Internationally acclaimed artist Shane Cullen, a native of Longford town, has questioned a culture of fear which makes it difficult for emerging artists to express themselves without fear of losing funding.
He was speaking after Athlone Town Council’s discussion on Monday on whether a piece of his work, now owned by the state, should be removed from the town’s new modern art gallery. Mr Cullen is a brother of Glen and Ciara Cullen who run Cullens Shoe Shop, founded by their late father Joe Cullen, in Longford town.
Eight panels of Shane Cullen’s monumental work Fragmens sur le Institutions Republicaines IV are on loan from the Irish Museum of Modern Art as part of the Luan Gallery’s first exhibition.
It features messages originally written on cigarette papers by IRA hunger-strikers in the 1980s and smuggled out of Long Kesh by their family members and has been internationally exhibited.
Shane Cullen said he was “shocked” by Fine Gael Councillor Mark Cooney’s notice of motion that the piece be removed because it is “offensive” to those affected by the troubles.
The Luan Gallery is opposite Custume Barracks, where Private Patrick Kelly, a native of north Longford, was stationed when he lost his life during the rescue of Don Tidey from IRA kidnappers.
There was a packed public gallery for the Town Council meeting on Monday, which included members of Private Kelly’s family.
At the meeting Cllr Gabrielle McFadden said she “absolutely objected” to the work’s content. Sinn Fein Cllr Paul Hogan said to deny people the right to make up their own minds about the work was censorship and disempowered the people.
“Maybe it’s the particular political climate we’re existing under at the moment,” Mr Cullen said afterwards.
“Younger artists particularly are very afraid to provoke or to raise controversy in their work because it might affect the way in which their work receives funding and that’s very unhealthy,” he said.
Athlone Town Council’s written response to Cllr Cooney’s motion expressed concern for “serious implications if an intervention is made of the nature described in the motion.”
“The reputation of Athlone would suffer and the removal of a work of art would deliver a body blow to the new gallery,” the statement read, and there would be potential damage to relationships with the artists community and other galleries.
The council agreed to a compromise proposal that Cllr Cooney’s motion be forwarded to the Luan Gallery’s board for consideration.