Minister’s Speech Launch of The Art of a Nation exhibition at the Mall Gallery London 12 May 2015

Ambassador Mulhall, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a privilege to be here this evening to launch this magnificent exhibition “The Art of a Nation” at the Mall Galleries.

This is an especially noteworthy occasion as this is the first major exhibition of Irish art in London for over 30 years.

I would like to commend Anthony J Lester and Nicholas Usherwood who have expertly curated this exhibition under the directorship of Lewis McNaught.

Lewis has just given me a quick tour and I must say this exhibition must be a great source of pride for the many Irish here in London.

Tonight’s opening is the culmination of a long engagement by AIB with Irish artists.

Starting in 1980, the Bank began to build up an incomparable collection of Irish art, one that would eventually include works by the greatest Irish artists of the twentieth century.

By the early years of the present century, the AIB collection amounted to over three thousand works, paintings, photographs, tapestries, sculptures and video of outstanding museum quality.

The collection has been collected and assembled under the expert eye of curator Frances Ruane.

It is a considered, insightful and valuable collection, providing a narrative on visual art practice in Ireland in the twentieth century.

I am especially pleased at the involvement of one our Ireland’s own National Cultural Institutions in this exhibition, the Crawford Art Gallery.

In 2012, AIB entered into a partnership with the Irish Government in respect of its corporate art collection.

AIB donated thirty-nine of its finest works to the State and these were placed in the care of the Crawford Art Gallery based in Cork.

These works included such prominent Irish artists as Jack B. Yeats, Sean Keating, Paul Henry and Roderic O’Connor.

Many of these painting are on display here in the Mall Gallery this evening.

This collaboration with the State has ensured that pieces of historic and cultural interest are preserved and made more accessible to the Irish public.

The Crawford Art Gallery, which is funded by my Department and in 2005 was designated a National Cultural Institution, is a key visual arts institution in Ireland and has helped to develop the careers of many of the artists represented here tonight.

When I visited the Crawford Art Gallery recently, I was hugely impressed with its wonderful collection of Classical and Neo-Classical sculptures, which originally came from London in the early nineteenth century.

I was personally involved in securing the restoration of the important Dawson Monument in Co Monaghan, by the eighteenth century sculptor Joseph Wilton.

So it was a pleasure to see in the Crawford’s fine sculpture galleries, the wonderful full-length marble sculpture of William Pitt the Elder.

Enhanced by the transfer of works from AIB, the Crawford collection has grown steadily over the years and is now perhaps the single most important collection of Irish art in Ireland, one that spans the history of art, from the seventeenth century right up to the present.

The AIB collection, which began in 1980, has few parallels in terms of quality, from its beginning the collection was inspired by a view and a vision of Irish life and culture that extended beyond investment and financial business.

The roll call of artists in the collection is unparalleled from Yeats to Orpen, Keating, William Scott, Evie Hone, Paul Henry, Norah McGuiness, and Roderic O’Connor to name just a few. 

The AIB collection also records the struggle for political independence, and the arduous road towards making Ireland a modern nation state.

Sean Keating’s On the Run, War of Independence recalls the early 1920s, when ambushes, raids and reprisals were a common occurance.

Willie Doherty’s A Border Road reminds me of a dark time in my own county of Monaghan, as I lived only 5 miles from the border with Northern Ireland.

The late Louis le Brocquy is also represented – he was of course one of Ireland’s most outstanding artists of the last half century.

Thankfully, many of the artists in the AIB collection are still with us, and still working.

Hughie O’Donoghue currently has a major show at the Marlborough Galleries in nearby Mayfair.

There are exhibitions taking place at museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Ireland and the Crawford Gallery in Cork, celebrating the seventieth birthday of Sean Scully, represented here by Wall of Light, Summer.

In addition to several shows on the continent, including Munich and Rotterdam, John Gerrard’s video installation is currently on show at Tate Britain; his presentation last year at the Lincoln Center in New York was a great success.

Dorothy Cross recently showed at the Turner Contemporary in Kent, while Willie Doherty’s installations were one of the high points of Derry’s year as city of culture.

I have no doubt that the addition of this exhibition to London’s extremely rich cultural landscape will enhance the already considerable appreciation for Irish art and culture in this city.

In conclusion, I would like to applaud the partnership approach adopted by AIB and the Crawford Gallery.

I want to acknowledge the wonderful contribution to the visual arts in Ireland made by many at the bank over the years who helped to found and add to this collection.

It is a testimony to a very keen sense of pride in and knowledge of the visual arts.

I would now like to declare this exhibition open and I sincerely hope that the British public and the Irish community here enjoy this opportunity to view such a wonderful representation of Irish culture and heritage.

I hope it whets your appetite to visit Ireland.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, 23 Kildare Street, Dublin , D02 TD30. Tel: 01 631 3800 / LoCall: 1890 383 000

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