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PRINT April 2001

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Declan McGonagle and the IMMA

It appears that an attempt to unseat Declan McGonagle, the director and chief executive of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), has failed. On November 30 the Irish Times reported that McGonagle had been informed by the chair of the museum’s board that his post was “being redefined and would be publicly advertised.” McGonagle immediately applied to the Irish High Court for an injunction restraining the museum from placing an advertisement. On December 2 the High Court postponed hearing the case—it has done so again several times since—pending negotiations between the director and representatives of the board, which have been facilitated by a government-appointed mediator since early January.

The Irish media has treated the dispute largely as a matter of clashing visions for the museum’s future between McGonagle and Marie Donnelly, chair of an incoming board selected early in 2000 by the minister for arts. McGonagle, originally appointed director on a five-year contract in 1990, a year before IMMA opened in May 1991, had previously spent two terms as director of the Orchard Gallery in his native Derry, punctuated by a stint in the mid-’80s as exhibitions director at the ICA, London. His program at the Orchard, decidedly political in focus, linked the local with the international and was based on a view of art as inextricable from its sociocultural matrix. His program for the fledgling IMMA was avowedly opposed to the model of the modern art museum as a temple for the veneration of canonical artworks, and he was seen as ideally qualified to guide a national museum with no preexisting collection through its formative years. McGonagle was given a second five-year contract that was officially up last spring, though he remained at IMMA’s helm months later and was generally expected to preside over its tenth-anniversary celebrations this summer.

Donnelly, a prominent socialite and charity fundraiser, is, along with her husband, Joe, regarded as the only serious Irish collector of international contemporary art. She and her allies on the board were reportedly dissatisfied with IMMA’s attendance rates and public profile; they favored a greater emphasis on large-scale blockbuster exhibitions and sought a new director with proven financial and fund-raising skills.

Initial reports in the national press indicated strong support for McGonagle from many artists, including Hans Haacke, Leon Golub, and Nancy Spero, along with leading collectors and corporate sponsors. An unexpected boost for McGonagle’s side came when the Sunday Business Post published an article suggesting that his removal would jeopardize an intended (but previously unreported) gift to IMMA from Kent and Vicki Logan of a significant tranche of the Colorado-based couple’s collection of contemporary art. A setback followed when the Irish Times issued an appraisal of IMMA’s putative lack of popular appeal, citing falling attendance figures, a dreary restaurant, unimaginative merchandise, and an unwelcoming ambience. The newspaper subsequently published a spirited rebuttal from IMMA’s head of public relations. (Throughout it all, McGonagle has remained off-the-record, cannily allowing this chorus of reaction to speak for him.) At the time of this writing, the board had expressed its intent, in a court affidavit, to offer McGonagle a further contract. Its precise terms and conditions are unknown, but if events to this date are any indication, the director will stick to his guns.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is an arts writer based in Dublin.