A unique and energetic space opens up to new forms of art
Providing access to as wide an audience as possible is at the heart of National Gallery's ethos
It's 10 minutes before the Leaving Cert Art exam is due to start, your teacher is convinced that Caravaggio is likely to come up - remember you saw 'The Taking of the Christ' on a school tour? - and your mind goes blank. What do you do?
This week, one panic-stricken teenager did the first thing that came into his head - he rang the National Gallery. It proved to be a good call for, by sheer good fortune, he happened to get through to one of the country's foremost authorities on the painting.
"We chatted for 10 minutes," says Sinéad Rice, head of education of the National Gallery of Ireland. "As he calmed down, I encouraged him to recall the detail of the painting, the things he'd learned about it on the tour, and then he said, 'Oh, I remember now'. As luck would have it, Caravaggio did feature on the Art paper, so I imagine he was quite relieved."
And there's never been a better time to visit this important national institution. After a six-year, €30m-plus refurbishment, the National Gallery reopened this week with a landmark exhibition, 'Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry'.
It's been a long time in the planning, and as part of the gallery's education and public programme, there's a raft of activities and events centred around the exhibition throughout the summer.
The outreach policy is designed to provide access to its collections to as wide an audience as possible.
"Outreach is embedded in everything we do - onsite, offsite and online," says Ms Rice. "We have a remit to reach new audiences, especially those who may have difficulty accessing the gallery, because of geography, or people who tend not to visit national institutions, or those who physically can't. We go out to people, bringing the art to communities, and invite them back to come and see it in these splendid surroundings.
"It's a very family friendly environment. Going anywhere with a new baby can be daunting, but here, we've got nappies, wipes, great changing facilities, books and toys. Babies as young as three months take part in sensory workshops that let them experience art through sound, colour, light and texture. We also put on monthly guided tours for new parents, who can bring their babies with them and not worry if they need to feed or change their baby.
"For many children in Ireland, the National Gallery is their first engagement with a national institution, and we're really proud of our commitment to providing access to all children. We teamed up recently with Irish Rail who offered discounted travel for schoolchildren from outside Dublin to come and visit the gallery, and of course, all our tours - for children, adults, people with special needs - are free."
Throughout the summer, family activities include Messy Mondays and Talking Tuesdays offering hands-on fun for the under-fives; Drawing a Crowd and other workshops for five to 11 year olds; programmes for pre-teens and teens, and Creative Space on Sundays, a drop-in facility from 11.30am to 1.30pm, featuring a guest artist each week. For those who don't have ready access to the gallery, specially trained countrywide practitioners deliver workshops and talks countrywide.
"We work with community organisations and collaborate with artists on a range of projects," says Ms Rice.
"Artist John O'Reilly will engage with the work of Vermeer for a month, to inspire a large piece of street art which he will create in Wexford for the August bank holiday weekend.
"Our 'Inspiration for the Nation' programme offers free public tours and pop-up talks, which are very inclusive. We cater for the visually impaired with specially designed tactile and sensory kits, and a Braille machine that brings paintings to life through touch.
"Our 'Blossom Ireland' programme helps young people with disabilities discover art through storytelling and sensory workshops, and we've teamed up with the Science Gallery of Dublin to introduce Soundscapes, a celebration of the Dutch Golden Age in response to the silent works in the Vermeer exhibition."
Among the collaborations planned by the gallery is a dance piece called 'Totems' in association with The Liz Roche Company, to be performed from July 6-9.
"There's an energy when you look at art, and I think the newly refurbished National Gallery is an amazing place to look at dance," says artistic director Liz Roche.
"I like to get out of the theatre environment and into a space where the audience is free to move around. It's an active way of seeing things. In 'Totems', there are six dancers travelling between two rooms, so there will be a sense of changing spaces.
"The piece is not connected to the specific paintings in the rooms, but it draws on the sense of histories, symbols, stories and memories that we see in art. It's about how light is used.
"It's about nothing and everything. What else can you see when you think you've seen everything? If we weren't so fixed in our thinking, and in labelling ourselves and each other, what different instincts, impulses and energy would we experience?"
'Totems' at the National Gallery is on July 6 and 7 at 7pm, and July 7, 8 and 9 at 1pm. Tickets €15 full price, €13 concession. Audience numbers limited.