all the hard work was for, climbing over the railings of Stephen’s green to paint early in the mornings, that hardship, that drive, that ambition.”
When I asked Byrne what he felt was the most crucial piece of advice to give to young artists and perspective gallery owners, he told me that it is vital to stop and take it all in. He disclosed it is easy to “want something for so long, and it can just pass you by.” It wasn’t until his second show that Byrne stopped for a moment to take it all in and realised the moment he had been dreaming about was finally happening: “standing in the middle of the room and just kind of savouring the moment”. This is what all the hard work was for, climbing over the railings of Stephen’s Green to paint early in the mornings, that hardship, that drive, that ambition. That moment is payback for the journey, and for Bryne, those moments of realisation of what he’d accomplished justified the steps it took to get there.
Byrne’s original aim was to have at least one exhibition in his lifetime. Through his drive and ambition, he has landed himself in over 40 exhibitions worldwide. He is not only an artist to watch in his own right, but a figure that young artists and potential gallery owners can look up to.