Anna O’Sullivan is director and chief curator of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, Ireland, where she also manages the permanent collection of the Butler Gallery.
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 has remained true to the vision of the Butler Gallery in her new home at Evans’ Home.
Butler Gallery was founded in 1943 and moved to Kilkenny Castle in 1976. With Anna at the helm, she opened her new doors at Evans’ Home in the midst of a pandemic, in August 2020. So who is this great promoter of visual arts, who did so much for their adopted city?
HERE IS A LINK TO TONIGHT’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 more than twenty years in New York City, first as Curator of Performance Arts at the avant-garde Franklin Furnace Art Hall, then in as director of the Robert Miller Gallery. She has worked with many artists and estates of internationally renowned artists to carry out projects and exhibitions.
While in New York, she was a member of ArtTable Inc (an organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership in the visual arts) and served on benefit committees for nonprofit 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 to 2020. She was recently awarded the RHA Gold Medal for her contribution to the arts in Ireland. She has written numerous catalog essays and published catalogs 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 curator and curator of the Irish pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale with Richard Mosse of Kilkenny as artist representing Ireland. She has been a guest speaker at various third level institutions and served on numerous artist review boards including the Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland. Here’s a glimpse into Anna’s world …
After 23 years in New York, including 15 as an art dealer. What has the Butler Gallery given you that New York no longer has?
I moved here in 2005, by that time I had worked for many years in the private sector as an art dealer. I had been doing this for many years and it was time for a change. I wanted to get back into the public sector, work at a non-profit gallery, and grab the opportunity to shape something big for the future. Butler Gallery presented this opportunity, and I saw great potential in Kilkenny when I came here for my interview.
In addition, I had never worked in Ireland and my father was ill. So not only from a family perspective, I also wanted to come back to see what Ireland was like in the 21st century. I left it in 1982, so I spent the 80s and 90s and much of my mature years in New York City.
When I returned to Ireland, within a week, I rented a house, bought a car and worked in a medieval castle! My New York friends would joke “count the ways your life has changed so much”! It has changed, it couldn’t be more different, but for the better.
As beautiful as your old gallery at Kilkenny Castle was, it had its limits …
The chateau has served us very well for many decades, since 1976. It was never going to meet our space needs to showcase the collection we had and, accessibility was a huge issue, as well as flexibility for exhibitions.
We have now gone from 110 square meters to 1,000 square meters. Having the space means we can reveal what we’ve always done and expand our programmatic ideas both for exhibits and for audience learning and engagement. The change has been nothing short of amazing.
Yesou have had the foresight to see the potential of the Butler Gallery. When did he take his big break?
We applied, along with the County Council of Kilkenny, to access the capital of the Department of the Arts. In turn, the Butler Gallery received a grant of 2 million euros intended for museums, galleries and cultural spaces. It was the real carrot and the starting money for us to go elsewhere to try and add to it.
At the time, we were looking to achieve a very large ambitious plan of more than 4 million euros. The project lasted a very long time and the costs ended up doubling and tripling.
You walked through three County Directors and three different Culture Ministers to bring Evans’ Home to the amazing gallery it is today. You were never going to throw in the towel!
Yes, not making this move was never considered. I guess my years in the US encouraged a positive attitude and failure was not an option.
(Former) County Manager Joe Crockett was great as he identified Evans’ house as a worthy space to renovate and breathe new life into. The building was also of great interest to the architects, so laudable was the prospect of saving and reviving this building.
When (current Kilkenny County Council CEO) Colette Byrne became County Director and reviewed the portfolio, she was able to truly appreciate the value of our offering.
It helped that we were a long established organization, since 1943, with a permanent collection and extensive programs. It was clear to Colette that it was worth helping us get there.
The County Council has applied for a grant from Failte Ireland to help us in this development. They finally awarded the project 1.135 million euros. It proved that everyone really wants this development to happen.
Kilkenny County Council and elected members backed us up with over € 3million in funding which really took Evans’ Home to go above and beyond.
The new Butler Gallery has mushroomed in its new home during the pandemic. You must be very proud?
It is a magnificent contemporary museum tucked away 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 like to visit regularly which is so rewarding.
All of Ireland’s top architects applied for the job through public procurement. We ended up choosing McCullough Mulvin Architects, because of their great curatorial work in the past, but also because they were sensitive to what artists do. They wanted to make the space flexible for art while being a fun place to visit.
Niall McCullough and Ruth O’Herlihy, the partners in this work, anticipated the building’s unique relationship with its garden. The garden has been a great resource for the past 15 months, with our outside dining area, Muse Café + food and our greenhouse pods proved to be very popular. The gallery is also free for visitors and is welcoming to all.
However, the additional space incurs additional overhead costs. There is a huge responsibility when you take care of a building and save a collection for the future. This means that we have a duty to generate income.
Although most of our funding comes from the Canada Council for the Arts, we still have to raise a considerable amount of funding ourselves.
Evans’ Home is also an important heritage site for Kilkenny, so we want to encourage tourists in general as well as art lovers. To do this, we organize interesting paid tours and organize events between exhibitions, maybe even a few weddings in the future.
In the meantime, do you have an amazing Christmas present coming up for the Butler Gallery?
During Covid, it was very difficult to raise funds through sponsorship and corporate donations. The fact that we were closed for several months did not help matters.
It is therefore necessary for us to do an auction again this year. We are organizing the Butler Gallery Christmas auction in partnership with Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers this Friday November 26th.
The collection can be viewed on the host site – Lyrath Estate Manor House until Friday (10:00 am – 2:00 pm) or can be viewed online at www.fonsiemealy.ie. The pieces are fantastic in the Lyrath House, with 110 works on display. This is a great opportunity to purchase a great work of art, at a very reasonable price, as the artists have been very generous with their estimates.
It will be a live event which will include an aperitif with canapes, charcuterie platters and live music from the Carole Nelson Trio, all for € 50 per person. There is also an opportunity for people who do not want to go out in public, to register and participate with a tender.
Artists who have donated their work will also benefit from the auction.
Artists are at the heart of what we do at the Butler Gallery – without them we can’t do anything. The artists will be paid 50% of the sale price, which is important so that we can properly recognize their involvement.
The visual arts have been hit hard by this pandemic, so it is important to us that all of these artists are paid and that their work is respected. We thank them all for their involvement in this auction with Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers and Lyrath Hotel. This event could not take place without them.
For more information on the auction, visit www.butlergallery.ie.