maven46 meets: Rachael Thomas

Senior Curator and Head of Exhibitions at IMMA

Words by Sinead O'Reilly
March 21st, 2017

Photo by Killlian Broderick

Wish you were here! Rachael Thomas’ CV reads like some exotic postcard. From working in The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Tate Gallery and the Mead Gallery in the UK, to Online Curation in NYC, her work as a curator has seen her travel all over the globe. Settling now in our very own IMMA, on the outskirts of Dublin city, Rachael dutifully holds the position of Senior Curator and Head of Exhibitions at the Kilmainham space. Situated in the carefully conserved grounds of Kilmainham Gaol, IMMA is the home for modern and contemporary art in Ireland. And, chatting to the head of exhibitions earlier in the month, who was dressed in a vintage, velvet Yves Saint Laurent jumpsuit and a pair or coral heels, make no mistake, Rachael Thomas is its maven.

On her arrival to Dublin…

Having previously worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Tate and the Mead Gallery in the UK I was really inspired to come to Dublin to work at IMMA as it has such a strong and respected link to innovative shows and artists. My background is, originally, as an art historian but I specialised early on with contemporary works, having been influenced in Los Angeles by the great American Fluxus artist, Eleanor Antin. Antin is a pioneering female artist and it was a real a pleasure to help with her show and her vision of art; which is that art that is part of life and real! As part of my role at IMMA, I have curated numerous exhibitions with Irish and international artists and I am also a published writer and have been awarded the Millennium Fellowship which brings me full circle to working with exciting and innovative artists.

On her typical day at work…

I’m responsible for the development of temporary exhibitions at IMMA, and I work closely with artists to shape their visions and install their works in the museum. It is a diverse and fast paced role which I really enjoy. Every day is different, meeting different artists for both current and future shows and working with them on how we can best exhibit or realise their work. For example, I talked with the Brazilian artist Stephan Doitschinoff today, who will be producing new work for our next show which is based on the theme of Spirituality – As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics. I’m curating this group show with Sam Thorne (Nottingham Contemporary) and it features an exciting selection of modern masterworks and contemporary commissions. The arc of the exhibition spans a hundred years from the abstract masterworks of Kandinsky, of Klint and Kupka. The title, As Above, So Below, echoes an often quoted saying employed by artists, poets, writers and astrologers alike, as a means to describe and understand the mysterious but familiar world around us. The exhibition traces and questions the genesis of deep, religious, mystical and occult beliefs that continue to shape the ideas of contemporary artists today.

On the modern art scene in Dublin…

Dublin has a really exciting and vibrant art scene. There are great artists like Jessie Jones, who is representing Ireland at this year’s Venice Biennale, to a lot of respected and talented artists such as Rhona Byrne, Grace Weir, Ronan McCrea and Lucy McKenna, Jaki Irvine… The list really is endless. Dublin is viewed on a global level as respected and with a fresh sense of vision.

On social and political effects on artists…

Contemporary artists always respond to the current times they are living in, and we collect these responses through the IMMA Collection, with works by Les Levine, Ronan McCrea, and Alanna O’Kelly really representing, for me, the politics of our times. Our temporary exhibitions can be even more reflective in a way as they take place in the moment. Previous exhibitions like I Know You (2013) showed how the landscape of modern Art was changing with the economic upturn in Dublin, What We Call Love (2015) looked at the expression of love and relationships in art and we just recently closed Europa an exhibition by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir about migration and statehood.

Conversations, IMMA Collection, 2014
Trixie on the Cot, Nan Goldin

On arts funding in Ireland…

It’s great to see more recognition of arts and culture through the launch of Creative Ireland. An area that really suffered [due to the recession] is direct income for artists, and studio space for artists without a thriving studio scene it isn’t possible for artists to develop and grow and that has a knock-on effect for the impression of Ireland abroad. In IMMA, we are fundraising to commission and purchase artists’ work, and to provide artists’ studios, through a fund called IMMA 1000 so people can donate to that fund, or you can purchase Irish contemporary work from a wide variety of fantastic galleries in Dublin, the likes of Kerlin Gallery, Mother’s Tankstation, Kevin Kavanagh and Ellis King Gallery, to name just a few, as well as our own IMMA Art Editions which are an affordable way to buy work from IMMA exhibiting artists.

On the effects of social media on art today…

Art is obviously a really visual medium, so I think platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have really opened up an appreciation, and an audience, for the visual arts. I can see it myself on my own Instagram and on IMMA’s Instagram where there is a really strong community talking about, and sharing, their experiences of art. As a curator it can be really inspiring to see the photos people take when they visit shows at IMMA – it gives me an opportunity to see the work through their eyes. Certain work is more easily communicated visually than others so there is a concern that more ‘instagrammable’ work gets to be more popular simply for that reason. It will be interesting to look back in 3 or 5 years to see if social media affected the sort of art being made.

On the upcoming Nan Goldin exhibition…

Nan Goldin’s show is called Sweet Blood Call and shows at IMMA from the 15 June – 15 October 2017. Nan is known for intensely personal, spontaneous, sexual, and transgressive photographs. In 1979 Goldin presented her first slideshow in a New York nightclub. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency—the name she gave this show will form part of the IMMA show, along with pivotal works from Goldin’s oeuvre including drawings, portraits of women as family, friends, and lovers, as well as previously unseen work from Ireland. This is the first solo exhibition at IMMA by Nan Goldin and I’m particularly interested in looking at the role and expression of female relationships in Nan’s work, something that hasn’t been focused on before.

On the correlation of fashion and art…

It is essential as it shows innovation and ways to cross-fertilize ideas. Another artist that works in this way is Wolfgang Tillmans. His current Tate Modern show is really great and he’s someone who has made a major impact on fashion photography, even walking in fashion shows himself! It may be a natural fit for photography but Picasso and other artists have always worked with fashion so the future possibilities are open and exciting.

On her day to day style…

For work, I would be professional, such as a Yves Saint Laurent ’80s jumpsuit or a Gucci suit. Trainers are a must when are you are installing a show as you’re always on the move! I do like heels by Charlotte Olympia at night. There are some really great Irish designers; I really like Simone Rocha and love Pauric Sweeney’s bags.

On finding her style thanks to art…

I think artists are the best dressed, as there is always a sense of real individual style in what they wear.


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