14th March, 2021
Tara Murphy, director of Solomon Fine Art: ‘I always find it interesting as to
why someone has come through our doors.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips
In the first of our new series, we meet Tara Murphy, owner and director of
Solomon Fine Art, to discuss art, career highs and lows, desert island pieces
and the current pandemic.
What was the first work that turned you on to art?
As an inexperienced History of Art intern arriving in the Solomon in 1994, I
was completely clueless about contemporary art. The first project I worked on
was a major solo exhibition of sculpture by Rowan Gillespie. His Reclining
Bodyscape completely blew me away. Since then, Rowan has been a
wonderful mentor and helped me appreciate three-dimensional art and the
huge amount of work that goes into making bronze sculpture. I am so lucky to
own some of his works, and they remain favourites in my collection.
Talk us through the course of your career.
I studied History of Art and French at UCD. Not having studied art at school,
History of Art was a sudden revelation to me. I devoured all the stories of the
great Masters, memorised thousands of slides, fell in love with architecture
and developed a good eye.
I went on to do a Master’s in Irish art, but then transferred to the postgraduate
Diploma in Arts Administration course, where I learned about the
business side of things. I managed to convince the Solomon Gallery to let me
do my thesis/work experience with them, and I am still there 27 years later.
Under the watchful eye of former gallery owner Suzanne Macdougald, I was
promoted to gallery director in 1997. When Suzanne decided to retire after 40
successful years in the business in 2013, it seemed only natural to me to take
over the gallery on an independent basis.
What do you like best about having a gallery?
Firstly, it’s the people – artists are the most diverse and interesting folk you
will ever meet; studio visits – you get to immerse yourself in an artist’s space
and often their studios are very revealing; meeting collectors and visitors to
the gallery. I always find it interesting as to why someone has come through
our doors. Working with artists has been very rewarding. I love seeing things
differently through their eyes and, with our exhibitions changing every three
weeks, there is always something new to excite your eye.
What do you regard as the high point of your career?
A Dale Chihuly solo exhibition here at the gallery in 2014, which ran
concurrently with his major James Joyce museum show in Dublin Castle.
Chihuly is one of the world’s best-known glass artists, based in Seattle.
Róisín de Buitléar and I organised a Bloomsday dinner in his honour in
Castletown House, beneath two fabulous 18th-century Murano chandeliers,
with a special Ulysses menu created by two young Irish chefs (Halaigh
Whelan McManus and Cúán Greene) from the then number one restaurant in
the world, Noma in Copenhagen. I sold one of the stunning Chihuly Waterford
glass sculptures to the Ulster Museum and it is now on permanent display in
What was your worst mistake?
As a junior, I was putting together a catalogue for Basil Blackshaw’s
upcoming solo exhibition. Back then we used small slides for printing, and
when we received the first draft, I failed to notice that the printers had
chopped off the head of a cockerel on the front cover. When the catalogues
arrived, it was a complete disaster and Basil, one of my absolute heroes, was
so upset. It still haunts me to this day, and I was dubbed the “headless
chicken” for many years. Basil was of course a gentleman about it, but to be
honest I don’t think he ever forgave me.
What skills make a successful gallery owner?
Multi-skills. One minute you’re in paint-splattered overalls hammering nails
into the wall, the next you’re in high heels, welcoming President Michael D
Higgins to the opening of John Behan’s latest show. You have to be good at
sales, accounts, shipping, graphic design, websites, social media and IT.
We advise many clients on collection management, valuations and
acquisitions, so I also need to keep on top of global auction results and price
trends. Also, you need excellent people skills to deal with artists who have
different concerns, and clients who are both highly discerning and
demanding. We pride ourselves on offering a world-class service, and are
always upskilling and investing in new software to keep things running as
smoothly and efficiently as possible.
What advice would you give to the novice collector?
Take advice from someone you trust who will steer you in the right direction,
so that you end up buying things that you love and that may (hopefully)
appreciate in value as the years go by. Beware of what looks like a great
bargain at auction – it may be a very bad painting by a good artist. Don’t get
carried away in the heat of an auction and end up spending far too much.
If you’re buying from galleries, visit (or look online) as many as you can, and
choose a handful that exhibit artworks that match your taste. Build a
relationship with some of the longer established dealers – their advice and
expertise are invaluable. Go to openings and talk to other collectors and
artists. When buying prints, stick to smaller editions by established artists or
ask for help from a print dealer if you are unsure.
If your budget is limited, ask if you can pay in instalments. Where possible, try
things out in your home or office before you buy.
What is your favourite artwork in a public collection?
Micheal Farrell’s Madonna Irlanda or The Very First Real Irish Political Picture
at the Hugh Lane in Dublin.
When you win the Lotto, what will you buy?
I would build a private sculpture garden and fill it with works by Eilis
O’Connell, John Behan, Rowan Gillespie, Barry Flanagan, Elisabeth Frink,
Michael Quane, FE McWilliam and Sean Henry, among others.
What has the pandemic taught you?
Previously, there was a bit of reluctance from clients to buy artworks online.
With lockdowns, we had to invest in our website and offer new ways of
“seeing” from the collector’s perspective. We introduced a “view on the wall”
feature, added photos of sculptures from various angles, and offered video
calls on Zoom, FaceTime and Skype to clients who wanted to interact in real
Obviously buying artworks online, even with these new features in place, is
tricky – so we also currently offer a free “try at home/office” service.
Collectors love getting the chance to view something on their wall before
committing to buy.
The pandemic has also taught me to be less of a control freak. Our exhibition
schedule has gone out the window as the lockdowns have come and gone.
Our artists have been amazing and have helped to ease a lot of the anxiety.
All we want is to reopen our doors and welcome visitors again.