Sculpture factory is a magical place

Newly appointed head of the National Sculpture Factory, Valerie Byrne joins a host of women leading Cork’s arts spaces. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to her about her career background, the challenges of her new post and plans for the future
Sculpture factory is a magical place
Valerie Byrne, director of the National Sculpture Factory, Cork city.

AS one of several women heading up arts organisations in Cork, Valerie Byrne, the new director of the National Sculpture Factory (NSF), says that “there’s a lovely collaborative feel among us. We’re very supportive of each other”.

She took over from Mary McCarthy at the NSF. Mary is now the director of the Crawford Art Gallery. There’s also Fiona Kearney, heading up the Glucksman Gallery, Fiona Clarke, director of the Cork Film Festival, Lorraine Maye, director of the Cork Midsummer Festival, Julie Kelleher, artistic director of the Everyman and Eibhlin Gleeson at the Cork Opera House.

That’s a lot of female power in a city where opportunities to move up in arts positions are relatively limited. But Valerie says she was in the right place at the right time.

Taking six years out of the workplace to stay at home with her daughter, Linka, born at the end of 2005, led to some raised eyebrows, recalls Valerie. But she is delighted to have had those precious formative years, on a full time basis, with her only child. She says she can’t really say whether time out of employment is a disadvantage for women.

“I was very fortunate in that the first job I got when I went back to work was as acting director of Cork Printmakers. I did that for three months. Then the job was properly advertised and I got it. I spent six years in that job. It was a very happy time. Then I moved to the NSF.”

Valerie, who was brought up in Newbridge, Co Kildare, always wanted to work in the arts. She graduated in the history of art and architecture from Trinity College Dublin. She needed a specific qualification to work in the arts so she applied for arts administration at UCD and heritage management at UCC. Valerie was accepted for both courses.

“Having done five years in Dublin, I decided on a whim to come to Cork. I had only been here once as a child on holiday. I didn’t know anyone in Cork. I came down to do one year at UCC. Out of that, I got involved in Cork Printmakers, working in their office doing administration, for nearly two years.

“Then I started an M.Litt at Trinity in the history of art department, researching 18th century Irish mezzotint, a type of print. During that time, I worked in the ‘Original Print Gallery’ in Temple Bar.

“I didn’t finish the M.Litt because at the end of three years of research, I met my now husband, Alex Pentek (a Cork sculptor best known for his ‘Kindred Spirits’ artwork in Midleton, honouring the Choctaw people who despite their own difficulties as a Native American tribe, raised money for starving people in Ireland during the famine.)

Valerie returned to Cork, went out with Alex, and worked as visual art programmer at the Triskel Arts Centre, from around 1998, for nearly three years. She then got a job as the first arts co-ordinator appointed to St James’s Hospital in Dublin.

Valerie Byrne, director, National Sculpture Factory, Cork, against the backdrop of a cast iron sculpture from an aerial view of the River Lee by artist Tamsie Ringler from a project called Iron-R.Picture Denis Minihane
Valerie Byrne, director, National Sculpture Factory, Cork, against the backdrop of a cast iron sculpture from an aerial view of the River Lee by artist Tamsie Ringler from a project called Iron-R.Picture Denis Minihane

“That was quite a challenge because at that stage, there were seven hospitals on the site with 3,000 staff as well as patients and Trinity Teaching Hospital. I worked directly for the CEO of the hospital.”

The hospital had missed the boat in securing the Percent for Arts Scheme so Valerie was brought in to retrospectively secure funding for the provision of art work on the premises.

This job, says Valerie, opened doors. She was there for two years, seeing Alex at weekends.

“Then I decided I wanted to relocate to Cork. I ended up working with Cork 2005 as project manager for visual arts projects. I was brought in at the end of 2003. It was an incredible opportunity and a real melting pot for all sorts of ideas. It was very exciting for me but also a difficult environment in which to work. No matter how hard you worked, it just never seemed to be enough. But I’m still in contact with the people from the City of Culture.”

Valerie’s home sabbatical started in December, 2005.

She is excited about her new job at the NSF. While there are plans to expand the premises, Valerie says it’s not clear what part of the building will be extended.

“During Mary’s time, a feasibility study was carried out which found that what the factory is lacking is a more public interface so that people can see what we do and what happens here. It really is a magical place. So much incredible creation happens here. It is studio space for artists who pay rent which is subsidised. At the moment, there are eight, and soon to be nine artists working here as well as four full-time staff members and four part-timers.”

Earlier last year, Alex completed his large sculptor of ferns at the NSF from where it was taken to the city of Gold Coast in Queensland, a major commission that he won. Do Valerie and Alex talk shop in their down time?

“I suppose we do. It’s inevitable. But our roles are very different and they don’t really overlap in too many ways. So there’s only so much we can talk about.”

Alex isn’t working at the NSF at the moment. Artists come and go. Some work on large pieces of sculpture. Others are engaged in intricate work on, for example, ceramic cups, says Valerie. She has embraced Cork and its arts scene and, while she loves Dublin, says: “Cork has a better quality of life with proximity to places like the Crawford, the Glucksman and the UCC School of Architecture. Here, you’re not commuting for half the day. There is a great arts infrastructure here.”

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