Onwards and upwards: New gallery director on her plans for the Crawford

Mary McCarthy, from West Cork, took over as director of the Crawford in February. Picture: Jedrzej Niezgoda

As the new director of the Cork gallery, Mary McCarthy will oversee a €22m extension, and also hopes to rejuvenate public interest in the city-centre facility, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

MARY McCarthy sits in the wood-panelled library upstairs in the Crawford Art Gallery. The room is occasionally used for meetings and talks but is rarely open to the public. Art journals dating back to the 1870s, scientific display cabinets and a mahogany globe: the room is steeped in an Enlightenment-era atmosphere of learning. It’s like stepping back in time.

“I know, sometimes I pinch myself and say, ‘wow, I’m so lucky,’” says McCarthy, who took up her position as the gallery’s director in February.

McCarthy’s appointment as the first female director of the Crawford is an important career progression, for which she’s amply qualified. McCarthy, 47, is the former director of the National Sculpture Factory, a board member of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), and chair of Culture Ireland’s advisory committee.

It’s also her opportunity to oversee an exciting and formative era at Cork’s most venerable arts institution.

As part of the Ireland 2040 plans for Cork, the Crawford has been allocated €22 million to invest by 2025, and onwards and upwards is the theme: McCarthy says plans for the building will include both the restoration of the original Custom House building on Emmet Square as frontage, and the addition of extra floors to the gallery.

“We don’t have a design team picked out yet, but yes, the plans would include expanding upwards,” McCarthy says. “We need to be sensitive to the historic significance of the building, but Cork is starting to see height, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“The clock tower on the front of the building, did you know that the staff wind that up every day? The historic fabric of the building is amazing, and we need to unveil that too. But of course, any time you do something new, people are going to have strong opinions.”

The Crawford is already comprised of buildings of three distinct periods: the red brick Custom House dating to the 1720s, William Horatio Crawford’s 1884 extension to what was then the Government School of Design, and of course Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat’s 1,000 square metre expansion, completed in the year 2000.

With such a recent and large expansion, many may wonder why yet more space is necessary. But it’s not simply a matter of exhibition space: the gallery’s permanent collection now amounts to over 4,000 pieces of art. Storage, archiving and access are all important functions for any gallery, although possibly overlooked in the public imagination in favour of exhibition spaces.

“During the refurbishment, parts of the collection will be stored elsewhere, but we’re keen to keep our collection on site,” McCarthy says. “In museums worldwide, storage isn’t ‘out of sight, out of mind’ any more; storage is becoming accessible, and being used as a learning tool, and we’re looking for a mechanism for that.”

Encouraging members of the public through the door to explore visual art is a huge part of McCarthy’s policy of increasing what she calls “visitor focus.”

“This is a public institution, funded by the tax-payer,” she says. “We have artworks and incredible jewels here, and there’s no charge. It’s a non-commodified space in the middle of the city, in a world where a lot of things are commodified, and globally spaces for dialogue are shrinking.”

From early April onwards, the gallery will open seven days a week and will have a free guided tour each Saturday and Sunday.

This is part of an approach that McCarthy hopes will encourage more visitors than the gallery’s current 200,000 per year figure.

Although she’s worked in visual arts management for more than two decades, McCarthy says she’s still excited by the art that surrounds her.

“Shows like the Phillip Toledano exhibition we have on at the moment are continuous reminders of why I do what I do,” she says. “They allow people to have a conversation wider than the day to day pressures of having to survive.

“It creates a space in society to actually have discussion and for people from different backgrounds to meet.”

McCarthy grew up in Whitehall near Skibbereen, overlooking Roaringwater Bay, and says her love of visual art was informed by her childhood in West Cork’s thriving arts community.

“There were lots of other nationalities and lots of people interested in the arts,” she says. “From a very early age we were always encouraged to think differently, and artists were always in your environs. They weren’t something remote and abstract, they were very much a part of the economy: They lived, holidayed and had studios in West Cork.”

The previous director of the Crawford, Peter Murray, held the position for 30 years.

New rules mean that McCarthy has a five-year tenure to achieve her ambitions.

“I think that’s really good: I can’t spend too much time observing,” she says. “Five years goes by quickly. It’s a very focused mission.

“The capital programme won’t be delivered within five years, but I’d like it to be well on its way and I’d like there to be a very clear artistic policy.

“We want the Crawford to be a ‘must-go-to’ destination in Cork City. I want people to be saying, ‘my God, did you see that show in the Crawford? They were queuing up around the block for it.’”

Open for viewing: Upcoming exhibitions

PHILLIP TOLEDANO: Maybe: Life & Love, Until June 24

This impressive exhibition draws from two of the American artist’s main bodies of work, documenting his father’s slide in dementia, and also using prosthetics to confront his own fears about ageing.

STAMPA ORA / PRINT NOW: June 22 to August 18

As part of Cork’s Midsummer Festival, the Crawford will host a collaboration between the Italian National Association of Contemporary Engravers (IACE) and Cork Printmakers, and will features 24 artists.

BRIAN O’DOHERTY: ‘There is no thing here but much else’, Screenings until July 1

One of Ireland’s most influential figures in contemporary art, the writer, painter, filmmaker and art critic previously known as Patrick Ireland, now Brian O’Doherty, is celebrated in this collection of screenings of his films. The screenings are in partnership with One Here Now: The Brian O’Doherty / Patrick Ireland Project, which is on at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh.

NAKED TRUTH: The Nude in Irish Art, July 13 to October 28

Featuring the work of Francis Bacon, Dorothy Cross and Robert Fagan, this is another themed show, curated by Dawn Williams. Naked Truth will explore depictions of the naked body by Irish artists dating right the way back to historic “Sheela-na-gig” carvings.

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