Knowledge Centre Blog

National Gallery of Ireland – DeVos Programme Learning

Sean Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, taking part in the New Stream partnership with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at The Kennedy Center

Director of the National Gallery of Ireland Sean Rainbird and Press & Communications Officer Valerie Keogh discuss how they are implementing their DeVos programme learnings to prepare the Gallery for its 150th Anniversary in 2014. | Interview by Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan

Sean Rainbird joined the National Gallery during a time of transitional change and a broad generational shift. Faced with a number of challenges, he and the Gallery staff have worked to implement a number of new initiatives, both strategic and curatorial. With funding, and consequently staffing, under pressure, in order to continue innovating with their programme, the Gallery put on a rotating series of displays and mini exhibitions. He encouraged the team to be creative and bring new ideas to the table, with the staff presenting their ideas instead of the curating decisions coming from the top-down. “It was wonderful to see the creative sense of the organisation kicking into gear”, says Sean.

With the closures of galleries brought about by the building work at Merrion Square, the  financial uncertainty and  staff shortages which have been imposed upon us, there was a lot of potentially bad news and negative developments. What we undertook was to say ‘we’re not closed’ and that there are wonderful things to do and see at the Gallery. Sean Rainbird

Echoing the DeVos strategy of using programmatic spikes to bring in an audience and build ‘family’, the Gallery organised openings for each exhibition. For these events, the staff ensured that more art-world professionals and members of the press were present. Most importantly, with the introduction of openings, the Gallery began looking for sponsorship partners such as Hennessy, which sponsored a number of exhibition launches in 2013, including the opening of Treasured Sheets: European Works from the Collection. Partnerships, such as the sponsorship with Hennessy, help contribute to building new experiences around the Gallery.

Regarding Institutional and Programmatic Marketing, Press & Communications Officer, Valerie Keogh feels that there was a lot to overcome in order to start implementing proposals arising out of discussions with DeVos colleagues. However these strategies came at a good time. The main issue, she feels, was not having the funds to move forward. This issue led to the possibility of “becoming stagnant and losing the interest of your stakeholders and your day-to-day visitors”. With the introduction of more creative programming around the collection, an expanded education programme, and engagement with the community, the NGI has developed a more focussed marketing strategy. “It’s not just marketing externally,” she says, “through institutional marketing, it’s keeping staff engaged and interested, it’s looking at your organisation on the premises as well as online”. With the support of the DeVos Programme, Valerie has recently completed a communication strategy document. Looking at Programmatic Marketing, Valerie pinpointed external events that they can link to Gallery events and gain profile. By taking advantage of tourism initiatives such as The Gathering, the Gallery can plan a programme that maximises the amount of visitors.

In 2014, the National Gallery will be celebrating its 150th Anniversary, which Sean and Valerie feel will be an ideal opportunity to “celebrate aspects of the Gallery that are not at the forefront of the public mind.” This will be an opportunity to implement aspects of Institutional Marketing, by celebrating the Gallery itself. Sean wants to centre the programme around “back of house, conservation projects or things that are buried in archives and libraries: these are the kinds of things that we will pick up and run with for the next two to three years that will keep a drip-feed of good, strong, positive activity”. The staff have planned a variety of activities, such as the publication of a book and an exhibition based on writers’ reactions to the collection. “We will create a series of events across the year,” says Sean, “which will be useful for fundraising as well as awareness-raising.” Then in 2015-16 the team will be planning for a new hang to celebrate the newly-refurbished galleries. Sean is also looking forward to the completed restoration of two major paintings, Monet’s Argenteuil with a Single Sailboat (1874) and The Prodigal Son series by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Looking at the DeVos Programme itself, Sean found the interactions with DeVos’s Michael Kaiser especially useful, empowering staff members to engage more with Board members. “The benefits of the DeVos programme would certainly be the focus on boards, particularly in Irish organisations” says Valerie. “We have to re-educate ourselves and help the board see that they can be as beneficial to promoting the institution as the executives”. Sean also found the one-to-ones helpful, as they keep the staff motivated with their checking in and monitoring process. “We’re very well aware that it’s a 360 degree perspective that we’re looking at, dovetailing the DeVos programme with our strategic planning” says Sean. He feels the programme is run in a practical way, however, the only challenge is sustaining closeness when there is such a physical distance between the organisation and the external advisors.  Overall, Sean finds that bringing the American perspective to Europe is useful for approaching fundraising from a broader perspective.

We really are on the threshold of deciding how to take this on, how to take our future into our own hands, and how we begin to influence the political classes about incrementally changing laws to help fundraising. Sean Rainbird

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