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Vincent Ferguson and the Model Arts and Niland Gallery
I was in the lucky position to have worked closely with Vincent Ferguson during my time as Director of the Model Arts and Niland Gallery; firstly when organising an exhibition drawn from his collection and later when he chaired our fundraising committee charged with raising funds for the Model's ambitious redevelopment plans.
Vincent was an invaluable support to the Model as someone committed to both Sligo and culture in equal measures. His career as a successful businessman was entwined with the central role he played in developing modern art in Ireland, both as a gallerist and collector. When I first visited him to discuss the planned exhibition from his collection at the Model it was immediately evident that his collection had grown from a deep engagement with a number of artists' practices over a number of years. As we walked through the house looking at particular works it was an opportunity to experience a 'collector', in the truest sense of the word, introducing me to paintings intimately known after many years of looking, discussing and most importantly enjoying. We decided to shape the exhibition around the significant bodies of works in the collection by artists that Vincent had developed particularly close relationships with - Patrick Collins, Charlie Brady, Kathy Prendergast and Basil Blackshaw. The depth of works held in the collection by these artists in itself was a testament to the importance of Vincent as a collector of Irish modern art - a collector with the confidence and understanding to buy work from a totally unknown Kathy Prendergast's degree show, as well as fundamental belief in the importance of art which led him to support artists throughout their career even when the market was looking elsewhere.
Although his collection held very personal resonances for Vincent and was formed out of his own choices, opinions and experiences - he happily stood back from the exhibition process allowing us to curate and select the work with no interference. In fact he seemed to actively enjoy the process of opening up the collection to other viewpoints even when this led to the exclusion of some of his 'favourites'. He came into the gallery a lot during the run of the exhibition - not to check up - but to see the gallery visitors and school groups in the galleries - this and support of the Model were clearly the reasons for the exhibition rather than any desire for validation as a collector.
Vincent's evident belief in the importance of culture being central in a community and accessible to all led us to ask him to support us in a fundraising campaign for the Model's redevelopment. Cultural fundraising is always a difficult task and the contemporary focus of the Model's programme makes it a more difficult sell to some members of the business community. Vincent understood immediately the value of supporting contemporary culture, the production of contemporary art and making this culture accessible to as wide a public as possible. Education and access programmes are at the core of the Model's activities and Vincent particularly supported all aspects of the redevelopment that provided opportunities for children and young people to discover contemporary culture and be introduced to art that could inspire and challenge.
Above all my memories of Vincent are of a man with immense charm, enthusiasm and intelligence. Although I only knew him in the later years of his life he gave all projects his total commitment and was still closely following contemporary art. When I first met him I had recently been Commissioner for Ireland's pavilion at the Venice Biennale and he had seen the exhibition - we had a lively discussion about the six young artists' work included in the exhibition and it was clear that this was someone whose interest in new artists had not diminished and who still had a fundamental belief in the importance of visual art. To sum up Vincent Ferguson, it is apparent that he, for the visual arts, was unique, rare and was a pioneer as a patron and collector of contemporary art - not only as someone who invested his hard earned money, but someone who invested his time, intellect and enthusiasm to the Irish art world. I know that I speak for many when I say we are eternally grateful.
"The small still-life paintings of whatever takes his [Brady's] fancy from daily existence may seem remote from the assertion that he set out to paint the experience of Ireland, but they are in fact an even more detailed expression of this, as the titles of many indicate" (Desmond MacAvock, see J. O'Regan (ed.), Charles Brady, Dublin 1993, p. 9).