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For Ronan McEvilly, home is always where the art is

Ronan McEvilly retired in December last after seventeen years as Director of the Sligo Art Gallery. Under his guidance, it has become not only one of the countrys busiest arts centres, but stands as a monument to his vision and dedication.

Ronan McEvilly retired in December last after seventeen years as Director of the Sligo Art Gallery. Under his guidance, it has become not only one of the country’s busiest arts centres, but stands as a monument to his vision and dedication.

Growing up in a house full of talk about the visual arts, he recalls: ‘Some houses are full of music. Ours was full of art, there were always art books around the place and you couldn’t help but absorb it’.

He sees this legacy as a great gift from his father and looking around his own house full of artwork and books on art, it is likely the legacy has been passed on to Ronan’s children too. Initially Ronan was appointed as a part-time administrator of the Gallery in 1987 and saw it as a temporary measure. But, in his own words ‘it grew and it grew and it grew. There is no such thing as a part-time job if you are interested’.

His connection with the gallery goes back much further. As a child, he had helped his father organise exhibitions in Sligo. He recalls how Nora Niland would call in regularly to his father and the two of them would sit ‘planning and plotting’ for a gallery for Sligo.

Sadly, Ronan’s father passed away the year before Sligo Art Gallery opened. Ronan found an old watercolour rolled up in his father’s house many years later, which was a record of Ronan’s first memory of the visual arts. At eight years of age, he had watched this picture being painted by artist Michael Farrell in front of the McEvilly family home in Ballincar.

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There were about four exhibitions a year and Sligo Art Gallery was heavily reliant on volunteer assistance when Ronan started. Nowadays the gallery hosts up to seventeen exhibitions each year, from established and emerging artists from all over the island of Ireland, including the leading Iontas Small Works Exhibition.

Ronan, often with the help of his children, travelled all over the country, frequently in hired vans, to collect pieces for exhibitions. ‘You wouldn’t do it now’ he muses, thinking about health and safety and insurance.

Yet he looks back on this period with fondness, these trips leading to galleries and artists all over the country, building up an invaluable network of contacts and friends, which he still uses today. ‘What you don’t get easy is worth having’ he says. ‘It was very simple, but a way to start’.

Ronan sees the opening of the Art Department in the then RTC as having a key role in the successes of Sligo Art Gallery. ‘It brought people like John O’Leary here’, he says, the tutor and artist for whom Ronan had a great respect and saw as an inspiration to many, many students. He comments on how the late John O’Leary seemed to know every artist in the country.

You get the feeling that many galleries would say the same about Ronan. A large section of the Sligo community had an interest in the visual arts, but Ronan always looked to extend the audience of the art gallery.

‘We are in a prime location, the gallery is right in the centre of town, we have almost a captive audience. Certain types of exhibitions attract certain people.’ He cites the Jim Eccles photography exhibition in the 1990’s commenting how, because of local interest, it had the biggest attendance ever at the gallery.

‘In my mind it brought a greater cross-section of the community into the gallery. Galleries can be intimidating, and we need to make them as inviting as possible. People who come into a gallery may need encouragement, not a sales push.’

There are now five galleries in the town alone, all catering for different needs – a sure sign of an increase in interest in visual art in Sligo.

Becoming more and more involved in the Sligo Arts Gallery, Ronan, in his own words ‘wanted to do something’. This something was a cleverly identified niche in the Irish exhibition calendar called Iontas, which invites any Irish artist, budding, new or established, to submit a work for the competition. The first Iontas was held in 1990 and ‘we pushed out the boat, we knew it would cost, but did it anyway, we didn’t wait for the money.’

Iontas was an instant success, with entries flocking into collection points all over the country. The collection system was typical of Ronan’s understanding of the challenges facing artists in the early 90’s. Sligo Art Gallery collected works from drop-off points around the country, thus ensuring maximum access to Iontas for all artists. Ronan shows a photograph of him and his daughter collecting art in Wexford for Iontas. Probably there is a similar scene from the a few decades earlier of Ronan and his father collecting for one of many Sligo Arts Council organised exhibitions in the Town Hall. An excellent marketing man, Ronan also procured sponsorship for Iontas from the outset.

Iontas was a huge undertaking and the gallery questioned if this work could be kept up on an annual basis, with up to 1500 submissions. It was suggested that it be run every second year. However, Ronan was adamant that it needed to be an annual event, citing artists’ need for a regular event to work towards, as the most important factor. This is typical of his support for artists, and his eyes light up as he describes watching the work of artists develop each year they entered Iontas.

To Ronan, supporting the individual artist is paramount. ‘The artist was the most important, that was who you were working for’. His belief in this is confirmed by a house with walls full of paintings purchased over the years, supporting these young artists, many of whom are now household names. He continually set up initiatives in the Sligo Art Gallery to support Irish artists. The Solo exhibition gave an opportunity for a first solo exhibition to an artist, and the Travel Award gave artists a chance to explore work elsewhere.

Always alert to what was happening in the Irish art world, Ronan describes how ‘One day I took a notion to visit Tory island and see what they (the Tory Island Artist) were all about.’ Shy of galleries, the artists agreed to an exhibition, confident that Ronan would take care of them. He speaks with fondness of the late Derek Hill, saying of him ‘You know when somebody supports what you are doing’. He mentions too, the support of James White of the National Gallery of Ireland, coming to give lectures in Sligo. He is full of praise for the support of the Gallery Council over the years.

Then again, Ronan is a man who likes to go to a meeting with a solution rather than a problem, a fact appreciated by his many associates down through the years. Ronan feels that communication with other galleries and artists is important, to meet and exchange views so ‘we don’t feel isolated’.

I ask him what exhibitions stand out for him during his years working at the gallery. With difficulty, he picks out a few. ‘Painters of the Past’ was an exhibition of artists who had worked in Sligo over the previous decades. Smiling, he mentions an exhibition of Good Friday painting by Tony O’Malley. Ronan knew that Tony painted a piece every Good Friday and invited him to exhibit these in 1997. An extremely successful exhibition, the idea was then taken up on a larger scale by a major Dublin gallery. Ronan is philosophical about this and is glad to have ‘sparked the idea. When somebody imitates you, you know you’ve been successful!’ he grins.

In 1989 a sculpture workshop was hosted by Sligo Art Gallery in the Yeats building, where six sculptors took over the whole building, inside and out, from the kitchen to the car park. The public visited and viewed the works in progress ‘it was a phenomenal thing’ Ronan remembers. A Japanese Sculptor planted a stone piece in Hazelwood, Daphne Wright, now an acclaimed artist, was then a student at the Sligo RTC. The late Fred Conlon too, took part.

The arts in Sligo in general developed hugely during Ronan’s time with Sligo Art Gallery. He feels this is a good thing for Sligo.

‘There is an awful lot going on, we are so close to it we hardly notice’. Ronan’s role in the gallery has involved working with artists, curators, funders, sponsors and the general public and he has managed to keep everyone happy. Even now, he keeps his connections with galleries, invitations for openings streaming into his home. His work has been more of a way of life than a job. Commenting firstly that he has ‘too many paintings’ he says ‘I like them, I like having them, they’re like company’ then concludes ‘there’s room for more’.

Ronan McEvilly is a gentle, hardworking man, dedicated to art. He is an honest and straight businessman too, full of ideas, with a steely determination. A man who knows his own mind, he is happy to stay in the background but you know that if he wasn’t there, things at Sligo Art Gallery would not have been quite the same. He retired last December, and although he misses the work at Sligo Art Gallery, he felt it was time to hand over to a new influence. Not a man for long speeches, this art father of Sligo modestly says of his 17 year contribution to the Irish art world ‘It’s been great, really great’’.