Artistic licence - peek inside artistic director's apartment in magnificent period house
When a person is looking for a home, there is always a collection of criteria - the right price, the location, the size of the property, to name the obvious ones.
And there are tons more.
A person's height, however, is rarely a consideration, though with Eugene Downes it certainly was. His apartment is one of six within a Georgian house, and when it came to adding mezzanines to his lofty rooms, every inch counted.
Eugene, artistic director of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, lives in a magnificent period house in one of the few remaining residential Georgian streets in Dublin's inner city - North Great George's Street. It's a street full of history and heritage, and it's entirely fitting that Eugene got an apartment here; his mother and aunts went to school on the street, as did some of his uncles. The connection goes further back; his grandfather, when he came to Dublin, actually lived on the street.
Even without those connections - which he didn't discover until he bought his apartment - Eugene would have been aware of the importance of the street; his parents both campaigned in the 1960s and 1970s to save the many parts of Georgian Dublin which were in danger of demolition. "My father, Neil Downes, was an architect and historian, and he campaigned to save many streets. My mother and her sisters were very active in the Save Wood Quay campaign. I was age six walking on the Wood Quay march," Eugene laughs. "I was lucky to grow up in a family that cared about our architectural and cultural heritage."
All the family were also big into music - his mother was a concert pianist and his father played the violin - and the arts, and while Eugene's only sibling, David, went on to become a musician and composer, Eugene himself took a more roundabout route to the arts. He decided to study the classics, Greek and Latin, at Trinity College, while his other big interest then was politics. "I was drawn to the arts, but I was also fascinated by the wider world and politics when I was at college," Eugene notes, adding that he went into the foreign service and became a diplomat. "I worked in the UN peacekeeping unit and the Northern Ireland peace process, and then went to Moscow. I was there as the Irish cultural attache and consul," he explains.
The dynamic Dubliner spent 18 months in Russia, and enjoyed exploring Russian culture - theatre, dance, music and literature - but from a work point of view, he began to realise he would prefer a career in the arts. "I felt I had made a mistake not working in the arts professionally, so I resigned and went back to Ireland to study music and to plunge into the arts world," Eugene says.
He joined lyric fm when it was set up in 1999, and worked there for several years. Then he got drawn back into government, this time working in arts and culture. This work included a role as arts adviser to President Mary McAleese. "We had to create the artistic dimension of the presidency. It was an incredible way to explore more of the world, including places like South America, and build connections and networks with other creative professionals on other continents," he says. He was asked to write a report on Ireland's international arts strategy and recommended the creation of a new state agency, potentially to be called Culture Ireland. In due course, the government decided to create the agency, and Eugene was appointed chief executive of Culture Ireland, working with Irish creatives as well as international artists, theatres, festivals, concert halls, and forging cultural links worldwide.
Then, in 2013, he took on a new challenge by becoming artistic director and CEO of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. "It's huge fun, on the one hand carrying forward all the international links on the arts scene, but also to learn more about selling tickets. We curated events in Culture Ireland, but we were never the ones who actually had to sell the tickets, to market them, to go out and find an audience, to make it all stack up," Eugene explains. "The festival is exciting, but terrifying. There are a lot of variables in launching a programme, trying to align it with the market, and at the same time take risks artistically," he says, adding, "Kilkenny is a small medieval city with limited conventional performing spaces. We use churches, the castle, the parks. To play to the strengths of Kilkenny as a place, as a city with personality, we have to unlock the best of Kilkenny."
To date, his programme each year has been a success, and this year promises to be the best yet, with innovative shows from all over the world, as well as some of our own most talented artistes. It's also the biggest yet, which can't be easy for Eugene. "As Al Pacino says in Heat, 'You gotta hold onto your angst'," Eugene notes with a laugh.
He commutes to Kilkenny from Dublin, and fortunately his apartment is within walking distance of trains and buses. Within it, he's created a great little escape from the madness of the festival office, an escape that is full of art and beauty in itself. And you could say that it was through his love of art that he found it. It was at dinner in a friend's house, that of Anne Fuller, co-founder of the Dublin International Piano Festival, that he first heard about the apartment. "Anne was hosting a dinner party, and I was sitting opposite a friend of hers whom I hadn't met before, and we got talking, and I said I was looking for somewhere to buy," Eugene recalls. "There are so few period apartments available in Dublin that I didn't think about the chance of getting one; I was automatically looking at new apartments - mainly overpriced modern shoeboxes. This was 2005, remember. It turned out the person was organising the sale of this apartment and I went to have a look," Eugene recalls.
The Georgian townhouse had been converted into a number of apartments in the early 1990s. The apartment Eugene bought was the original piano nobile of the Georgian townhouse - basically two gracious reception rooms with magnificent windows, which Eugene fell in love with. It now comprises a study, a drawing room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bedroom and a library, all tastefully decorated with rugs, paintings - some lent by his parents - and artefacts picked up on his travels. The bedroom and library are both on a mezzanine level. The original owners had put in the mezzanines, but the way they had been done was tricky, according to Eugene. So with the design input of Maria Kiernan and Paul Kearney - "two brilliant architects" he says - they pulled the apartment apart and put in two different, better, mezzanines, with separate staircases to each. "The ceiling heights are 14 feet, which is brilliant. It's a big architectural challenge to put in a mezzanine. You're effectively creating a two storey pod within a large room, and every inch of extra headroom to be able to make a workable mezzanine is critical. So we just about got away with it. I'm about five feet nine, and I can just about stand upright in my mezzanines; it's so important, otherwise it would be claustrophobic. Therefore, if I were selling, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone taller," he says with a laugh.
Unfortunately, for the many out there who would fit the bill and would love this apartment, that's not going to happen. Eugene knows he's got a good thing.
Kilkenny Arts Festival 2017 is on from next Friday, August 11, to Sunday, August 20, see kilkennyarts.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine