I have been travelling again, this time to the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin. I have long been an admirer of the work that IMMA has done in collaboration with artists and their local community over the last 26 years, so I valued the opportunity to spend three days in Dublin, speaking with Helen O’Donoghue (Senior Curator: Engagement and Learning) and her colleagues, reviewing material that IMMA has kept on its projects and being in the museum itself.
IMMA is housed in the seventeenth century Royal Hospital Kilmainham, a building that was for 250 years a home for retired soldiers. The Museum opened in 1991 and holds the Irish National Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, which is comprised of work by Irish and International artists. IMMA has a vibrant exhibitions programme and an artist-in-residence scheme as well as its extensive Engagement and Learning programme. The latter was in existence prior to the Museum’s inauguration and has continued to expand and innovate to the present day.
A key reason I am interested in IMMA is because of how they have translated their mission – to connect audiences with art and provide an open and participatory space where people can experience something new and share knowledge and new thinking – into their programmes, and the essential role that research has played in this. Writing in 2009 Helen identified that what was then referred to as Education and Community programmes ‘interact with all aspects of the broad IMMA programme and are informed by action-research and participants’ feedback.’ In the same text, she also acknowledges that ‘current programmes have been informed by a series of research projects that were put in place from the outset of IMMA’s existence, to test out ideas and situations and develop good practice in the field of arts education and artists’ collaborative practice’. It is these early models of research-led practice, as well as IMMA’s current work, that I am keen to explore further, to understand how they functioned effectively within the museum and what they can tell us about collaborative, artist-led creative praxis in the context of a modern and contemporary art museum.
Speaking to the IMMA staff and reading the material that relates to the projects and programmes that ran at the Museum during the early to mid-1990s, what emerged for me is the value of having a clear strategy for access and education, alongside the realisation that the context and leadership of the museum played a significant part in enabling the experimental activities that were put in place at that time. The building itself, for example, opened up (or perhaps necessitated) an innovative approach, as the Royal Hospital is neither a conventional white cube gallery space, nor is it located in the centre of Dublin. Equally IMMA did not have a substantial acquisitions budget, hence was required to think differently about how it would work with artists and build the collection. The environment thus encouraged new and untried modes of programming and audience engagement.
Of equal importance was the fact that the founding Director, Declan McGonagle, was committed to working with the local community to enable them to be active in shaping IMMA’s future, whilst Helen as the programmer for community and education, brought her expertise and values as an artist involved in socially engaged practice. Together they developed and implemented a strategy founded on collaborative learning that involved a series of experimental interventions working with artists and different local constituencies. These initiatives aimed to explore how a contemporary art museum could be relevant to people’s lives, whilst providing a space where local, national and international visitors were empowered to question art and the museum and interrogate how both functioned in the world. In this way, the strategy was, in part, activated by testing models of art practice in partnership with local communities.
There is not space here to detail these projects individually, but some of the extraordinary work that took place at that time includes the Unspoken Truths project, which involved the artist Ailbhe Murphy working with two Dublin women’s groups and the IMMA Education and Community department over five years from 1991 and which drew on the principles of community development and arts education. The project involved the women coming together to share and make visible their experiences and culminated in the Unspoken Truths exhibition that was shown at IMMA and toured to venues throughout Ireland, with the women involved devising workshops to accompany the exhibition and going on to speak about their work at national and international conferences.
What interests me particularly about Unspoken Truths, apart from the degree of commitment by all those involved, is the acknowledged inbuilt and ongoing evaluative process that informed the development of the programme. In simple terms, every stage of this emergent project was jointly examined by all those taking part, with this reflection and analysis determining the next stage of activity. This democratic process helped dismantle the hierarchies between the women, the artist and the museum, and enable a programme to develop that allowed for maximum participation and the authentic representation of each individual’s experience. The process of doing, reviewing and applying what had been learnt in practice required careful negotiation, but built trust and introduced a degree of critical rigour that insured that the process and outcomes were true to the ambitions everyone had for the project. New knowledge was generated by all those involved and the process brought about outcomes that made a positive difference to the museum and participants and had an impact in the wider world.
As such the project seems to exemplify what Levin and Greenwood (writing in Denzin and Lincoln’s 2013 text) see as the essential components of action research. For these writers, action research should be socially meaningful and responsible and grounded in the research participants’ lives. The process of action research involves a collaborative learning process – ‘where good arguments support transformative learning for all’ – that results in practical solutions that generate new knowledge and bring about social change. Levin and Greenwood argue that action research makes ‘direct connections between theory and practice,’ a process that is enhanced by bringing together diverse expertise in real world contexts.
With this in mind, I am interested in digging deeper into how IMMA’s work from the 1990s onwards can be located as research-led creative practice and what this adds to our understanding of artist-led participatory practice in the museum. Action research is a term that has been applied, at times loosely, to work undertaken by education departments in museums. However, reading the final report on Unspoken Truths which documents and evaluates the project’s progress and analyses the model of practice adopted, it is apparent that the project raises some interesting questions in relation to the approach to action research Levin and Greenwood advocate. I will be worrying away at these over the next few months.
What I am aware of already is that this framework of collaborative action research has shaped how IMMA engages with communities in all their projects subsequently, not least the ground-breaking work the museum undertook over nine years in the 1990s with artists and local women to address the issue of violence against women (Once is Too Much). This, and all the work that IMMA continues to do, relies in Helen’s words on ‘critical energy and open-mindedness’ on the part of the museum and those it works with. This is evident in the early projects and in IMMA’s more recent initiatives which continue to embody the values established when the museum opened, even though the context has changed. The work reveals how a framework of artist-led collaborative and creative knowledge generation within the context of the art museum is effective when all those taking part are prepared to explore and challenge their ways of working and subject their thinking and actions to rigorous interrogation that may bring about significant change.