About Fionnuala Croke
She started her studies in UCD at the age of 16, opting for history of art and archaeology. “I always loved art in school and also loved reading about the history of art,” she says. “I had a big debate with myself about whether to go to art college, but never applied in the end.”
After graduating, she took a couple of years out before beginning a two-year research master’s degree. A bursary from UCD allowed her to spend most of that time studying in Rome. “I was using the Vatican library and its archives and every other archive that existed in Rome and just thoroughly enjoyed myself,” she says.
Back in Dublin towards the end of 1987, she submitted her thesis and began work at the National Gallery of Ireland. The latter she managed by going straight to the director at the time. “It amazes me with hindsight,” she says. “I literally went to Homan Potterton as this young graduate, saying ‘What can I do? Please let me do something’.” The direct approach worked and Potterton invited her to start in the gallery in return for pocket money to cover her lunches and bus fares.
“A lot of people come into the museum world in that way because there are so few jobs,” she explains. “And if you’re an employer it’s very good, because you get a sense of how the person is in the workplace and in the museum world, their understanding of how the place operates and of how they work with a collection. It’s one thing being an art historian, it’s another being somebody who works with a collection.”
Within her first year she was on a research fellowship and she ended up staying in the gallery for more than 23 years.
She never thought of herself as being particularly ambitious, she says. “I was just enthusiastic and eager to learn. I wanted to learn and to help in any way I could. And I probably launched immediately into what set a pattern for my life of working very long hours and taking work home.”
Not that this appear to have been any hardship for Croke. “You never lose the delight of finding out new things about the collection you’re working with,” she says. “It’s such a privilege to be working close to a collection and it’s a privilege that you really have to respect throughout your career in order to work with it in an appropriate way.”
She was appointed curator of French paintings in 1990 and subsequently also took on responsibility for administering exhibitions. Because staff numbers at the gallery were considerably fewer then than today (around 30 employees compared with over 100 now) she was able to experience many different roles.
“In those days, we did not have a team of curators. We did not have registrars. We were two curators in the early 1990s and I was acting as registrar as well. If I was sending an exhibition I was working on everything from organising the transport and to editing the catalogue.
“It was a wonderful opportunity that has brought me to where I now have a broad background and at least an understanding of what the people do in all the various different departments that most museums have.”
Appointed head of exhibitions in 2000, she was tasked with setting up a new exhibitions department in preparation for the opening of the gallery’s Millennium Wing in 2002.
International executive MBA
During the same period, she returned to UCD to do an international executive MBA. “By stage I had been 12 or 13 years working in the National Gallery and I was seeing changes that were common to lots of cultural institutions, where art increasingly had to explain itself and the running of organisations had to be justified and standards had become more stringent in business terms.
“I increasingly felt that if you want to be a senior manager or leader of a cultural organisation it behoves you to train yourself in the skill set that is required for that role. At the same time I realised that to gain the respect of other stakeholders you really needed to be seen not just as an ‘art’ person. There’s very often the feeling that if you’re an art historian or an art person you don’t have that insight into business. I felt that to marry the two was going to be increasingly important.”
At that stage, being a curator and doing an MBA was quite a rarity. “I think I knew of two others in the world who’d done it,” she says.
The camaraderie and networking were among the highlights of the programme for Croke. “It made it such an enjoyable experience for me. I know it was very hard work, but I so enjoyed the interaction. I have enjoyed those relationships down to today and there are people I call on for little chats and advice and trust them totally and it’s reciprocated – they do the same with me.”
The programme also gives you a sense of confidence, she says. “Apart from teaching you new things, it confirms in you how you’re approaching things and how you’re doing things.”
Croke is also a graduate of the Getty Museum Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, where she completed the museum leadership programme in 2007. “There, we really got into the nitty-gritty of museum finance,” she says. “And the discussions I was having there were discussions with like minds. You share the same concerns and the same challenges. It was intense but it was fantastic.”
She was made head of collections in the newly established collections division at the National Gallery in 2008. In March 2011, she left the gallery to take up the role of director of the Chester Beatty Library.
“On a personal level it was a very good move because I’ve just spent two years eagerly reading and learning as much as I possibly can about this absolutely extraordinary collection,” she says. “And I just want everybody to know what’s here. The rarity and the quality and the significance of the material we hold here is so extraordinary.”
She stresses the fact that the collection is the core priority. “You have to be conscious that the role of team that’s in place now is to preserve and interpret and display this collection for our period here, for our chapter in the history of the Chester Beatty. This collection is going to be around for generations and centuries to come.”
The biggest challenge for the library at the moment is the public sector moratorium, which means it’s understaffed and lacks certain specialist staff, she says. “On the positive side, we have a wonderful team of committed people and, with the limitations we have, we’re so committed to making the collection more accessible. What that means these days is increasing our online presence, both in terms of digitising our collection and through our education programme. We’ve initiated a learning zone online, which is a resource for teachers. We’ve already done a Buddhist teachers’ pack and we’re going to extend that to the Islamic and Western collections as well.”
The library will also be looking to build on its ever increasing role in the intercultural space. “Our mission is not just to conserve, maintain and display the collection, but to use it as a way of teaching our audiences about the world cultures that are represented in the collection,” explains Croke. “The library has become a focus for intercultural dialogue, and we want to increase this. That is one of our main strategic priorities.”
Another objective is to ensure the profile of the library is increased nationally. “Often we’re known better internationally than nationally because of the nature of the collections.”
Outside the Chester Beatty, Croke is chair of the WXN (Women’s Executive Network) advisory board and sits on the steering committee of the International Exhibition Organisers Group. She’s currently vice-chair of Asemus (Asia-Europe Museum Network) and is set to take over as chair of the organisation for a three-year period from 2014. “The older I get, the longer I’m working, the more I realise how important networks are,” she says.
She remains passionate about art and history and much of her free time is spent on these interests. “My holidays have always been around visiting exhibitions and collections. I’ve so rarely had a holiday that wasn’t based around seeing how many exhibitions I could get in or how many other collections I could see. My work and my interests are very, very similar. I might try to force myself to have some balance in my life and talk about other interests, but art and history are really the main focus in my life! There’s a blurring of the lines very often.
“The lovely side of the work is when you engage with the collection. The more you take on responsibilities in any museum, the more you become a manager, the less you have to do with the collection. It’s more important that you have an overview of everything and an ability to act as ambassador and promoter of the organisation rather than the specialist skill set.”
It would be difficult, she admits, to work in an area unrelated to arts or culture. “I probably could do in terms of ability. But I think I’d find it difficult. Even if it were some other area of the arts I could imagine it. But to move out of that probably it would feel like a loss of something.”