Photos by Conal Thomas

The city is filled with art that is in public spaces, and art that is publicly owned, but members of the public are too rarely consulted on its curation and display, which can leave us feeling less engaged with it.

Mattijs Maussen, who has worked on 15 capital-of-culture bids around Europe (9 of them successful), including Dublin’s failed bid, says that during his time here, he saw a lack of engagement by arts professionals with the public.

There’s a simple solution, he says: “Instead of that small group of people that say, ‘We know what is good for you,’ we [should] start putting the questions to a larger group of people asking, ‘What do you think about this?’”

For The Public

Art in Dublin is largely chosen for the public and not by us.

For example, in late August this year, Gerry Hunt wanted to donate a free Luke Kelly statue he’d commissioned to the public. The council, however, was already busy with its own commission, and so if it had accepted Hunt’s offer, it might have made the council’s own look superfluous.

Ultimately, it was up to the council’s 12-member Public Art Advisory Board to decide: two assistant city managers, four city councillors, the public-art manager, the city arts officer, the Hugh Lane Gallery director, and three external artistic advisers.

It’s hard to know whether there should be more public input into deciding what statues should be on which street corners, or which paintings should hang in public galleries, or line the paths of Stephen’s Green.

“I suppose there is a way that people think these things should happen,” says Simon O’Connor, the curator at the Little Museum of Dublin.

“There are people who will say that we should put our faith in professionals. We largely see these situations as objective and people would tend to – and they might be right or wrong – perceive issues relating to the creative sphere as subjective,” he said.

In other words, the boards of museums and galleries are established to curate for the public, but the public may not always approve.

O’Connor says that the members of these boards, and artistic directors, bring their knowledge and expertise to bear on what art is chosen for the public sphere.

“It’s very tempting to think that the public is not being engaged, and that’s probably because there will be art that’s championed by people who are steeped in the field,” he says.

What We Do Now

If you take a look at three of the city’s most prominent cultural institutions – the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), the National Gallery of Ireland, and the Abbey Theatre – none of them ask Dubliners what they would like to see in collections.

So far this year, IMMA has purchased four new artworks by Irish artists under the Hennessy Art Fund, which is a private-sector initiative. It counts 3,773 artworks in storage, of which 1,072 are on paper and delicate, so they can only be shown for restricted periods, said spokesperson Aoife Flynn.

IMMA’s Collections Committee seats four IMMA board members, three IMMA staff and two additional members who serve ex-officio for a fixed term. They decide what works are purchased for the museum. The museum staff decide which artworks are displayed. There is no public consultation.

The National Gallery of Ireland’s Board of Governors and Guardians has 10 members – three appointed by the by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and seven others from institutions such as the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Office of Public Works.

In 2015, the gallery purchased 29 new works for its collection, and it has 700 works in storage. New acquisitions and current displays are chosen by the gallery’s curators and recommended for approval to this board. Again, there is no public consultation.

Finally, the board of the Abbey Theatre has 11 members and is responsible for approving the annual programme. It’s the artistic director who puts the programme together.

The Abbey Theatre takes on board the responses of its audiences to the work, and is open to direct suggestions and discussions, said spokesperson Roisín McCann. But it does not directly select its programme via audience consultation.

So there appears to be a sacred vessel in the arts, held by the few for the enjoyment of many. Some wonder, though, if we should change how things are done.

A Closed Door

“I think we need to open up our collections for the public to become involved with them,” says O’Connor of the Little Museum of Dublin. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to involve the public in the absolute curation.”

Serving up a set menu of art is much quicker than going through a lengthy discussion with Dubliners, but it leaves people feeling left out, says City Arts Officer Ray Yeates.

“It’s much quicker to get three people in alone and make a decision,” he says. “But the downside is that the public feel they’re not relevant to a lot of the arts.”

On the other hand, allowing the public a say in the curation of public artworks or works purchased and displayed in our national cultural institutions could prove disastrous, says Yeates.

“The public are not going to pick the programme in the Abbey Theatre, that’s silly,” he says. “It would be very interesting to let the public try. But even to do that they’d need to be given options and knowledge.”

There are options between keeping decisions behind closed doors, and giving the public full control. And Yeates thinks the process should be more democratic.

But arts professionals tend to guard their prerogatives.

If you have a lot of members of a theatre company, for instance, nobody wants them to talk about the programme, because the programme is the choice of the artistic director, says Yeates. “We’re very concerned with interfering with the independence of the artistic director,” he says.

At least that’s the excuse that’s going to be used to fend off the public, he says, and it would be a mistake. “It would be the wrong reason, because I could still have complete independence as artistic director with a completely outward-facing approach.”

He’s not the only one who thinks the city would benefit if those who currently choose Dublin’s art, asked Dubliners about it.

Mattijs Maussen, who has worked on more than a dozen capital-of-culture bids around Europe, says the big difference between Ireland and other European countries is the paternalistic attitude to public art, the leave-it-to-us syndrome. “There’s not a real sense of urgency [in Dublin] to really try to engage more,” he says.

Maussen thinks the institutions that determine Dublin’s public art — and art for public consumption — should organise a debate. “How do we bring more dynamism?” he asks.

Let’s Talk

A debate might be the best solution, says Yeates.

But the danger with increased public participation and engagement is obvious: the loudest voice pushing the worst art.

Then again, debate and changes of policy could increase audience numbers in the long run, says Yeates.

“We know that there are swathes and swathes of people, thousands of people, who do not go to arts events because they have never developed that habit,” he says. “We have no ideas really about how to get those new audiences involved.”

But the discussion would need to come from within, says Maussen. “What an Irish cultural management discussion would help with is a discussion on who is on these [cultural institutions’] boards for instance.”

Even if the only takeaway is that the public doesn’t care, a debate would help, says Yeates.

“But, even by undertaking that process we refer to the audience and make them feel like they’re part of it,” he says. “It’s not just we announce the programme – what do you think? It’s done before the programme and there’s genuine listening going on.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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