Best Free Exhibitions In Dublin

By Brian Bowe

One of my New Year resolutions for 2024 is to actively engage more with Dublin’s art scene. Of course, this usually comes at a cost, and it ain’t cheap — visiting Hugh Lane’s current Warhol exhibition will cost you €20! But if you look beyond the glitzy, big-name shows, there’s still a lot to enjoy. 

The city is steeped in artistic history and creative energy, offering a range of free art exhibitions that showcase the many talents of local and international artists. From quirky contemporary galleries like Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) to historic museums such as the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI), Dublin’s lively art scene provides an array of opportunities for art enthusiasts and casual observers alike to immerse themselves in world-class artwork without breaking the bank.

If you’ve ticked off all the big hitters, lots of independent galleries in Dublin also provide free entry, so you might just come across the next big thing! Use the following list as a guide to help you seek out the latest cultural hotspots. Whether you’re an art aficionado, a curious tourist, or a budget-conscious student, these free art exhibitions offer a window into the cultural soul of Dublin, enriching the city’s dynamic atmosphere with colour, expression, and thought-provoking perspectives. 

Roller Skates & Ruins (NGI)

“Send me a pair of roller skates –  isn’t that a staggering request – but we aren’t confined to cells all day,” the Irish artist and activist Grace Gifford wrote to William Orpen while she was incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol during the Irish Civil War.

Currently showing in Room 11 at the National Gallery of Ireland, Roller Skates & Ruins features various media — sketchbooks, letters, memoirs, scrapbooks and illustrations — taken from the collections of the Gallery’s ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art. The exhibition documents the contributions of six Irish artists — Gifford, Sarah Cecilia Harrison, Aloysius O’Kelly, William Orpen, Sarah Purser and Jack B. Yeats — who lived through one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in modern Irish history (1912-1923), a time of great social, cultural and political developments. These archival pieces offer a unique insight into the artists’ daily lives and their personal responses to the incredible events of the time. Now until 10 March 2024.

Self-Determination: A Global Perspective (IMMA)

This is a groundbreaking exhibition that offers a sweeping exploration of the impact of art and artists on the formation of nation-states in the aftermath of World War I. This monumental showcase (one of the largest exhibitions in the Museum’s history), the result of an extensive three-year research endeavour, delves into the crucial role of artistic expression in shaping national identities, fostering statehood, and influencing geopolitical landscapes. 

Drawing from a diverse selection of modern and contemporary Irish and international artworks, the exhibition sheds light on the collective experiences of newly formed nations. Furthermore, Self-Determination: A Global Perspective explores common strategies and methodologies developed by artists, cultural practitioners, and others invested in the formation of a new state in the first half of the twentieth century. Now until 21 Apr 2024.

Zurich Portrait Prize 2023 (NGI)

The Zurich Portrait Prize is an annual competition showcasing contemporary portraiture and is open to artists from across Ireland, and Irish artists living abroad. The exhibition, featuring the winning portrait alongside 25 other shortlisted works, is now open to the public for free. This year, David Stephenson won for his stunning photograph, Ann and Ollie, Main Street, Wexford, 2023. Describing his winning piece, David says, “I took this portrait while I was recovering from Covid. What drew my eye was Ann’s red coat, the condensation that made a ghost of Ollie, and how they were separated yet connected by the cracked paint of the window frame.”

David Stephenson, Ann and Ollie, Main Street, Wexford, 2023

Other portraits to keep an eye out for are Marie Smith’s Armand, 2023, sculpted by using Terra Rossa di Montelupo clay sourced from the Arno River; Mantas Poderys’ Shota, 2021; and Ellius’ Grace’s Sinéad O’Connor in Her Garden, 2021, which manages to convey the iconic singer’s strength and vulnerability in a single snapshot. Now until 10 March 2024.

Siobhán Hapaska and Liliane Tomasko (The Douglas Hyde Gallery)  

There are two exciting free artworks on display at The Douglas Hyde Gallery at the moment. The first is Irish-Parsee sculptor Siobhán Hapaska’s newly commissioned sculpture, Medici Lion. Hapaska stands out as a unique presence in the world of contemporary sculpture, consistently challenging traditional forms by employing materials in unconventional manners. With this particular piece, she explores current crises through the figure of the lion, delving into issues ranging from the shortcomings of democracy to ongoing conflicts and the climate crisis. Within Gallery 1’s expansive, two-storey space, Hapaska suspends her lion, anchoring it to the gallery’s walls. Adding another layer of depth to her creation, she incorporates ambient sounds recorded at Westminster Abbey during Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral.

As part of The Douglas Hyde Gallery’s ‘The Artist’s Eye’ series, which asks those artists exhibiting in Gallery 1 to invite an artist of influence to present work in Gallery 2, Hapaska has invited artist Liliane Tomasko, a painter whose artistic journey delves into the intricacies of dreams, memory, the subconscious, manifesting in multi-layered compositions. Her work is characterised by their ethereal, flowing shapes and luxuriously tactile surfaces, utilising a palette of colours, tones, and shadows to evoke a sense of deep contemplation. While her works hint at figurative elements, they maintain a certain restraint, capturing emotions without literal representation. Now until 10 March 2024.

Sarah Purser: Private Worlds  (NGI)

Yet another free exhibition taking place at the National Gallery, Sarah Purser: Private Worlds, aims to highlight an artist whose impact on Ireland should not be overlooked.

Born in 1848, Purser worked as a painter at a time when women’s contributions to the art world were gravely undervalued. She played a crucial role in the development of modern Irish art, defied societal restrictions and maintained a successful portrait practice throughout her long life. This exhibition showcases a rich collection of Purser’s most celebrated oil paintings, highlighting her fascination with a more personal form of portraiture and scenes depicting domesticity. While representing a lesser-known aspect of her work, these paintings also forge a connection with her education in Paris and her enduring appreciation for contemporary European painting. Now until 25 February 2024.