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'Art is a story that makes you feel happy, or sad, or inspires you'

For Rachel Thomas, head of exhibitions at IMMA, art is for everyone, and life is about love


Rachel Thomas, Head of Exhibitions at the IMMA. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Rachel Thomas, Head of Exhibitions at the IMMA. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Liz Taylor

Liz Taylor


Rachel Thomas, Head of Exhibitions at the IMMA. Photo: Steve Humphreys

'Art shouldn't be exclusive. The whole point of art is that it should be for everybody. Because everybody is intelligent, everybody has a say." So says Rachel Thomas, head of exhibitions and senior curator at IMMA, about the fundamental belief that has propelled her here, from a childhood in south Wales, via the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery and the Mead Gallery in the UK.

"I grew up in Wales, a very normal, kind of lower-middle-class family, not connected to art in any way. I'm from a family of miners, who do not talk about art at all. My dad managed a mine and worked in a mine. My family are not from an artistic background at all. But they're from a background of discussion, and I realised that the whole point of art is that it's like watching a movie or reading a book - there's a story, and it's a story that makes you feel happy, or sad, or inspires you. So that's why I was interested."

Did she ever want to be an artist? "I was always rubbish," she laughs. "But through school and university, I started loving history of art, philosophy, psychology, which are all connected. I realised that for me, it's best to get inspiration through artists and how they work. I found that history of art was my calling, and I was lucky to get some teachers to back me, to go 'there's a bigger world out there'.

"I went to university in Bristol, which opened me to other cultures, other nationalities. They were very generous in seeing this Welsh person on the course and supporting my interests. I was lucky enough that Bristol University and the Prince of Wales Trust paid for me to do a post-graduate in Los Angeles, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and there I realised that my calling is connecting with artists. I realised, maybe I could work in a museum, work with artists."

After a stint at the Tate and the Mead Gallery, Rachel decided to explore. "I thought I'd try and move, because I thought 'there's life beyond the UK' and luckily landed the role here in Ireland. I thought I'd only stay six months… and here I am 15 years later."

So, what persuaded her? "I fell in love with an Irishman from Kildare, got married, and had a baby," she says. "First, I think I fell in love with the country, in the sense of the generosity that Ireland gives you. IMMA is very supportive, the people here are great, I made lots of good friends - artists and non-artists. I like that Ireland is forward-thinking and open to the world. I like the vibrancy here. And then I fell in love."

Where did they meet? "I met him through a friend, we didn't even know what each other looked like… it was kind of a blind date situation. And I didn't think, even in a million years, that it would be anything."

But it was. "Actually, yes. It took a while, but then I realised, this person is my best friend. I really liked his values and home and family. He's a very strong Kildare man. I liked the fact that he's from the countryside; I'm from the city, it's a good balancing act. He has nothing to do with art at all. He's a real estate project management consultant. And that works for me. I go home at the end of the day, and it's not about art, it's about family, baby, sleep…"

Ah yes, sleep; so inextricably linked with new motherhood.

"I think it's the toughest job I've ever done in my life," Rachel says. "This gives me a whole new window of compassion."

Her baby is seven months, and she herself is newly back at work. "I really admire working mothers. Actually, I think mums are superheroes. My mum is in Wales, so we don't have much family support, and it's tough. People should talk about it a bit more and be supportive. I channel that through the work I do as well: looking at female artists who are tough and powerful, and honest. Honesty is really important." 

The female artists - including Tracey Emin, Juliana Huxtable, Dorothy Cross, Helen Chadwick - who Rachel features as part of the Desire A Revision exhibition all fit the bill of powerful and honest. Some of the work on display is confrontational, all of it is provocative, as well as beautiful and arresting.

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Collectively, this is a chance to examine desire: what it means, who it belongs to; to see desire in its many contexts: political, social, sexual, aspirational. To examine female empowerment and the subversion of the traditionally male gaze. It is a massive undertaking, and something Rachel has been working on for "at least" two years.

"This show is part of a trilogy. I did Love a few years ago, which was very popular and chimed in with the referendum on same-sex marriage. Then a show on spirituality - As Above So Below - chiming into global and Irish politics. For this show, I realised that the notion of desire was on everybody's mind. What is desire in Ireland? How has that shifted, especially in the digital age?" 

It is hugely ambitious and exciting. So how does she measure success? "There are many ways. Visitor numbers, of course, critical success, but also the human reaction. Are you building curiosity? Pop down to the galleries and see people - you can feel the feeling of a show by walking around, looking around."

I have to ask about her clothes. Rachel's style is a mix of vintage, classic tailoring and fashion-forward pieces. She is frequently lauded on Most Stylish lists, but when I tell her I love her look, she laughs and says: "Oh no, I look horrible! I don't think I have style. Honestly. That's very kind to say. A lot of it is charity shops, some are Irish designers - I can't afford the prices, but some are friends who I can maybe talk to about off-cuts or rejects. A lot of the stuff you see me in, it's smoke and mirrors because I can't afford… I'd love to have that money but with a baby and all the things that come with that, I can't afford it. It is," she says,"making use of what's there, recycling. I'm like a magpie, I always try and find bargains. Today I'm wearing a suit because the baby's sick and I'm tired and it's the only way I can feel put together."

That said, she also believes "clothes are like art. There's a reason why you put something on, what you want to say to the world. You can be an artist in loads of ways."

For Rachel, it's all about an examined life.

"It's a hard career," she says. "There's a lot to do, you have to think about what's important to you. For me, what gets me through, is the idea of a balanced life. That sounds really corny, but I wanted love in my life, family, friends, and I think that gives me balance.

"This is the career for me. Family and friends are there, I can balance it, I can step away, I have the countryside. So it's not all about work.

"Life is the thing that enthuses me, and through the hard times, that's what keeps you going and inspires you to remake, rethink and reconnect. And for me, it's love that keeps me going."

Desire A Revision runs until March 22 www.imma.ie 


Ireland and Wales: mystical connections

Caitlin Thomas, wife of poet Dylan Thomas, was born Caitlin Macnamara, in London, descended from an old Irish land-owning family with estates in Co Clare.

Caitlin was brought up with the family of the painter Augustus John, fell in love with his son Caspar when she was a teenager, and was raped by Augustus, who later introduced her to Thomas. She and Thomas married in 1937, a relationship that was intense, passionate, often violent. She described the marriage as "raw, red bleeding meat".

When Dylan was on his deathbed in New York in 1953, Caitlin arrived, "stinkin' drunk", in her own words, and, when she found another woman tending to her comatose husband, became uncontrollable with rage and was put in a straitjacket and temporarily committed to a psychiatric clinic.


Liz Taylor

Liz Taylor

Liz Taylor


* Actor Richard Burton filmed in Ireland several times, most memorably in 1965 for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, when he and Elizabeth Taylor (pictured) took up residence in the Gresham hotel for 10 weeks, where they first ordered a new and larger bed. With them was an entourage of children, nannies, tutors, hairdressers and a pet monkey.

Drama followed, including the theft of Taylor's jewellery, and the tragic death of a female pedestrian, knocked down by the couple's chauffeur-driven car. 

* Irish and Welsh politics have aligned over the years - particularly in the matter of independence from Britain. Before 1916, Padraig Pearse spent time in Wales, examining how the Welsh language had been introduced as a school subject, and was sufficiently impressed by what he found to recommend that a similar approach should be adopted in Ireland.

* Wales football legend Ian Rush and Cork businesswoman Carol Anthony have been an item since 2013. They got engaged last March, with Carol telling the Sunday Independent: "We don't feel any different. We always knew we would be together for the long haul."

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