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Interview with National Gallery’s Sean Rainbird.

By Rónán Lynch.

Sean Rainbird grew up in Hong Kong, studied history of art at University College London, joined the Tate where he spent 20 years as a curator of modern and contemporary art before being invited to lead the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in 2006. He was initially surprised at an invitation into the intensely hierarchical world of German museums, but was delighted at the breadth of the collection.
“It had 5,000 to 6,000 works of art and sculpture and some very important archives such as the Sohm archive of the informal interdisciplinary art of the 1960s and 1970s, and ‘happenings, concrete poetry and fluxes’: an absolutely sensational collection”, he says. However, the Staatsgalerie was also plagued with personnel and organisational problems that had built up over several years. “There were a lot of strong personalities who didn’t feel that they should take instruction from anyone, and on occasions they didn’t recognise any authority – me, the ministry, or God”.
When Rainbird arrived in Stuttgart  the gallery was changing fast, and his job was to manage shrinking public-service budgets while overseeing a major refurbishment programme. Only 15 rooms were available to show art when he arrived. “That grew over an 18-month period to 50 or 60 galleries, and at each opening we re-hung the entire collection chronologically, which had never been done before. The chronological discussion was to bring all the curators around the table, which again had never really been done in Stuttgart. It was trying to get a bit better teamworking but also to conceive of the institution not as sections in a curator’s head, but as a visitor experience, that people can actually come in and see some kind of direction or, or at least to encounter a curatorial argument that they agree with or disagree with, or like or dislike, but actually grapple with”.
Stuttgart turned out to be a good preparation for the National Gallery of Ireland.
“The biggest challenge at the National Gallery has been dealing with the effects of austerity politics and the severity of the cuts. The impact of Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER)-led shrinking of the public sector has ended up being a very effective instrument on one hand but an exceedingly blunt instrument on the other hand, and at times it’s definitely curtailed our ability to run the gallery as well as it could be run. One of the things that appears to me to have happened is that the crisis has led some people at the centre to pull more power and influence back towards the centre than perhaps is necessary”.
Rainbird arrived to a chorus of promises from the new government to abolish quangos and rationalise services.
“Museums are not NGOs or quangos, and there has never been a really strong logic behind sharing services”, says Rainbird. “I think you need a lot of analysis and discussion before you make those steps. I would say that IMMA, Crawford and ourselves were quite confident in bringing counter-arguments, and I would say that we decided to make it a very proactive discussion. In these lean years there has been a lot of discussions between the cultural institutions and a huge amount of exchange of experience about how to get through difficult times”.
“I’ve seen my colleagues give a huge amount of support and information to their colleagues – of course also to me and to our board – to define how we look forward from the current phase of refurbishment to what happens next. There are things that you could say sit behind how you present art to the public and are very central to the running of institutions, and how those institutions relate to one another. So we still need to address, for example, storage, collections-care and collections-management, conservation, and access to libraries and archives”.
The MDP (master development plan) for the gallery covers several consecutive refurbishment projects that will run for more than a decade. The first phase was the Dargan roof, which finished in 2011 and the second phase should be complete by early 2016.
“That’s half way through the MDP. The current phases have been backstopped by a very particular discussion between ourselves, our department and DPER, which led DPER to provide some backstop funding that enabled the whole thing to go ahead, in the amount of around €32 million. That gives us the energy centre under the front lawn, 8 metres deep, which will power the new ventilation system. So you’ll be in an old building but with new services”.
Rainbird says that the current refurbishment was “beyond necessary” as the gallery used to be far too cold at various points of the year and far too hot at others. “It led to works of art being in conditions which led to mould” and things of that kind. The conditions weren’t of international standard”.  He believes the changes will make the gallery a more human space.
“We’ll open up some windows that have been covered up over the decades. We will have a glazed inner courtyard between the Dargan and Milltown wings so you’ll have a new entry and a great feeling of new things”.
The gallery has 11 to 13 galleries open out of the entire complement of 60-plus but is maintaining visitor numbers between around 600,000 and 650,000 per annum.
“I do see a great logic for investment in cultural institutions because we generate huge numbers of tourists coming to Ireland”, says Rainbird. He feels, however, that there may never be a return to previous levels of state funding, requiring the gallery to develop its own long-term fundraising strategies.
“We’ve been cut over 40 per cent in the last five years along with the rest of the sector. It’s a larger cut for the arts than it’s been for other sectors and ministries. Because we are relatively small, people may think that it doesn’t make much difference or that we don’t deserve the funding because we are not essential for life support. On the other hand I feel we are essential for people’s spiritual and creative lives. It’s very easy to say that if there is a problem with hospitals or homelessness that you can dispense with the arts but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. So we have to counter that thinking”.
The gallery has already been raising its own funds, and contributed 20 per cent to the current phase of refurbishment. He says that this level of fundraising is unusual in Ireland but sees more Irish cultural institutions having to follow this path. Rainbird maintains that issues of funding and governance are intimately related and while he has stated his admiration for the American level of funding, he says that direct comparison is not possible.rainbird4
“I think what we do in Europe is to look more towards the private sector to get people on board in a more complex and nuanced way, as that’s the only way we’ll allow our institutions to thrive. The relationship to government is where we have to be very vigilant. I think the arm’s length principle is important. One definition of this is to create a distance between the public funder and the institution to stop political distortion, and to create an independence of creative action in the organisation itself. For example, collections would be held in trust by the institutions rather than the state”. Distance is important.
“Centralising may work for civil service departments that have inputs and outputs and actually implement government policy, but arts organisations don’t implement government policy except in a general way; they don’t in particular or we would have long since been told what to do for the decade of commemorations for example, and it should be that way. I don’t think the submission of business plans and strategies and documents for the minister’s approval so the minister can tell arts organisations what to do is ultimately the right way. If you want healthy arts institutions that can deal with outsiders and funders in particular, you’ll need to be able to reassure people that their gifts or funds will be put to work for the institutions, and not be coopted by the government to another agenda”.
He is not keen on the idea of charging admission to the gallery.
“In the UK there was a moment in the early noughties when Tate had to decide whether to charge or not because funding was so low. The government found money for six months, and then established a policy of free entry for all museums in the UK, which also led to an exponential growth in visitor numbers but also in fundraising and development. These things go together, and when outside people see museums being enterprising and flourishing, they want to support them. They want innovative, outward-looking organisations with independence and autonomy. They don’t want to support institutions that are withering on the vine – sometimes for bureaucratic reasons rather than simply for funding reasons”.
He believes that charging into the National Gallery would immediately cut visitor numbers in half. “The idea of popping in for ten minutes is a wonderful idea”, he says. “Since we don’t have identity cards we can’t really differentiate Dubliners or Irish citizens whether from home or abroad from tourists so it would be hard to administer”.
He recalls that the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart began charging a fee in the 1990s, and suffered a drop off of visitors, with little financial gain, once administrative costs had been paid.
Rainbird argues that the gallery must remain outward-looking in order to attract both visitors and funding. “We had over 80,000 people coming to public events such as artist lectures last year. We offer events to all age groups in a very democratic way. If someone wants to have a performance artist in the front foyer on Culture Night, yes, we’ll give them a go. We’ll participate rather than be stand-offish. If someone wants to show a contemporary artist, we’ll try to fit them in. That to me is a sign of a very healthy institution”.
The short-lived appointment of Fine Gael activist John McNulty to the board of IMMA in September illustrated the tendency of political parties to use arts organisations as political proxies.
“Arts organisations may look like a soft touch but I think this incident showed that a huge amount of people care passionately about their arts organisations and don’t want to see these things happening”.
The affair touches on critical issues of independence and autonomy, he says.
“Arts organisations are delicate flowers like everyone else but we do have to run an edifice, we have bricks and mortar and we have collections to look after. Most of what we do is bespoke and you can’t just stick the conservation of pictures on to a conveyor belt as if every one is the same. Arts organisations need to be run very carefully. Equally, a lot of what we do is about confidence. It’s about public confidence, it’s about confidence in the collections, and confidence in the visitors, and if you disrupt it, you can easily damage the organisation. Then it’s the director of the arts institution who is stuck in front of the press to answer the charges rather than the people behind the department desk. That’s why we’re very conscious of the need to act above board and to act fairly and and transparency.”
Like many of the national cultural directors hired recently, Rainbird is working on a five-year contract. “I personally think it is too short to do good work, but that’s what they wanted at the time”, he says.
He laughs when I ask if he spends much time on matters of art. “It is everything but about art. The last six months, I have probably spent one per cent of my time on artistic matters and 99 per cent of time on legislation, governance, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Department, any manner of HR issues, the austerity agenda and the budget. Governance is a really critical issue, and I think we can put more attention on it in the new year to re-establish the roles of institutions and their boards and government emphasising independence and autonomy because I think it’s very important to re-establish what ‘arm’s length’ actually means in the context of fundraising and the programming that the institutions do, and their ability to run their own business.
You can’t really separate the curatorial and artistic matters of a National Gallery or the Abbey Theatre or IMMA from the way you organise and finance and bring about those particular projects”. •