International opening: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin - Museums Association

International opening: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Simon Stephens talks to director Sean Rainbird about the redevelopment of one of Europe’s earliest public art museums
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Simon Stephens
Many visitors to the National Gallery of Ireland will remember the days when buckets were needed to collect the rainwater that leaked through the roof. But the focus is now firmly on the art, after this summer’s completion of a €28m (£25.6m) redevelopment.

The National Gallery of Ireland opened in 1864, making it one of Europe’s earliest public art museums. It houses more than 16,300 works of art, comprising European and Irishfine art spanning the earlyRenaissance to the present day. The refurbished galleries display about 650 items from this collection.

The gallery’s home on Merrion Square in the centre of Dublin means it is very much at the heart of the nation. Its collection of Irish art features works by Nathaniel Hone, Thomas Roberts, Daniel Maclise, Roderic O’Conor, John Lavery, William Orpen, Mainie Jellett, Mary Swanzy, Paul Henry and Jack B Yeats, among many others.

International artists represented in the collection include Monet, Picasso, Goya, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. There are also works by British masters such as Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

The three-phase project to redevelop the Milltown and Dargan wings began in 2011 with the restoration of the roof of the latter. The scheme was carried out by the Office of Public Works, with Dublin-based architect Heneghan Peng leading the design team. Central to the modernisation work has been the construction of an underground energy centre thatserves the gallery.

An important focus of theredeveloped venue is a light-filled courtyard that helps visitors to orientate themselves between the Dargan and Milltown wings.

The renovation is part of alarger plan to remodel the whole gallery. The Beit wing will be reworked and extended to create a new route through the buildings. It will also feature new galleries and amenities.

The gallery’s first temporary show after the redevelopment was Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry (17 June-17 September). The exhibition can now be seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, one of the co-organisers of the show alongside the National Gallery of Ireland and the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The next temporary exhibition is Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art (25 October 2017 –14 January 2018).

Why was the redevelopment needed?
Sean Rainbird: It was necessary because the buildings were dilapidated. They were still more or less in their 19th-century state. They lacked modern services and fire suppression among other things. So it was necessary to address those issues. The other main aspect is that we have got four wings, each built at a different time, and they have got nothing to do with each other in terms of services they provide and the floor levels they are on. So when the opportunity came to develop the masterplan, much of it was about how to integrate the four wings.

What were the key challenges of the project?
One of the main issues was how to integrate modern services into a protected structure. You need about 30% of your space for services, and 19th-century buildings don’t have that, so we had to find it somewhere else. We created an underground energy centre and fed everything through at sub-basement level and then up and down through the building. It was done with enormous ingenuity, but it did mean that pretty much the entire building had to be underpinned, as 19th-century foundations aren’t what you’d have today. It was a major structural task but it has improved services radically and the gallery spaces look as good as new.

How was the architect appointed?

The masterplan was put out to tender and there was a competition – it was great that an Irish-American firm won it. It produced a good masterplan, but one of the effects of the recession was that the plan was broken into phases and we have completed three out of four of these. The final phase is ambitious and will give us better circulation between the two entrances. It will also integrate the technical services and provide us with a library, accessible archive and education rooms, which we don’t have at the moment.

What are the main strengths of the collection?
For me, it’s the diversity. It comprises five collections – the Irish state collection, the Irish state collection of portraiture, the history of western art, a works on paper collection and an archive of Irish art. We can combine them and configure those five collections in exciting ways. I think the public has responded well to that so far.

What sort of audiences do you expect?
We get roughly 50/50 international and Irish visitors. In the summer it’s more international, in the winter more Irish – that’s roughly how it divides up. Our demographic balance is about a third each of young, middle-aged and older visitors.

Which aspect of the project are you most pleased with?

By allowing the buildings to breathe and keeping the daylight real rather than using blinds to control it, the feeling of air and light is the greatest gain. The quality of light gives you a lovely feeling and makes you a more attentive visitor when you are looking at the art. 

Project Data

Cost €28m (£25.6m)

Main funders National Gallery of Ireland; Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Office of Public Works

Architect Heneghan Peng

Main contractor John Paul Construction

Admission Free (to permanent collection); €15 (temporary show)

Exhibtion ends Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art (25 October–14 January 2018)

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