Friday 22 September 2017

IMMA is part of our soul, it is not just a political tool

Emer O'Kelly served two terms on the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art - and she is very angry at what has been done to it

Heather Humphreys
Heather Humphreys

Emer Kelly

In 2002, I attended a function at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), where I had a conversation with Fiona O'Malley, then a member of the board. She mentioned in passing that she would shortly have to resign, because she was hoping to be elected to the Dail for the PDs in the general election. So it's not unexpected and new for politicians to learn that they cannot serve on state boards. And at least O'Malley had some qualifications for membership of the museum board: at that stage she earned her living as an arts administrator.

I later served for two five-year terms at IMMA. To this day, I am deeply proud of my membership of that board, and phenomenally proud of the museum's artistic status and achievement for the country during the time I served (during the directorship of the visionary and internationally influential Enrique Juncosa).

I understood both status and achievement because I am passionate about contemporary visual art, and care deeply about Ireland's reputation and standing in the international arts community. I had no axe to grind, and there was no personal advantage for me as a result of the work I did there. I was not paid; I was a working arts and current affairs journalist with no ambitions to be anything else.

My particular qualifications, though, would have been a joke had I been appointed to the board of the GAA or the Irish Rugby Football Union. I don't have the slightest interest in any kind of team field sport. If anybody queried my qualifications for such board membership, I would rightly be discovered to be unsuitable. (Although, from the female point of view, Donal Og Cusack and Brian O'Driscoll are very cute to look at. You see: utterly frivolous and idiotic in my approach to sport.)

So why was it considered acceptable for somebody whose main interest in life is admitted to be the GAA to be appointed as a board member of IMMA? The newly appointed Arts Minister Heather Humphreys looked deeply uncomfortable as she tried in the Seanad to defend her appointment of John McNulty, the Fine Gael candidate in a Seanad by-election, to the IMMA board, claiming repeatedly that his business acumen would be very valuable.

I have news for the Minister: IMMA is not a profit-making organisation, and it does not sell anything. Health Minister Leo Varadkar said McNulty's appointment would be valuable for "geographic diversity". What has the map of Ireland to do with cutting-edge contemporary national and international visual art?

I don't accept, as it happens, that appointment by government to specialist state boards is necessarily going to be cynical/improper. Certainly no more than the fairly recently introduced system of advance declaration of interest (even though John McNulty had apparently not expressed an interest in being appointed to IMMA.)

I still recall a conversation a number of years ago with a member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, appointed under that system. He told me that he had no interest in the arts, knew nothing about them, but thought it might be useful to "learn how these people think". I had visions of artists being regarded as laboratory rats.

We need the right people, regardless of gender or location, not politically correct square pegs in round holes, or more truthfully, useless pegs in soggy bog-holes, to twist a cliché. If John McNulty had to answer a few questions in public about contemporary art, as basic as naming Ireland's leading contemporary artists and describing his opinions about major international contemporary galleries such as MoMA, the Reina Sofia, or the Guggenheim when he visited them on trips abroad; if above all, he had to say a bit in public about his vision and hopes for the Irish Museum of Modern Art, he'd be home and clear, proven to be a man with contemporary art awareness. He'd also avoid the accusation of trying to gain spurious political advantage for a Minister and a Taoiseach who are now accused of paying lip service to the value of art, but seeing it merely as a political tool. Instead, he's the loser, and it seems Fine Gael is the loser. But above all, IMMA is the loser. And that's the one I care about.

Sunday Independent

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