Anne Hodge & Niamh MacNally: Curators At The National Gallery

As part of our expert career series, the CURATOR AND ASSISTANT CURATOR OF PRINTS AND DRAWINGS tell us how childhood visits to THE NATIONAL GALLERY were instrumental in their CAREER CHOICES

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The National Gallery on Dublin’s Merrion Square is undergoing a huge renovation but while parts of the gallery are under wraps until 2017, for curators – and the visiting public –it’s very much business as usual. The Gallery houses a collection of over 12,000 works on paper – prints, pastels, watercolours, sketchbooks and miniatures, from the 15th century to the present day. Highlights include old master drawings by François Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jacob Jordaens, works by Irish and British artists, Frederic William Burton, Walter Osborne, William Orpen, Paul Henry, as well as Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. Not forgetting 31 watercolours by English landscape painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) which arrived in Dublin in September 1900 in a custom-made oak cabinet, and went on show for the first time at the Gallery in January 1901. Works on paper are vulnerable to prolonged periods of light so are not on permanent display year round. Henry Vaughan’s bequest stipulated the drawings should be exhibited to the public, free of charge, each January when the light is at its lowest level. If the run-up to Christmas means one thing to Anne Hodge and Niamh MacNally, respectively Curator and Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, it’s Turner, as the catalogue for the exhibition is updated, the hanging plan finalised, and a tradition of almost 120 years continues. Both Hodge and MacNally visited the exhibition as children. As Hodge says, “Bequests like Vaugan’s are a present to the nation and it’s wonderful to see visitors enjoying it year after year, passing that interest down, often by grandparents to grandchildren.”

For both women, early exposure to art was instrumental in their choice of career, or at least their decisions to study in the area. Hodge, a graduate of NCAD and UCD, was as a student captivated by the idea of provenance of art and the historical context in which works were painted or drawn. Niamh MacNally could have followed in the footsteps of other family members and joined the family’s optical business but chose another path, one of a very different visual nature.

If a curator was once considered a stuffy role by the uninitiated, films like The First Monday in May, which featured Andrew Bolton of the Met Museum in New York, have helped highlight the interesting work of a curator. Hodge and MacNally are not lunching with Anna Wintour of Vogue, nor is Baz Luhrmann art-directing the opening of their exhibitions, but nor are they cooped up writing and researching, lost in an arcane world of scholarship. Says MacNally, “We are lecturing, meeting the public, family members of artists, other curators, travelling as couriers to other museums and galleries.” Hodge notes that as well as adding to the body of work about an artist, “Our job is to inspire and encourage others – students of art and art history, with our knowledge of the works in the National Collection.” Meet The Curator sessions and access to the study room are ways of imparting that knowledge. MacNally and Hodge also advise on the acquisition of works – especially those by female artists, to redress the gender balance – and also the acquisition of interesting pieces to close the gaps in the chronology of any collection.

Hodge is not just an expert on Turner: she was responsible for the Edvard Munch and Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions among many others in her 15 years at the Gallery, but, at this time of the year, he is uppermost in her mind. “The interesting thing about our Turner pieces is that they span his early work as a teenager, until his latter years.” Her knowledge of Turner earned her a visit from Mike Leigh, director of the excellent 2014 film, Mr Turner.

While the Turner collection is being prepared by Hodge for its annual outing, MacNally is working on a 2017 exhibition. Margaret Clarke (1884-1961), wife of celebrated stained glass artist Harry Clarke, was an accomplished and highly regarded artist in her own right, a student of William Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and the second female member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (the first was Sarah Purser). “Contextualising an artist and her work,” says MacNally, “should tell an interesting story with a fresh perspective.” Many of the works come from the Gallery’s own collection (a bequest from the partner of one of Clarke’s sons). Other material comes from the Crawford in Cork and the National Self Portrait Collection at UL. “It is the curator’s job to bring it out, present it in a way that is inclusive, accessible and welcoming.” Hodge adds, “This is the National Collection: it belongs to all of us.” ^ SMcD

The Vaughan Bequest, January 1-31 2017. Admission free. The Art of Margaret Clarke RHA (1884-1964), May 10-August 20 2017. Research students and members of the public are welcome to visit the Prints & Drawings Study Room, 01 663 3535. Email drawings@ngi.ie.

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our January issue, out Thursday, January 5.

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