Inka Laine :

A Long Story Short

My two months at IMMA - Irish Museum of Modern Art, 16.10.-16.12.2017

Last autumn I had a chance to spend two months in Ireland, as a MOBIUS Fellow at IMMA - Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Leaving my position as a Curator at EMMA - Espoo Museum of Modern Art for a while was made possible by the Mobius Fellowship programme. This is a short report of my fellowship. It is mostly based on my diary I kept while abroad. It is not pretending to be an academic study but rather a selection of observations and impressions – including some conclusions, too.

Some of the headlines and subtitles are Irish idioms and proverbs. Quotations are from Niamh Ann Kelly’s “The Irish Museum of Modern Art. An assessment of the IMMA as it enters a new phase of self-definition, 1997. It was a useful tool when comparing IMMA and EMMA as organizations - a study that showed what the political will behind the founding of IMMA was and how the situation had developed after five years of operation. Seeing what IMMA is today may help us to understand where EMMA is heading in future.

To compare apples with oranges:IMMA and EMMA, two European museums focused on modern and contemporary art

IMMA and EMMA have much in common but there are disparities, too. By the time IMMA was opened to public in 1991 it was the first museum to exhibit contemporary art, “It was filling a gap in Ireland.” (Charles J. Haughes, the Taoiseach of the State). When EMMA was opened in Espoo, Finland in 2006 we already had Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in the capital, Helsinki (since 1998).

Both IMMA and EMMA operate within a historical building that is protected by the law. In IMMA’s case it is a Royal Hospital Kilmainham from 17th Century, an official heritage site of Ireland: “It’s such a fine building and so suitable - particularly for installations and for movements in contemporary art.” (Gordon Lambert, art collector). EMMA is situated in a former printing house from 1960s, representing a whole different era, being a proud example of so-called concrete brutalism. This is a double-edged sword. Such buildings make great terms of reference but at the same time your hands are bind in many ways. It is not possible to change the permanent structures of the building - or at least it demands a wide circulation of a proposal for comments. Also such factors as lightning, humidity and alarms systems that demand modern requirements can be hard and expensive to install in a historical exhibition venue. But there are many people who are fascinated by such buildings: “The building is the first exhibit in the museum.” (Charles J. Haughes). Coming to see the premises they might see the exhibitions and the collections alongside - and perhaps one day they return just for art’s sake.

A considerable part of IMMA’s funding is collected by renting the venue and formal gardens and a nearby field for outdoor events. The main building is also used for governmental gatherings. (In the beginning of November 2016 the museum was closed for Brexit-negotiations between UK and Ireland.) It may look familiar because it has been used for many TV shows and movies. In November Mel Gibson and Sean Penn came there to shoot a movie “The Professor and the Madman” - I was not lucky enough to see either of them, only actors playing minor roles. For public this means that the exhibition sites might be sometimes closed with a short notice. On the whole I got the impression that IMMA knows how to make use of the historical premises. That is something EMMA could learn from IMMA.

Climbing the mountain: How to draw a crowd, a question of accessibility

Visiting IMMA is free of charge and that is the case with most of the museums in Ireland. This makes it easier to visit museum several times in a row. Only some special exhibitions may require a ticket. While I was at IMMA this was the case with large exhibition of Lucian Freud’s portraits and other works. IMMA had secured a five-year loan of 50 works from private lenders. The works were placed in a separate building, IMMA’s Garden Galleries. Money raised through admission charges will directly contribute to the care and development of the IMMA Collection. Even this exhibition has free admission once a week, every Tuesday. EMMA has admission fees but visitors under 18 and over 70 years are free of charge, also every Friday from 5 pm to 7 pm there is a free admission for everyone.

Both IMMA and EMMA are located outside the city center - and talking about Espoo we actually mean center of the nearby capital city of Finland, Helsinki. In Dublin IMMA is best reached by bus or a tram but you have to walk either in the beginning or in the end of your journey. I was told that a tramline was planned when IMMA was opened but people living in the neighborhood were against it. There was no direct line from where I was staying so I preferred walking. It took me 35 minutes and the weather was exceptionally warm - it hardly ever rained. In Finland EMMA is looking forward to have a subway connection from Helsinki city center to Espoo, Tapiola. This is a long time plan that should be realized by the end of the year 2017.

One of the challenges both museums face is how to draw people to visit the place for the first time – as after that it should be easier to make visitors return. IMMA has organized Summer Parties since 2014. Summer Party offers “art, music, performance and food events designed to open up the beautiful buildings and grounds of IMMA, day and night”. These parties are aimed to the younger public and the main channel of information is social media. Hop on - hop off bus tours are popular among tourist visiting in Dublin. IMMA is one of the destinations along the bus route. Tourists are an important segment of visitors but not likely to visit museum more than once during their vacation.

Step into somebody’s shoes: Working with locals

“Relationship with the local community is important.” (Deglan McGonagle, former Director of IMMA)

IMMA collaborates closely with local schools, various associations and residents in the area. Their partners were for example Men’s Sheds groups in Dublin. The Irish Men’s Sheds Association (IMSA) was established in 2011 with the purpose of supporting the development and sustainability of Men’s Sheds on the Island of Ireland. It is a charity focused on supporting grass-roots network of sheds, workshops and meeting places for men of all ages. IMMA has invited members of Dublin Men’s Sheds to attend a series of facilitated visits to museum. Facilitators used a method called VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies). VTS is a facilitation technique developed in USA more than twenty years ago. It is most commonly put into practice with children but in this case with elderly men. It is based on three simple questions presented by the facilitator:

1.) What is going on in this picture? 
 2.) What do you see that makes you say that? 
 3.) What more can we find? 

After four visits all the groups gathered together with the facilitators to evaluate their experiences. I was able to join two one of the group twice and the evaluation event afterwards. I was impressed how openly the men were ready to discuss about the artworks they had seen and what the works meant to them, even how they had changed their way of thinking. I was not familiar with VTS before. I found it very effective and flexible method that can be used in many different situations. Back at EMMA I was told by our guides that VTS is used widely in Finland, too.

Kind of chicken and egg: Archives, libraries and management systems

While at IMMA I was working with EMMA’s next exhibition “Joseph Beuys - Outside the Box”, on view 7.2.-21.5.2017). I was mostly involved with the upcoming publication 3 about Beuys and his art through contemporary visions. Editing is something you are able to do online and Ireland and Dublin certainly were inspiring places regarding Beuys and his art. Beuys took a great interest in places he called “geographic peripheries” and island states, among them Ireland. He visited Ireland several times and even intended to locate his Free International University of Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research in Dublin. In 1970s Royal Hospital Kilmainham was standing for a candidate to become FIU’s headquarters - now home to Irish Museum of Modern Art. IMMA exhibited Beuys’s multiples in 1999 and the archive material of that exhibition was literally at hand. Another significant source was Dorothy Walker Archive that is stored at NIVAL - The National Irish Visual Arts Library in Dublin. There I had a chance to go through several original documents, such as catalogues, clippings, letters and notes that gave me more information about the topics of the publication I was working at the moment.

Among other things at IMMA I acquainted myself with the collections and their maintenance. At IMMA MusemPlus collection management system is used for that purpose. It is the same system that will be taken in use at EMMA, too. It was a great opportunity for me to get to know MusemPlus in advance and learn how to use it. It has many benefits compared with the system we are using at the moment. I also visited IMMA’s collection storage space and heard about the plans to build a whole new complex for the depot and the visitors’ center.

Picture paints a thousand words: Artists’ Work Programme

IMMA joined the Artists’ Work Programme in 1993 and the studios, located in former stables, opened in 1994 and enlarged in 1996 to comprise a yearly average of 16 participants. Not only artists but also curators, critical writers and other art professionals are offered a chance to research and develop their practice onsite the museum.

“The studios have been a great success [--]”. (Helen O’Donoghue, Senior Curator, Engagement and Learning).

Some of the artists are working with their own exhibitions at IMMA’s Project Spaces. I was lucky to become acquainted with Irish Visual Artist Aideen Barry and visit her exhibition Morph and Transform under her own guidance. All the artists must have at least one formal contact with public, a presentation of their work in progress. They also write a report of their residency.

This kind of residency programme would be something EMMA could adopt. We even have a suitable exhibition space, Areena, for this kind of use. There it is possible to have exhibitions that are less regulated by museum rules - often build up by artist or art students working “on situ”. But at the moment EMMA is lacking the place where to accommodate the artists during the working process.

At some point I was offered a possibility to stay at IMMA’s residence. I considered moving there from my studio apartment but in the end decided not to do so. My apartment - although small - was located in the very center of the city. I could easily walk to many of the museums, art galleries and other historical or cultural venues and tourist attractions. In two months’ time I was able to visit most of them. Living nearby my daily working place I would most likely stay at home in the evenings. On the other hand I might have got to know better artists staying at IMMA’s residence; they seemed to be very social and outgoing people.

Peeling the onion: Looking back

I was appointed a working station at the very first day. I also received an identity card that allowed me to move around freely. I got my own computer, user identification and an e-mail address already installed. That made me feel welcome, they knew that I was coming and had made arrangements needed in beforehand.

My original idea was to observe how new exhibitions are made and how IMMA’s staff from different departments is working together, also with professionals outside IMMA. I was also interested to see how the information is passed on among the staff members throughout the exhibition process. Unfortunately there were no suitable exhibitions under work during the time I spent at IMMA. Lucian Freud’s exhibition was opened a few days after my arrival so all the preparations had been already taken care of. I had an opportunity to participate in a couple of meetings were the next collection exhibition was planned. Planning was at an early stage so nothing very concrete was under discussion at that point.

Back home I’m part of EMMA’s Exhibition team. At first I was a bit disappointed because the teams appointed to me at IMMA were Engagement and Learning and Collections. However, in the end it was a rewarding experience for me. I was forced to look at the work that is done in a museum from another angle - and learned a lot.

In retrospect, I could have communicated more clearly what my expectations were. I was well aware that IMMA and EMMA are quite similar as institutions. They both operate in premises that are not built as museums. There is a strong resemblance between their collections and exhibition profiles. The number of the permanent stuff is about the same. That’s why working solutions used at IMMA could be adopted at EMMA as well. In 2014-2015 both museums took part of a touring exhibition The Passion of Carol Rama, from EMMA the tour continued to IMMA. Even though I was not working with that project, my colleagues gave good feedback to IMMA’s staff. I knew in advance that IMMA is a museum of high professional standards. This was the main reason to express my interest in a fellowship at IMMA. Perhaps it would be a better solution to start with the institutions and then choose the participators to the programme. The institutions could define first what they expect of the fellow - and what they have to offer. Being able to give a concrete work contribution to the institution is important for both parties.

There were some setbacks as well. My instructor got sick and was away from work for nearly three weeks. In the meantime I was pretty much on my own. And when she was able to return she had a lot to catch up. But as a grown-up I didn’t really need anybody to hold my hand. I shared an office with another visitor, a Fulbright scholar from USA. Together with her we visited several archives and artists’ studios. It was good to be side by side with somebody who shared my position as a temporary member of the staff.

Being in an English-speaking environment for a longer period was very beneficial. I have improved my vocabulary and therefore I’m able to express myself more accurate. Every profession has its own language and I hope I was able to adopt something of the jargon that is used in art world and museums.

After spending two months in another country I find myself thinking of those people who have come to Finland from different parts of the world. Life in Ireland was relatively easy for me. I didn’t look like a stranger and I understood their language. Most of customs, common rules and unwritten codes of the society were familiar to me. I knew the history of Ireland and its culture as a part of the Western European tradition. We even shared the same currency. And yet I sometimes felt a bit confused and lonely. My own experiences have made me more empathetic towards people seeking a new life and their place in Finland.

My warmest thanks to following institutions and persons:

IMMA - Irish Museum of Modern Art for giving me an opportunity to internship. All staff members, especially my instructors Helen O’Donoghue and Christina Kennedy, also Sarah Glennie, Rachael Thomas, Johanne Mullan, Felicia Tan, Lisa Moran, Caroline Orr, Janice Hough, Karen Sweeney, Mark Maguire, Rachael Gilbourne, Georgie Thompson and Maria Kazuro and many others who gave me generously their time, guidance and valuable advices.

EMMA - Espoo Museum of Modern Art for letting me leave of absence for two months and all my colleagues who filled in for me in the meanwhile

The Finnish Institute in London, Ministry of Education and Culture & Kone Foundation for organizing and financing Mobius -programme. Special thanks to Joonas Kallonen who helped me with travel arrangements and finding a cozy place to stay. Niamh Ann Kelly for her study “The Irish Museum of Modern Art. An assessment of the IMMA as it enters a new phase of self-definition”, 1997.

Teresa Bramlette Reeves with whom I was able to reflect my experiences.
Liz Johnson who took me outside Dublin and showed me the beautiful countryside.