Loss of city art collection condemned as ‘embarrassing and deplorable’

Galway’s reputation as Ireland’s ‘culture capital’ has been called into serious question with the city relinquishing a major collection of Irish artworks, with controversy erupting over both the rationale for and handling of the decision.

In April, the Galway City Council handed back a 27 piece collection which included major names in late 19th and early 20th century Irish art, including Paul Henry, Roderic O’Connor, Walter Frederick Osborne, Sir John Lavery, and Jack B Yeats.

However the decision only became public in the last few days after some of the works went on sale for auction at Christie’s in London last month.

The decision to hand over the works has been condemned as “embarrassing and deplorable” by Independent city councillor Catherine Connolly, who said the incident “ highlights the need for a Municipal Arts Gallery for the City and County of Galway”.

The collection was loaned to the city in 1989 by the late Irish philanthropist Peter Daly on the basis that it be put on public display.

The works were on show for many years in the Bank of Ireland branch on the southern end of Eyre Square, but when that branch closed in the early noughties, the works went into storage in the Galway City Museum and remained there, unseen.

In April the collection was returned to Mr Daly’s trust even though the trust did not request its return. It is understood City Hall discussed the matter with the Daly family, citing ongoing insurance and storage costs, and that fact the council is not in a position to fund/found a municipal gallery for the city in which to display the works.

This was not made public at the time, a move that has caused much resentment among both politicians and the city’s arts community.

“The return of the collection without a single word to the city councillors beggars belief,” said Cllr Connolly, who is also a member of City Hall’s Recreation, Amenity and Culture Strategic Policy Committee. “The first I learnt about the decision was in recent days from the media. This decision, without bringing the matter to the attention of councillors, shows utter contempt for the elected members.”

The matter might not have come to light only for the decision of the Daly trust to sell the works at auction, with two being sold in Christie’s last month - a Paul Henry going for £100,850 and a John Lavery fetching £79,250. The provenance of the paintings would have been indicated, stating they were from Galway.

In an official statement, City Hall said: “The Galway City Council, in taking this decision recently reviewed the loan agreement. Having regard to the required restoration works, which were necessary prior to the public display of the art collection, the requirement to have suitable accommodation for same, and together with the long term plans for the collection, city council decided not to renew the loan agreement.”

Cllr Connolly has now written to city manager Joe O’Neill about the issue and she will raise it at this Monday’s city council meeting to call for a “written report, explanation, and full debate on the issue”.

Notwithstanding Cllr Connolly’s criticisms of City Hall, it is understood many council officials are angered by the decision to relinquish the collection. It is also understood the decision did not come from the city’s Arts Office, nor was it involved in the return of the collection.

The Galway Advertiser understands that after the collection went into storage, suggestions were made to house it in alternative locations. While it was acknowledged there was no money to establish a municipal gallery for the city, other locations were put forward - City Hall, which has, from time to time, held art exhibitions; NUI, Galway, which has a gallery; or the GMIT, which has an art college at its Cluain Mhuire campus. Comerford House was also mooted.

The works could have been loaned for a number of years, in trust, to either of the two colleges, while City Hall and Comerford House are looked after by the city council, and that way, remain on public display. However none of the above suggestions was acted on.

The scale of the insurance and storage costs as a reason for handing back the collection have also been questioned, as it is understood the level of money needed was a major drain on council resources.

There are also concerns among some officials that the loss of the collection will not only look bad for Galway but could harm the city’s chances of taking the European City of Culture title when it comes to Ireland in 2020.

Meanwhile Cllr Connolly said the controversy highlights it is time for “meaningful discussions with the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and/or NAMA in relation to the possibilities of acquiring premises and/or with the city and county council who own considerable land banks in the city and county.”

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