Modern Irish art takes centre stage in Paris

Caroline Costello guides us through the new initiative set by the Department of Foreign Affairs to showcase and repair the Irish art and culture section

From museums and galleries closing, to concerts cancelled and attempts to move events online, the arts and culture sector was one of the most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Following two years of on-again off-again lockdowns, this impact on the arts will continue to be felt for the years to come. In response to this crisis, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin, set up the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce in 2020. The idea behind this group was to create a platform for “solution-focused recommendations for the recovery of the arts and culture sector.” The Taskforce was chaired by Claire Duignan, board member of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, Fáilte Ireland and the Irish Times amongst other organisations, and included members such as the Arts Council, Business to Arts, and Ealaín na Gaeltachta. This Taskforce then published a report titled ‘Life Worth Living’ in November of 2020, which offered ten recommendations to help the arts and culture sector adapt and recover post-pandemic. 

The report was divided into three sections: ‘Ensuring Recovery,’ ‘Building Resilience’ and ‘Facing Forward.’ Several suggestions in the first section highlighted the importance of protecting livelihoods and careers in the industry. Recommendations included piloting a Universal Basic Income Scheme, extending the Professional Artists on Jobseekers’ Allowance Scheme to other art forms, establishing a new VAT compensation scheme for Artists, and ensuring fair pay for creative content. With the extensive number of cancelled events, the report also noted how certain events are excluded from the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS). The report suggested creating a business support grant scheme, alongside the Government continuing to provide financial support to Local Authorities to avoid any loss of income in 2021 — to support their continued investment in the arts. Under ‘Building Resilience,’ we see an emphasis on creating wellbeing supports for the arts and culture sector, with an up-skilling scheme for artists to help generate new artwork following the pandemic. The final section, ‘Facing Forward’, focused on the need for physical spaces for cultural activities, particularly outdoor spaces, and improving the environmental impact of the arts through the funding of a Creative Green Programme. 

“The idea behind the exhibition is to recreate and contextualise the exhibition of modern Irish Art that was held in Paris in January 1922, exactly 100 years ago.”

We have seen these suggestions put into action in recent months following the easing of restrictions and the opening of various arts and cultural centres. On January 28th, a new virtual Irish exhibition was launched called Seeing Ireland: Art, Culture, and Power in Paris, 1922. The exhibit was organised by Professor Ciaran O’Neill and Dr Billy Shortall, in partnership with the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, and was funded by the Decade of Centenaries/ Commemorations Unit and Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. The idea behind the exhibition is to recreate and contextualise the exhibition of modern Irish art that was held in Paris in January 1922, exactly 100 years ago. This exhibition was seminal to the Irish arts, showcasing works by Irish artists such as Mary Swanzy, Sean Keating, Jack B Yeats, and Grace Henry. The virtual exhibition was designed by Niall O’hOisín of Noho Design who reconstructed the gallery from one single documented image of the event. The project website also features an interactive map with motor tour routes and notable landmarks of the time, so that anyone can revisit this seminal moment a whole century later. 

The launch was filmed live from the Trinity Long Room Hub, featuring speakers like Minister Martin herself and the French Ambassador to Ireland, H.E Vincent Guérend. The event included a panel discussion with the artists Mick O’Dea and Sinead Ni Mhaonaigh, chaired by Trinity’s own Dr Angela Griffith. Minister Martin opened the launch by discussing the importance of the Exposition D’Art Irlandais, which presented over 280 works in Galerie Barbazanges of Paris in January 1922. She noted how this Irish-Parisian cultural event was an historical moment not only in modern Irish art but in cultural history up to the post-colonial present. The Minister was followed by the French Ambassador, who discussed the extraordinary links between these two countries. He noted that not only was 1922 the year of this groundbreaking exhibition, but that several important events were staged that linked Ireland and France together. That year, an international conference was held in Paris called the Irish Race Congress, following the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which was generating new Irish identity politics at the time. It was also the same year as the first publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was published in Paris on February 2nd. This influential event was even recently celebrated on its centenary by the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris. Ambassador Guérend spoke on how the arts and culture sector will be a focal point for France in the coming six months to celebrate the sense of common belonging for European nations, particularly between France and Ireland, to highlight the importance of cultural exchange. 

“Seeing Ireland is just one strand of a larger initiative being curated by the Department of Foreign Affairs.”

Professor Ciaran O’Neill noted this was Ireland’s initial emergence onto the world stage and how the nation was presented through its Arts and Culture, rather than the internal division and conflict that was going on at this point in time. This idea mirrors current events, following the crisis in Ireland of the Covid-19 pandemic and the goal of Martin’s Recovery Taskforce to put arts and culture at the forefront of Ireland again. Seeing Ireland is just one strand of a larger initiative being curated by the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is not only in connection with Trinity, but also with the O’Brien Collection in Chicago, the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies in Indiana, the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, the Snite Museum of Art and the University of Paris-Sorbonne. This shows how Martin is pushing for this improvement within the sector following the recommendations of the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce by reaching out to our past and bringing it into and bringing it into the present. We will be looking ahead to seeing what other events are up his and Catherine Martin’s sleeve to help the sector recover and make “Life Worth Living” following Covid-19, and in the following years to come.