Sunday 25 March 2018

State of the art: how bank crash left us with huge cultural cache

Fire sales by bankrupt banks saw thousands of hoarded cultural artefacts sold off or donated to the public

Sir John Lavery’s portrait of his wife, Hazel
Sir John Lavery’s portrait of his wife, Hazel
Sir John Lavery’s portrait of his wife, Hazel, appeared on every Irish bank note until 2002
Robert Ballagh’s ‘Winter in Ronda’
‘Crann an Oir’ by Eamonn O’Doherty

Simon Rowe

'Ruins for me are the beginning. With the debris you can construct new ideas. They are symbols of a beginning."

These words of Anselm Kiefer, one of the world's greatest living artists, spring to mind as the fate of the golden ball sculpture outside the landmark Central Bank building in Dublin hangs in the balance.

The bronze artwork is the subject of heated debate as bank chiefs prepare to exit their offices for a new €140m headquarters located on a docklands site once earmarked for the former Anglo Irish Bank.

Talk of removing the sculpture and the imminent departure of the Central Bank from Dame Street arguably marks another step in the stripping away of cultural reminders of the brash Celtic Tiger years from the inner city landscape.

The Crann an Óir (Tree of Gold) sculpture, sited on the bank's Dame Street plaza since 1991, became synonymous with Irish banking. Now it serves as a daily reminder to passersby and gangs of skateboarders of the fickleness of boom and bust cycles.

Central Bank bosses realise they must tread carefully.

"As this is a very recognisable feature of the city's streetscape, as well as being a symbol of the Central Bank as an organisation, deliberations are ongoing as to whether this sculpture will move to the bank's new location at North Wall Quay, or stay beside the Dame Street premises which will be sold," said a bank spokesman.

Ireland has an uneasy relationship with artefacts linked to our economic past.

The original signage that hung over the Dublin headquarters of doomed Anglo Irish Bank now resides in the Irish History Museum in Collins Barracks alongside a 5,000- year-old ceremonial axehead and the Book of Kells in an exhibition entitled 'A History of Ireland in 100 Objects'.

Another cultural victim of the economic crash is the corporate art collection - a particular favourite of Irish banks during the boom years.

A post-crash firesale saw thousands of hoarded cultural artefacts sold off or donated to galleries and exhibitions.

The former Anglo Irish Bank auctioned off its art collection, which had graced the walls of its boardrooms and offices, for the princely sum of €281,000 - an amount that failed to put a dent in the €28bn bill to Irish taxpayers.

Bank of Ireland disposed of its 2,000-piece art collection in 2010, raking in €1.5m. The bank promised to ring-fence the proceeds for cultural philanthropy. It also donated 66 of its paintings, many of which were deemed to be "of national importance" to the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

But the decision by the lender to sell part of its collection was criticised at the time, as it denied the public a chance of seeing many top-class Irish works - and instead saw valuable Irish art snapped up by foreign buyers.

More recently, the ESB sold a substantial portion of its corporate art collection at auction.

The State-owned energy provider put 148 paintings under the hammer last year, pocketing a meagre €160,000. It still retains ownership of several art pieces which relate directly to the organisation's history.

It is not unusual for semi-states to flog off pricey art collections to quell public anger. More than a decade ago, Aer Lingus was forced to sell 25 paintings in its art collection to help raise €600,000 to offset the €1.5m losses it was making daily.

Among the other bailed out banks that ran a rule over their art collection was Allied Irish Banks.

Proving that Irish bankers didn't get everything wrong in the boom, the AIB collection is regarded by art experts as one of the finest in Ireland and includes paintings, photography, tapestry, sculptures and video.

Assembled between the years 1970-2011 and comprising 3,000 items, AIB donated the collection to the State. More than 60 pieces from the collection are now held by the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.

The bank continues to run a loans scheme to public and private organisations throughout Ireland whereby it makes up to 1,000 artworks available for public exhibition. Works are shown in Irish galleries, colleges and banks throughout its branch network.

The AIB collection boasts paintings from many of Ireland's greatest artists such as Aloysius O'Kelly, Sir John Lavery, Sean Keating, Jack B. Yeats and Paul Henry, as well as works by Irish artists based abroad and works by foreign artists living in Ireland.

But State-owned financial institutions and public authorities still own a cache of art worth vast sums of money. Indeed, one of the more unusual consequences of the economic crash is that the State now owns the largest collection of Irish art in its entire history.

The Central Bank's art collection is valued at more than €2m.

The most valuable piece in its collection is Sir John Lavery's iconic painting of his wife Hazel, Lady Lavery. Her image was featured on all Irish banknotes from 1928 until the 1970s and on the watermark of all of our notes until 2002. The original painting is valued at €750,000 though its sale would be unimagineable.

The second-most valuable painting in the Central Bank's collection is Louis Le Brocquy's 'Aran Man' valued at €220,000.

Not surprisingly, several items in its 243-piece collection relate to the history of the Central Bank and its functions, for example as a producer of banknotes.

But in tune with the prevailing mood of austerity, a Central Bank spokesman said: "No art has been purchased since 2010.

"The Central Bank has no ongoing art purchase programme and does not have a budget for the purchase of art."

In response to questions about its existing collection, the regulator replied: "The existing collection was acquired predominantly as part of the fit-out of the bank's Dame Street buildings in 1970s. There is no curator or person responsible for the purchase of art as no policy to expand the Central Bank's art portfolio exists.

"All items are displayed and no works of art are held in storage. Some items are on display in other places. For example, there are some small works on display in the Irish Office at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, and the Lady Lavery painting is on display (under a loan arrangement) in the National Gallery of Ireland."

The Central Bank has an annual budget of €10,000 to cover costs such as maintenance, repairs and portfolio valuation of its art collection.

When it comes to managing corporate art collections however, the Big Daddy of them all is of course State landlord the Office of Public Works.

The OPW has responsibility for one of the largest collections of Irish art in existence.

There are currently 16,225 artworks and decorative objects listed on its art database.

The wide-ranging collection is dispersed over 400 locations and dates back to the 17th century. But the OPW is keen to stress that it places an emphasis on buying works created by newly graduated Irish artists.

Given the size of the collection and its long history, the OPW said it is impossible to put a market value on it.

"As with other public collections, a valuation of the entire collection has not been undertaken as the purpose of the collection is to act as a national cultural asset - and not a financial asset," said a spokeswoman.

"Art market values fluctuate regularly and the investment required to obtain a financial value for the entire State art collection would not be a useful exercise as within a short period of time the values can be outdated as auction sales prices rise and fall," she explained.

Although the OPW does not have an annual budget to spend on art, its acquisition of art is done through the Per Cent for Art Scheme whereby 1pc of the budget of any new building project is spent on artworks.

"In the late 1990s, the Government endorsed the national Per Cent for Art Scheme and over 4,500 art works have been purchased and commissioned under this scheme. Art has been integrated into architectural projects at every opportunity and this is evident in public offices throughout the country," said a spokeswoman.

The unprecedented growth in the OPW's art collection in recent years has been driven in large part by this funding scheme. It has also been helped by the establishment in 1999 of an Art Management Office, which curates the massive collection and oversees new acquisitions.

As the focus now turns to the Central Bank and the debate over relocating the golden ball sculpture to its new docklands HQ - a decision that will require final approval from Dublin City Council - Ireland's unease with cultural reminders of its economic past will be in evidence yet again.

But even if the bronze work is removed, it is certain that from the debris new ideas will be constructed, as Anselm Kiefer suggests.

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