Sarah Glennie was born and reared in Cambridge and has a BA in Art History from Bristol University and an MA in Museum and Curatorial Studies from Manchester University. She began work in the arts at Tate St.Ives and Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge.
She moved to Ireland in 1995 and worked as a curator at IMMA (The Irish Museum of Modern Art: Aras Nua-Ealaine na hÉireann) for six years, her projects included solo exhibitions by Olafur Eliasson, Shirin Neshat and a public art project 'Ghost Ship' by Dorothy Cross.
In 2001 she joined The Henry Moore Foundation Contemporary Projects curating Paul McCarthy's exhibition at Tate Modern. In 2004 she co-curated 'Romantic Detachment' at P.S.1/MoMA, New York. She commissioned and curated Ireland’s Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005.
As Artistic Director of The Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo, from 2005–2008, her highlights included 'The Eternal Now: Warhol and the Factory' and an exhibition and performance by Patti Smith.
From 2008–2012 as Director of the IFI, the Irish Film Institute, she oversaw major developments in every facet of the Institute’s activities.
Sarah also has an impressive record of major achievements as Director of IMMA since 2012. She takes up the post of Director of NCAD, the National College of Art and Design, Ireland, in January 2018.
She lives in Dublin with her husband, artist Garrett Phelan, and their two children.
Extract from Sarah Glennie in conversation with Shevaun Wilder
Shevaun: When, and where, did your interest in art begin, was it in the family?
Sarah: A little bit, my grandfather ran Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust house, he was ex-army so went in as an administrator not an arts person. It was a former Rothschild house and had an amazing collection with Canaletto and Poussin. Anthony Blunt was cataloguing the collection in the years leading up to his exposure so, as a child I spent quite a lot of time with him looking at the works.
Shevaun: Gosh, you must have absorbed so much.
Sarah: I must have, I think I was too young at the time to realise that that was anything special. I was very lucky at secondary school too, I spent my last two years at Marlborough College where there was an incredible art school and a very visionary teacher called Robin Child. I studied Art and Art History there.
Shevaun: Did you draw and paint yourself? And have you kept that up?
Sarah: Yes, I did and, between school and university, I did a term of a Foundation to have that experience of art college. Then at Bristol my main focus was around the Bauhaus and British Modern Art.
Shevaun: You followed that with your MA in Curatorial Studies in Manchester... what took you to Cornwall?
Sarah: I did my work placement in St. Ives before the new Tate opened, with Mike Tooby, the first director. It was in the month leading up to the opening and it was very chaotic. I did it with huge enthusiasm. Because I'd studied British art, I knew quite a lot about the collection so I ended up there for about nine months, which was fantastic.
Shevaun: Great grounding.
Sarah: Great grounding. Then, an opportunity came up at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge. One of the legacies of Jim Ede, the founder, who left his incredible collection to the University, was that he really believed in nurturing young talent. So, I was lucky enough to get that job. I worked with the director, Michael Harrison, it was an incredible learning curve of actually having to put exhibitions together. Then, I started to work more and more with artists and really enjoyed the process of seeing new work come about, it's a real privilege as a curator to be in that position.
Shevaun: And helping them on their journey as they become more known?
Sarah: Yes, I think at that stage it was hindering rather than helping (Laughs). At the same time, I grew up in Cambridge and was finding that a little restrictive. I saw a job advertised at IMMA. IMMA was quite new, I'd heard it was incredibly international in its focus, Britain was still very insular in terms of contemporary art at that point, so, I came for an interview. I was the last person they saw and they offered me the job at the interview.
Sarah: I said yes, then, got the bus back to the airport and in 1994 that journey from Heuston station to the airport was not a pretty one and I thought, ‘This is a kip, I don’t want to live here.’
Shevaun: (Laughs.) Now that's a word you've picked up while you've been in Dublin!
Sarah: I know (Laughs). Next day I rang Brenda McParland, Head of Exhibitions, and said, 'I made a mistake. I can't move to Dublin.' IMMA very kindly flew me back over, I saw a bit more of IMMA, a bit more of Dublin, Stephen’s Green... I'm quite shallow.
Shevaun: All the appealing bits? (Laughs.)
Sarah: All the pretty bits. I thought I'd be here for six months, my plan was six months, max, totally. I stayed in IMMA until 2001. I got to work with incredible artists very directly, I did a very big public art project with Dorothy Cross, 'The Ghost Ship'.
Shevaun: Socially, how easy was it settling in?
Sarah: Incredibly easy. People were unbelievably friendly. One of my now-best friends came up to me, after I'd been here a week, and said, 'We must go out because I know we're going to be really good friends!' I was completely terrified! I thought she was completely mad! But, she was right, she's remained one of my closest friends. My now-husband was working at IMMA too. Again, through friendliness - I don't think it would happen in England in the same way - he said, 'It's your first weekend, do you know anyone? Come for a drink.' So suddenly, I was meeting people.
Shevaun: How did you find your feet in terms of somewhere to live?
Sarah: Just through getting the Evening Herald newspaper and circling rooms. I got a rented room in a lovely house in Donnybrook. I wasn't on a great salary but that was still very affordable. In my early years, I lived within Dublin 2 or Dublin 4, I was always within walking distance of Stephen's Green.
Shevaun: One of Dublin's great boons is being so close to so many seaside places, Howth, Dalkey, Killiney...
Sarah: It's amazing. The first time I went to Sandymount with my now-husband, he couldn't believe I actually didn't know Dublin was by the sea. (Laughs.) I was like, 'Oh my God! This is incredible!' 'There's mountains! There's sea! There's this great city.' I loved that here I could swim in the sea, bike to work and go horse-riding in Wicklow. It's also very liberating to move somewhere and know no one.
Shevaun: Did that anonymity give you a certain freedom?
Sarah: Yes, it's really liberating. In England I came through a public school system and went to Bristol and I sometimes found, particularly in the art world, there'd be judgements made quite quickly about you based on those kinds of questions. I'm sure if I was Irish the same would happen in Dublin.
Shevaun: When you moved west to become Director of The Model Arts in Sligo, was that an exciting time?
Sarah: Yes. It hadn't had a Director for a while and my role was to refocus it with a strong visual arts programme. We had a big Warhol Museum exhibition which was amazing. We also had Patti Smith there, I emailed her and because she was an incredible Yeats fan and had always wanted to see Yeats' grave, she said, 'Yes, I'll come.' She was incredible, she did a really, really beautiful concert in The Model.
Shevaun: Did the Annual Yeats Summer School impact on The Model? Did you interact with that?
Sarah: Yes, one of the incredible legacies The Model has is this fantastic collection put together by librarian Nora Niland with paintings by the Yeats family. There was always a focus on Yeats in the summer and a curated exhibition that picked up on those works.
Shevaun: When you were Director of the IFI (Irish Film Institute) you picked up on legacy there too and expanded its reach a lot.
Sarah: Well, hopefully! There was a lot of incredible film knowledge within the building, what was needed was to bring that together and promote it as a cultural institution. Also, the IFI has this unbelievable resource, the Irish Film Archive. It has all representations of Ireland on film and all film made by Irish film-makers, including amateur film. The story it tells of Ireland is incredible.
Shevaun: Amazing resource.
Sarah: Extraordinary resource. So, I was really excited by that and looked to ways to make that more visible. I approached it still very much as a curator, just thinking about audience and programming, and how to tell stories and engage people.
Shevaun: That seems to be a theme, wherever you’ve been, bringing more focus.
Sarah: I think the reason I want to do that in a public space is I still, completely and utterly fundamentally, believe that when you are exposed to some form of culture that touches you in some way, it's a very powerful thing. At the IFI what was really valuable to me was the incredible confidence and engagement audiences have with film, they really challenge themselves and intellectually engage with things.
Shevaun: I think the tradition of storytelling here is such a long one that that somehow impacts on the Irish imagination.
Sarah: Yes, we see it in the audiences here and our job is to programme what we feel is interesting, discursive, challenging, beautiful, inspirational. We need to make people feel that this is a space in which they can engage with the work that we show, feel like the space is theirs. I think there is a genuine engagement in Irish society with the idea of cultural institutions. But, there's still a long journey to go to make sure that's really resonating across all of Irish society. There've been very, very positive moves with the launch of the Creative Ireland programme that's, for the first time, produced a political acknowledgement of the need to invest in the arts. Hopefully, that's the conversation that's going to start.
Shevaun: How much of a voice do you have as Director of IMMA?
Sarah: Well, again I suppose scale helps with that. Yes, I'm sure the Department would say too much of a voice! (Laughs.) I was working last year with the Department on building a cultural policy, Culture 2025, looking towards that longer vision. I was delighted to be involved in that.
Shevaun: After 20 years here, is Dublin still an exciting place for you to live?
Sarah: Nearly 22 years! Yes, still feels like it.
Shevaun: And, finally, do your children think of themselves as Irish or Irish-English?
Sarah: Well, we have this debate continuously in my house. (Laughs.) My husband would say they are Irish. My son is very conscious that he's both, he's obviously grown up here and would, ultimately, see himself as Irish. But he loves London and Cambridge, he's very interested in history, so he loves going to the Tower of London and the Imperial War Museum. He's very conscious that my grandfather fought in the Second World War, so he's interested in that. My daughter's four-and-a-half, and in a bit of a dreamy bubble, so I'm not quite sure if she even knows where she lives at this stage.
Shevaun: (Laughs.) What sort of accents do they have?
Sarah: Lorna's not at school yet so, probably, a lot of people would say she still sounds very English. Olly had quite an English accent until he went to school, he's now very definitely a Dub. My husband thinks Olly sounds really southside, so to him it's an alien accent, as well, because he grew up on the northside of Dublin.
- Artists' Impressions, Sarah Glennie, Michael Harrison, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 1994
- Kettle's Yard and its Artists, An Anthology, Matthew Boden, Michael Gale, Sarah Glennie, The Friends of Kettle's Yard and The Henry Moore Foundation, Cambridge, 1995
- William Scott Paintings and Drawings: Exhibition Information, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 1998
- Wallis and Dixon Two Painters: Exhibition Information, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 1999
- Callum Innes: Exhibition Information, Bernhard Fibisher, Sarah Glennie, Marco Livingstone, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2000
- Leon Golub: Paintings 1950-2000: Exhibition Information, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2000
- The Barry Joule Archive, Works on Paper Attributed to Francis Bacon: Exhibition Information, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2000
- Racer, Garrett Phelan; Sarah Glennie [Ed.] Garrett Phelan, 2002
- Paul McCarthy at Tate Modern: Block Head and Daddies Big Head with Frances Morris, Tate, 2003
- Ireland at Venice 2005, Isabel Nolan, Edited and compiled by Gavin Delahunty and Sarah Glennie, Glucksman Gallery, 2005
- Patrick Hall 50 Years Painting, Sarah Glennie [Ed.] Model Arts and Niland Gallery, 2006
- The Eternal Now: Warhol and the Factory ’63–68, Sarah Glennie [Ed.] The Model Arts and Niland Gallery, 2007