Search

01 Jul 2022

Day in the Life: Anna O’Sullivan, Director and Chief Curator of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny

KILKENNY

Anna O’Sullivan is the Director and Chief Curator of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny

Anna O’Sullivan is the Director and Chief Curator of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, Ireland where she also manages the Butler Gallery Permanent Collection.

Anna is also the worthy recipient of the Arts Award at this month’s Kilkenny People of the Year Awards. She is a woman of great tenacity, who stuck with the vision of the Butler Gallery in its new home at Evans’ Home.

Butler Gallery was founded in 1943 and moved to Kilkenny Castle in 1976. With Anna at the helm, it opened its new doors of Evans’ Home in the middle of a pandemic, in August 2020.  So, who is this great promoter of the visual arts, who has done so much for her adopted city?

HERE'S A LINK TO THIS EVENING'S AUCTION

Originally from Terenure in Dublin, Anna O’Sullivan graduated from the National College of Art & Design Dublin in 1982.
Prior to joining the Butler Gallery in 2005, O’Sullivan spent over twenty years in New York, first as curator of Performance Art at the avant-garde arts venue Franklin Furnace and then as Director of the Robert Miller Gallery. She has worked with many internationally renowned artists and artists’ estates to realise projects and exhibitions.

Whilst in New York, she was a member of ArtTable Inc (an organisation dedicated to advancing the leadership of women in the visual arts) and served on benefit committees for non-profit art spaces such as Art in General and the New Museum of Contemporary Art (1995-2005).

Anna was a board member of the Kilkenny Arts Festival from 2005-2020. She was recently awarded the RHA Gold Medal for her contribution to the arts in Ireland. She has written many catalogue essays and published catalogues on Irish artists including Richard Mosse, Tony O’Malley, Barrie Cooke, Michael Beirne, Gypsy Ray, Jane O’Malley and Stephen McKenna.
In 2013, Anna O’Sullivan was the commissioner and curator of the Irish Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale with Kilkenny’s Richard Mosse as the artist representing Ireland. She has been a visiting lecturer at various third level institutions and served on many artist review panels including the Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland. Here is a glimpse into Anna’s world…

After 23 years in New York, and 15 of those as an art dealer. What did Butler Gallery offer you that New York didn’t anymore?
I moved here in 2005, at that time I had worked for many years in the private sector as an art dealer. I had been doing it for many years and it was time for a change. I wanted to move back to the public sector, to work in a not-for-profit gallery and to take an opportunity to shape something important for the future. Butler Gallery presented that opportunity, and I could see great potential in Kilkenny when I came here for my interview.
Also, I had never worked in Ireland and my father was ill. So not only from a family point of view, I also wanted to come back to see what Ireland was like in the 21st century. I had left it in 1982, so I spent the 80’s and 90’s and a huge part of my coming of age years in New York.
When I moved back to Ireland, within one week I rented a house, bought a car and was working in a medieval castle! My New York friends would jest ‘let us count the ways in which your life has changed so much’! It did change, it couldn’t be no more different, but all for the better.

As beautiful as your old gallery was in Kilkenny Castle, it did have its limitations...
The Castle served us very well for many decades, since 1976. It was never going to fulfil our needs regarding having space to highlight the collection that we owned and, accessibility was a huge problem, as well as flexibility for exhibitions.
We have now moved from 110 square metres to 1,000 square metres. Having the space means that we can reveal what we have always done, and expand our programmatic ideas both for exhibitions and for learning and public engagement. The shift has just been incredible.

You had the foresight to see the potential of Butler Gallery. When did it get its big break?
We applied, with Kilkenny County Council to access Department of Arts capital money. In turn, the Butler Gallery was awarded €2 million in a grant, which was for museums, galleries and cultural spaces. That was the real carrot and the seed money for us to go elsewhere to try and add to it.
At the time we were looking to do a very big ambitious plan for over €4 million. The project went on for a very long time and costs ended up doubling and tripling.

You have been through three County Managers and three different Ministers for Culture to bring Evans’ Home to the amazing gallery that it is today. You were never going to throw in the towel!
Yes, not making this move happen was never contemplated. I suppose my years in the US encouraged a ‘can do’ attitude and failure was not an option.
(Former) County Manager Joe Crockett was great, because he identified Evans’ Home as a worthy space to renovate and bring back to life. The building was also of great interest to architects, as the prospect rescuing and bringing this building back to life was so worthy.
When (current Chief Executive of Kilkenny County Council) Colette Byrne became County Manager and reviewed the portfolio, she could really appreciate the value of our offer.
It helped that we were a long established organisation, around since 1943, with a permanent collection and far-reaching programmes. It was clear to Colette that it was worthwhile helping us to make it happen.
The county council applied for a grant to Failte Ireland to assist us with this development. They eventually awarded the project €1.135 million. It proved that everyone really wanted this development to happen.
Kilkenny County Council and the elected members got behind us with over €3million worth of funding, which really got Evans’ Home over the line.

The new Butler Gallery mushroomed up in its new home during the pandemic. You must be very proud?
It’s a magnificent contemporary museum nestled in the middle of the city. Yes, it is a huge achievement, but the space and the collection belong to the people of Kilkenny who are enjoying visiting regularly, which is so gratifying.
All the best architects in Ireland applied for the job through public procurement. We eventually went with McCullough Mulvin Architects, because of their great conservation work in the past but also because they were sensitive to what artists do. They wanted to make the space flexible for art as well as being a pleasant place to visit.
Niall McCullough and Ruth O’Herlihy, the partners on this job, foresaw the unique relationship the building had with its garden. The garden has been a great resource over the past 15 months, with our outside dining, Muse Café+food and our greenhouse pods have proved very popular. The gallery is also free for visitors and is welcoming to all.
However, with extra space comes extra overheads. There is huge responsibility when you are caretaking a building and safeguarding a collection for the future. It means that we have an onus upon us to build revenue.
While most of our funding comes from the Arts Council, we still must raise a considerable amount of funding ourselves.
Evans’ Home is also an important heritage site for Kilkenny, so we want to encourage general tourists as well as art lovers. We do this by running interesting paid tours and building in events in between exhibitions, maybe even a few weddings into the future.

In the meantime, you have an incredible Christmas benefit coming up for the Butler Gallery?
During Covid, it has been very difficult to raise money via corporate sponsorships and donations. The fact that we were closed for many months didn’t help matters.
So, it is necessary for us to do an auction again this year. We are hosting the Butler Gallery Christmas Benefit Auction in partnership with Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers this Friday, November 26.
The collection can be viewed at the host venue - Lyrath Estate Manor House until Friday (10am – 2pm) or can be viewed online www.fonsiemealy.ie. The pieces look fantastic in Lyrath house, with 110 works on exhibit. It’s a great opportunity to buy a great piece of art, at a very reasonable price, because the artists have been very generous with their estimates.
It will be a live event that will include a drinks reception with canapés, charcuterie platters and live music from the Carole Nelson Trio, all for €50 per person. There’s also an opportunity for people who don’t want to go out publicly, to register and participate with an absentee bid.

The artists who donated their work will also benefit from the auction.
Artists are at the core of what we do at the Butler Gallery — without them we can do nothing. The artists will be paid 50% of the sale price, which is important for us to be able to properly acknowledge their involvement.
The visual arts have been hit hard this pandemic, so it is important to us that all these artists are paid and their work respected. We thank them all for their involvement with this auction along with Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers and Lyrath Hotel. This event couldn’t happen without them.

For more information on the auction visit www.butlergallery.ie.

To continue reading this article for FREE,
please kindly register and/or log in.


Registration is absolutely 100% FREE and will help us personalise your experience on our sites. You can also sign up to our carefully curated newsletter(s) to keep up to date with your latest local news!

Register / Login

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.