RTE Television

Portrait of a Gallery

In 2011, the National Gallery of Ireland closed its doors at Merrion Square, and two thirds of the building, to begin one of the largest refurbishment projects in the history of the state. Six years later, after numerous delays and costing close to €30million, the NGI will finally re-open the historic Dargan and Milltown wings in June 2017.

"We will be opening up to the public saying this is yours, come back and claim it because you've been out too long" Sean Rainbird, NGI Director, May 2107.

This special observational documentary film secured unique access inside the walls of the National Gallery of Ireland, the nation's most visited cultural attraction, while the institution goes through huge change. If ever there was a time to have cameras in the gallery, during its 150-year history, this was it. Three and a half years in the making, director Adrian McCarthy and Wildfire Films observed the day-to-day running of the institution while witnessing the transformation of the dilapidated historic Dargan and Milltown wings. A mammoth challenge for architects Heneghan Peng, the Office of Public Works and their construction team as they attempt to feed modern services beneath a protected 150 year-old and 110 year-old building while also opening up new spaces never before seen by the public.

There has been a legacy of problems with dampness, water damage and temperature control making these historic wings unfit to house the national collection of Irish and European art. There has also been the on-going issue of people getting lost as they navigate their way through the buildings. The objective is to transform these impressive Victorian buildings back to their original beauty while creating one of the most impressive modern gallery spaces in Europe.

Throughout this formidable construction project the gallery decided to keep its Clare Street entrance open and created a buffer zone between the noisy building project on one side of the wall and the smaller busy public galleries in the Beit and Millennium wings on the other. Over the life of this transformation we get to know director Sean Rainbird and members of his team as they deal with over 700,000 yearly visitors while planning on-going exhibitions and preparing the collection for the largest re-hang in the Gallery's history.

We spend time with colourful head curators Adriaan Waiboer (Head of Collections and Research), Brendan Rooney (Irish Art) and Adrian Le Harivel (British Art) as they meticulously prepare for months in advance of the re-hang. Between them they are responsible for the layout of the majority of the 650+ paintings, which will hang in the newly refurbished galleries.

"We've made maps of where pictures are going and we've been staring at these maps for way to long now and we want to start hanging. The moment of truth is coming". Adriaan Waiboer.

We spend time with the head of conservation Simone Mancini and his team as they prepare masterpieces like the newly restored 'Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife' by Maclise - the largest painting in the collection, "We are working ahead of everybody else in the gallery, because we need to prepare the collection well in advance of the re-opening. So there is huge pressure. But we do what we do because we love it". We also meet with paintings conservator Ele von Monschaw as she makes the final touches to the damaged Monet painting 'Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sail Boat' before its return to the public gallery. The painting was violently vandalized by a member of the public in June 2012.

There are many surprises and unknowns when dealing with old listed buildings like the Dargan (built in 1864) and Milltown (built in 1903), especially when the plan is to dig beneath unchartered basement foundations in order to feed through modern services. All of this happens under the watch of award winning architects Heneghan Peng. Kasia Turza-Rachwal, Supervising Architect; "The most important issue that needs to be resolved is the environment of the existing buildings as there were big fluctuations in terms of temperature and humidity, that caused damage to the paintings and the gallery couldn't continue like that".

The John Paul Construction site manager is colourful Dubliner John Francis "I've often said the title of refurbishment can be very deceiving, it gives the impression we're doing a little bit of plastering and a touch of paint here and there but I think the internal re-build of the National Gallery of Ireland would have been more appropriate".

We also get to know builders, cleaners, gallery attendants, conservationists and speak to some visitors to this national institution. All giving an insight into how a national gallery, which belongs to the Irish people, functions while witnessing the challenges, pressures and expectations as we head towards the re-opening.

Filmed from January 2014 until June 2017 our cameras observe moments on both sides of the buffer zone where we capture the highs and lows of the building project as they deal with surprises underground, bad weather and the pressures to deliver the building back to the NGI on schedule. We get intimate with the iconic Carlo Cambi carved wooden door frames as they are removed, repaired and returned to the Milltown wings - along with a newly discovered hand written note on one of the frames scribbled by Mr Cambi himself in 1901. We witness the departure of the William Dargan statue (who helped establish the NGI) from the front lawn, where a huge energy center will get built underneath. His majestic return, thirty months later, signifies the end of construction.

We witness the opening up of the large impressive Victorian windows in the lower galleries, which were blocked up in the 1960's to create more hanging space. The impact on these rooms with the influx of natural light is staggering. We find out what happens when the demolition team accidentally come across a deep water well beneath the Milltown structure. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all is the creation of a new sculpture courtyard between both buildings. This previously concealed space will likely become one of the highlights as the gallery re-opens.

We are with Sean Rainbird as he wears two hats and curates a controversial Sean Scully exhibition - the first time the NGI has dedicated a suite of galleries to a living artist.

We observe as the curators and art handlers start to move the paintings out of storage and into the newly finished gallery spaces.

It takes an army to transport the giant newly conserved 'Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife' painting as it is un-framed, stretched and rolled before making its way from conservation, through the building, to its old home in the newly refurbished Shaw Room and positioned back on its wall. Curators and art handlers work in partnership as many of the finest paintings in the collection are finally re-hung. Some have never before been seen by the public.

With the arrival of a seven meter tall wooden sculpture by Joseph Walsh in the new courtyard, especially commissioned as part of the Per Cent for Art Scheme, we capture the behind the scenes moments as the gallery team make final preparations for the opening.

On 14 June 2017, the day has finally come with An Taoiseach officially opening the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland. Within 24 hours the Irish public finally get their chance to return to their beloved Dargan and Milltown wings. It has been a long wait. Was it worth it?