With quiet hope, tinged with the possibility of disappointment, one looks forward to the full reopening of the National Gallery of Ireland in 2017. In March 2011 a €3.8 million refurbishment to the roof of the oldest part of the building, the Dargan Wing dating from 1864, was announced and scheduled to take 12 months. This necessitated the space be shut and soon afterwards the Milltown Wing, added in the early 20th century, was likewise closed to the public. Since then visitors have been unable to access either.
In January 2013 details of a €20 million refurbishment scheme for the institution were released, together with assurances by then-Minister for Arts and Heritage Jimmy Deenihan that work would be completed in good time for the gallery to act as one of the cornerstones of the centenary commemorations marking the Easter 1916 Rising. Well 2016 has come and gone and still up to 80 per cent of the NGI remains out of bounds. At least six years and more than €30 million have now been spent on the refurbishment project, for much of which period Sean Rainbird, the gallery’s director since 2012, has had to plan ahead while never knowing when the rest of the site would be returned to him and his staff (care of the building is the responsibility of another state body, the Office of Public Works).
A handful of rooms, mostly in the Millennium Wing, designed by London-based architects Benson & Forsyth and opened in 2002, have been used to display selections from the main collection and occasional modest temporary exhibitions. The arrangement can hardly be described as satisfactory, and caused much chagrin not least because the gallery, which like its British equivalents offers free admission, has long been one of Dublin’s most popular tourist destinations.
Conveniently the announced programme for 2017 makes it essential more space be made available. In early February, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’, on show in London’s National Gallery until mid January, is due to open at the NGI (11 February–14 May). Then in mid June, ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’, a blockbuster organised in partnership with the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, comes to its Dublin venue (17 June–17 September).
By that date the entire building ought to be open to the public, who, it is promised, will enjoy the benefits of improved climate, heating, electrical and security systems, as well as the reopening of Victorian features and spaces previously unseen by visitors. Best of all, pictures which have been in storage for too many years will once more be visible, allowing for the rediscovery of the NGI’s core holdings. It has been a long wait, but the end appears to be in sight. The next question to be answered is whether, on the other side of the river Liffey, Dublin’s new ‘Cultural Quarter’ centred on the Hugh Lane Gallery in Parnell Square, will come any closer to realisation in the year ahead. It was, after all, first announced in April 2013…
Robert O’Byrne is a writer specialising in the fine and decorative arts, and an Apollo columnist.
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