Surely the reopening of the National Gallery of Ireland represents a ray of light, a welcome break in the massed Covid clouds? The gallery has been a cherished part of Irish cultural life more or less since its foundation as one of Europe’s earliest public galleries in 1854. Its very fabric, its exhibition rooms and its developing collections have been points of reference for Irish people, including numerous artists and writers, through the generations. Samuel Beckett was a devoted visitor and he, like countless others, credited the gallery as an invaluable educational treasure. So the fact that it is once more open to visitors must be good news, mustn’t it?
Yes; and then again, no. The Catch-22 is that you are being asked to pay for entry to the opening show, ‘New Perspectives’, a display of acquisitions made over the decade since 2010. Gallery byelaws adopted by the board in 2019 enable the National Gallery to ‘provide for the fixing of fees and charges in respect of entry to any special exhibition or other event held in the Gallery’. But, frankly, it could be argued every exhibition is ‘special’, as is every ‘event’.
You are being asked to pay to see works, gifted or purchased with public funds, that now form part of the Gallery’s permanent collection
Take ‘New Perspectives’. You are being asked to pay to see works, gifted or purchased with public funds, that now form part of the gallery’s permanent collection. This is an ominous expansion of the extant policy of charging entry to expensive visiting exhibitions. That the collection is freely accessible to the public has long been a cornerstone of gallery policy – and of its wide appeal; the principle has been close to the hearts of many of those associated with the gallery over the years, including the significant benefactor Sir Denis Mahon. And it has contributed to the hitherto widespread, egalitarian sense that it is ‘Our Gallery’, not some expensive consumer bauble for the delectation of the better off.
It is more than disappointing that the current board – which, incidentally, includes several artists whom one might expect to know better – is presiding over this drift towards exclusion and exclusivity without so much as a peep of protest.