Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Re-Naming of Sligo Gallery is Absurd

Nora Niland left a rich legacy -- so why not honour her?

When I opened the Sligo Art Gallery, nine years ago, I spoke at some length about the contribution Nora Niland had made to Sligo and of my own association with her from the late 1950s until her death in 1988. I regularly stayed near Strandhill, outside Sligo town, and took part in numerous Yeats Summer Schools, reporting on them in this newspaper and always emphasising the fact that there were other Yeatses in addition to William Butler Yeats.

This was Nora Niland's view and she did a great deal about it, assembling truly significant Yeats paintings over the years and hoping that one day they would be housed in a proper gallery. In her day they were upstairs in a building beside the library and usually opened by special arrangement with people who wanted to see them.

Nora died in 1988 and therefore did not witness the realisation of her ultimate dream -- a gallery to house her pictures. But she would have been pleased at the outstanding design work by the architects, McCullough Mulvin and I was happy and privileged to be able to recall her contribution on the opening day.

Like Hugh Lane, she would not have been fussed about having her name displayed as part of the gallery's rather muddled title, The Model + Niland as it became. She did what she did for Sligo town as Hugh Lane did it for Dublin. And I think she would have been entirely happy with a name like Sligo City Art Gallery.

She would undoubtedly have had problems concerning the new "naming" of the Sligo Art Gallery. This is to be 'The Model' with a sub-title 'Home of the Niland Collection'.

The Model has no meaning at all. The gallery is not a model for anything, least of all for how to name a gallery. When the word was attached to another word, The Model School, it made sense. My wife was a pupil there for some years and the education was good. The numbers who know about the Model School and appreciate what it did, decrease daily.

But "The Model" makes no sense on its own. Nor does it make sense as "a home" for a collection of paintings. The collection is wrongly named. Nora Niland never thought of it as "her" collection, nor did she think of the gallery as "the Niland Gallery". So we have a mish-mash here -- of meaningless terms and muddled descriptions.

The director/curator, Seamus Kealy, claims that "much research and discussion" took place and that "a decision has been taken". This may be so, though details of the research are not recorded in the minutes of the Gallery Board Meeting of April 28 when the "branding decision" was taken. By any standards the pushing through of the decision, with such a small attendance, is most unsatisfactory

Then a letter was written to the Sligo Champion, calling a halt to what was being done and the announcement of June 16 hastily informed the public, on behalf of the gallery, that "we had intended to launch this new name", adding "we welcome the rare opportunity this has given us to discuss the new name".

The director/curator then replied, citing The Tate as an example of "modern ambiguity" supportive of "The Model". This is not so at all. The Tate Gallery is named after Sir Henry Tate, the man who gave his private collection as a foundation for a modern gallery, and it is not "The Tate" it is "The Tate Gallery'.

I would be appalled if this state of affairs went on for much longer. The Sligo municipal art gallery is an established place, at present closed for renovation. When it opens it could be named, appropriately, the Sligo City Art Gallery, or the Niland Gallery, or the Nora Niland Gallery. The pointless and meaningless title "The Model", should be firmly jettisoned.

Using a name would equate the Sligo gallery with countless other art galleries in these islands, like the Walker, in Liverpool, the Whitworth in Manchester, the Hunterian and the Burrell, both in Glasgow, the Barber in Birmingham, and countless other galleries which happily celebrate the founding generosity of patrons. Nothing is more sensibly celebrated than this much-repeated act of selfless generosity.

A similar thread of insanity is affecting Sligo in respect of access. I will deal with this nearer to the time of the court case that is promised for late autumn. Suffice it to say that the efforts made by the new owners are admirably energetic and generous and the integrity of the guide who showed our party round is also admirable.

The Yeats international summer school has been a success and the star event of the week, for me, was Seamus Heaney's reading on the evening of the first day. It set a wholesome note at the outset which was also tentative, as though recalling 50 years of periodic involvement is not as easy as it was 25 years ago.

Long memories are in short supply, though not, it must be said, about the generosity of Nora Niland to the town.