VAN Jan/Feb 2014: Emily Mark Fitzgerald – A Special Beauty in all that is Goodly…


Rachel Joynt, Noah's Egg, 2004. Veterinary building, UCD Belfield, Co. Dublin
Rachel Joynt, Noah’s Egg, 2004. Veterinary building, UCD Belfield, Co. Dublin


In making his case for the importance of liberal arts education, John Henry Newman argued in his Idea of a University (1852) that the value of education lay in its intellectual and broader social contribution, not merely in terms of its impact on the commercial economy. Reflecting on the aesthetic cultivation of landscape – and how this duty of care might be translated to the cultivation of the mind – he queried:

“Why do you take such pains with your garden or your park? You see to your walks and turf and shrubberies; to your trees and drives; not as if you meant to make an orchard of the one, or corn or pasture land of the other, but because there is a special beauty in all that is goodly in wood, water, plain, and slope, brought all together by art into one shape, and grouped into one whole.”

Clearly we are some distance removed from Newman’s principles as fundamental to the idea of the modern Irish university, entrenched as we are in the current model of output and impact-driven education. Yet what is further interesting to draw from Newman’s metaphor is the assumption that the value of a thoughtfully tended physical environment is obvious and shared. In terms of Irish universities’ recent attention to managing their own physical surroundings – especially in policies and procedures related to cultivating the cultural life and artistic vibrancy of their campuses – such expectations are met only inconsistently.

University art collections are probably one of the lesser-known resources in the visual arts, encompassing an enormous range of historical and contemporary works. Some have achieved high profile and acclaim – University College Cork’s Glucksman Gallery is the most obvious example – while others, such as Trinity College Dublin’s significant art collection, more quietly achieve remarkable levels of public access and exposure through active lending and exhibition policies. The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University Belfast has functioned as a key exhibiting space in Northern Ireland for more than a decade; and University of Limerick has arguably led the university pack in savvy contemporary acquisitions and community engagement with its historical collections.

At my own university – University College Dublin, the recent record and contemporary trajectory of strategic vision for arts and culture is more disappointing. We have the fabulous Newman House on St Stephen’s Green (under the care of its curator) and a wealth of artworks on the walls and dotted across campus – on any given day students walk by Rachel Joynt’s popular Noah’s Egg close to the veterinary school, or Corban Walker’s gridded glass sculpture outside the Health Sciences Library. Though by comparison UCD’s historical collections are relatively thin, some important and stunning works can still be uncovered (with persistence) at Belfield – including Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Evicted canvas in the Folklore Department, or John Hogan’s sculptural masterwork Hibernia with the bust of Lord Cloncurry in the Clinton Institute. Yet UCD’s visual arts committee (established under President Art Cosgrove) that oversaw the purchasing of many works, and drew wider representation across the university, was disbanded several years ago under our current administration. A number of acquisitions to the college collection have been made (even in straitened financial times) but there remains no strategic vision or oversight as to the purpose and direction of visual art, here at the largest university campus on the island.

With a number of new buildings recently unveiled or under construction at UCD, public art commissioning has persisted, but in a piecemeal fashion with no larger consultative process. Unfortunately some of the most recently unveiled public pieces on campus are the woeful legacy of this failure. The newly-opened and architecturally acclaimed student centre now boasts an impressive range of arts facilities, but no one is responsible for their longer-term programming or development. One suspects Newman himself would be aghast at how little attention is paid to developing the collections, space and resources that might develop students’ visual and aesthetic appreciation, at the university he helped establish.

The ongoing development of the new DIT Grangegorman campus throws into relief an alternative approach to campus planning. A massive civic project that will unify DIT’s campus at the site of the former St Brendan’s hospital in north Dublin, it will be one of the most important urban developments in coming years. Managed by the Grangegorman Development Agency, a campus art committee is already in place that will work with architects, landscape architects and representatives from Dublin cultural institutions to envision how the environs can be designed to meet the physical, aesthetic and intellectual needs of its future population.

This committee is deliberately independent and wide-ranging in its membership and brief. With so many resources, potentialities and enthusiasms (student, faculty, community) to draw upon, each of our college environments should be bursting with creative activity of every kind, but such visions must be supported and encouraged by enlightened leadership. As Newman well understood, education serves the ambition to “open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge”. Visual art – and the curating of the campus itself – have an essential part to play in expanding such cultural capacities.

Emily Mark Fitzgerald


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