Taking over the helm of Cork’s cultural catalyst

As she takes up the role of Director of the Crawford Art Gallery next month, COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Mary McCarthy
Taking over the helm of Cork’s cultural catalyst
Mary McCarthy, who takes up the role as Director of the Crawford Art Gallery in February. Picture: Denis Minihane.

WEST CORK native, Mary McCarthy, who has been appointed as the new director of the Crawford Art Gallery, reckons it’s not just one of the best jobs in the visual arts in this country, but also in Europe.

The Skibbereen native, who has been running the National Sculpture Factory (NSF) for 12 years, realised she wanted to work in the visual arts while working in a large gallery in New York during the summer months, on breaks from her arts degree at UCC.

Familiar with artists from her upbringing in West Cork, Mary was drawn to exhibitions held in UCC’s Boole Library, well before the building of the Glucksman Gallery in the grounds of the university.

“Dr Garret Barden would have organised a lot of those shows. At that point, I was beginning to think I’d like to work professionally in the arts,” she says.

“But it was only when I went to New York for a summer and got a job in the Karasik Gallery that I realised it was what I wanted to do. I went back to New York for a second summer and managed that gallery.”

With her degree in English and philosophy, Mary augmented it with a post-graduate degree in arts management at UCD. “Since then, I never looked back,” she adds.

After qualifying, Mary worked at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) for four years.

“Declan McGonagle (the then director of IMMA) was a great mentor to me. I was running the artists’ residency programmes and I was in the curatorial department.

“One of the artists I worked with was Alice Maher. It was an incredible time in the early 1990s. The national cultural institutions were only being established. And it was a time when artists were just beginning to be profiled and appreciated more in Ireland.”

Mary McCarthy, incoming Director, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, pictured in front of the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Mary McCarthy, incoming Director, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, pictured in front of the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture: Denis Minihane.

After that job, Mary was appointed director of the National Sculpture Factory in Cork in 1996. She enjoyed working with artists “directly on the factory floor.”

She went on to work for the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and was deputy director of Cork’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2005, “a not uncontentious project,” before returning to the NSF.

Mary’s interview for the top job at the Crawford Gallery was “a tough and robust process.” But she is going to begin work in February in an institution “that is much loved in Cork” which makes it a pleasant prospect.

“It’s really a matter of looking at the gallery’s role in the city. It’s about opening it up more to the city and nationally so that it can fully inhabit its role as a national cultural institution. It’s also an incredible opportunity to make the collection and the contemporary projects ‘talk’ to each other. Both are of an exceptionally high quality. There are amazing conversations to be had between the works of art and the public.”

Mary will be looking at the gallery’s role in “raising discourse, in having conversations about society through the medium of fine art and actually involving artists and the public in that discourse.”

The Crawford is brilliantly positioned, she said: “I can’t think of a gallery that’s in a better position in the world. It’s in the middle of the city and it has a lot of regular visitors. People come in every day or every week to visit familiar artworks or to look at a new work. It’s like a family. It’s fantastic and it’s free.”

The Crawford is in the process of devising a new strategy.

“The strategy is looking at the next three to five years. What is the capital programme going to look like? What’s the development programme and what is the programming vision?”

Thanks to the stewardship of the former director of the Crawford, Peter Murray, and the board, the gallery is in good health.

“There are over 200,000 visitors per annum. It’s a real cultural catalyst in Cork.”

But Mary points out that there is a demographic who might think the gallery is not for them.

“So I’d like to deepen the relationships that are there and try to appeal to younger and older members of the public.

“Also, perhaps, it’s about bringing the programme at the Crawford out into the public by organising public discussions and offsite commissions.

“Right now, the gallery has a vibrant and well-subscribed education programme. Any time I go to the talks programme, they’re always packed. There’s a real appetite there.

“It’s a very well functioning organisation. I have to say it’s a phenomenal thing to be taking over a job in a place that’s running so well.”

In the last few weeks, Mary has been “humbled” by people stopping her on the street, people she doesn’t even know, who are saying how much they like the Crawford. “People are really affectionate towards it.”

The Crawford Gallery is currently closed on Sundays.

“I think there’s a huge appetite for our cultural institutions to be open on a Sunday. The Crawford is open six days a week and is open late on Thursdays. There is a demand in Cork for it to be open on Sundays so that people can do more than just go shopping.”

Mary says the board of the Crawford Gallery has ambitions to open out the building a bit more.

“I’d love to see the pop-up cafe (in the garden of the gallery) to continue. It’s about opening up the arts to public spaces and not really being bounded by the boundaries that exist.”

It is, says Mary, too early to say what exhibitions she would like to see mounted at the gallery.

“There’ a great curatorial team there and I’d love to work with them and establish new relationships. I would have ambitions to establish international relationships with similar museums.”

The Crawford is good at purchasing works. she added.

“I’m keen to establish a legacy. What kind of works do we collect? There’s no doubt visual artists in Ireland are at a really high point.

“We need to foster the appreciation of the public and also make opportunities for benefactors to support the purchasing of work by living artists.”

Being an artist is always challenging, Mary acknowledges.

“Funding for the arts has been cut phenomenally, about 30% on average, and it’s hard to see it coming back. All arts organisations have to look at new sources for funding.

“We’ll be looking at philanthropists and at operating the building as an extraordinary resource in the middle of town.”

Mary is appreciative of the friends of the Crawford who, for example, made it possible for a book on the Arts and Crafts movement in Cork from the 1880s to the 1920s, by art historian, Vera Ryan, to be published recently. It is a record of the exhibition, Made in Cork, that Vera curated earlier this year.

Asked what artists she likes, Mary points to the women that founded the National Sculpture Factor; Vivienne Roche, Eilis O’Connell and Maud Cotter.

She also likes the work of Dorothy Cross, Alex Pentak, Jesse Jones, Ruth Lyons and Isabel English to mention just a few.

“There is no shortage of talent,” says Mary, who is a true champion of the visual arts.

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