Riann’s passion is a work of art

Riann Coulter
Riann Coulter

THERE isn’t much Riann Coulter doesn’t know about Irish artists and her enthusiasm is infectious.

As curator of the council-run F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Irish art is her specialty and it all started with F.E. McWilliam himself.

The Trinity Art History and English graduate, who went on complete a Master’s Degree in Modern Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, first nurtured her interest with an A-Level art project on the McWilliam Studio – now part of an external exhibit at the titular venue where she works.

It has been an intriguing journey for the former Banbridge Academy student and one which has brought her full circle after stop-offs in Dublin, where she took her first job in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and in New York as a researcher on American patronage of Irish art.

Happily, her job is also her passion and it is hard not to be swept away by the Coulter bonhomie - an oddity in the rarified stratosphere of the art world today.

But opening up the joys of all types of art to visitors from all backgrounds - including renowned works by established artists to stunning offerings from up-and-coming students - is her mission and she will not be deterred.

Even diners in the popular cafe at the gallery are surrounded by art and unwittingly soak it up. It is in the gardens, on the walls and in the display cabinets. It is probably even in the food.

You may not always see it, but art is a state of mind as much as anything else and this knowledgeable and friendly curator is determined to help you source it out.

“We get very interesting responses from people who come in to view the various exhibitions and it is great to observe them,” says Riann. “Comments range from, ‘That’s rubbish’, to a deep moving in the soul. That is how it should be; art is an emotional response and it is okay not to like some of it - as long is you engage with what you see and you know why you don’t like it, it’s fine by me.”

So far, there hasn’t been much not to like. Virtually every exhibition staged since she took the job in 2009 has proved a success and her latest project - the definitive ‘Blackshaw at 80’ collection (which features a picture of a sheep painted by the County Antrim artist when he was aged nine) is a case in point.

Organising the Blackshaw exhibition has probably been the highlight so far,” she says. “And it has been brilliant that we got it first - before it goes to Dublin. Usually it’s the other way around.”

For this latest exhibition she literally stripped the paintings from people’s walls in homes across Ireland, from Cork to Sligo, and acknowledges the “generosity” of collectors happy to part with their treasured ‘Blackshaws’ for the duration of the show.

The artist himself, a now frail and introverted character who shuns the limelight, was even persuaded to attend the opening night although he didn’t take to the microphone himself when it was time for speeches.

“Basil doesn’t like crowds, so it was great to have him here in person,” says Riann. “We have 50 paintings in total, charting his early work up until the style he had developed while in his seventies. He told me he was still painting today, but his hands aren’t what they used to be and he was disappointed it had taken him two weeks to complete a composition, when in his younger days he would finish a painting in two days.”

The next exhibition planned for when the Blackshaw exhibits are dismounted in October is a display of work from talented members of Banbridge Camera Club - yet another move to pass ownership of gallery space onto the local community.

“We like to try to engage with all types of art - traditional paintings, modern abstracts, crafts or visual art,” Riann explains. “It is a case of trying to make everyone feel there is something for them, no matter what their age or outlook.”

The best bit of her job, she says, is discovering new talent, while the worst is falling in love with the art on the gallery walls and wanting it herself - her real weakness is spying a surreal, quirky take on something traditional, although she also loves mulling over “small, quiet paintings” as well.

Then there are the long days leading up to opening nights: “It can be stressful, pulling everything together for an exhibition, but you learn to get by on adrenalin,” she smiles. “Resources are always an issue in the Arts and we work with a small team here, so you can go home feeling quite knackered.”

When she does go home, it is to physicist husband David and toddler son Callan - already showing a prodigious interest in art “by drawing on the furniture” - but she finds it difficult to ‘switch off’.

“Art is part of daily life and even on holiday I am always popping into art galleries to see what’s new and interesting,” she adds. “We work three years in advance, so I have to forward-plan a lot.

“I think we are very lucky here in Banbridge. There is so much home-grown talent on our doorstep and we have this great venue in this great location.

“Galleries can sometimes be intimidating places but it is our aim to engage with everyone and provide the complete visitor experience through workshops, lectures and supper evenings We have also just set up a ‘Friends’ of the gallery organisation which has proved really popular and brings people together.”

And she goes home happiest when she sees someone react to what is in front of them: “Once I saw a woman cry over a painting because it touched her in special way. Art is such a subjective thing and that is the beauty of it. It doesn’t really matter what it makes you feel, as long as it makes you feel something.”