A Day in the Life: John McHugh


MANAGER John McHugh outside the Customs House Studios and Gallery at The Quay, Westport.  Pic: Conor McKeown

My day starts at 7am, with the usual mix of generated news and press statements on RTÉ Radio News. In Dooagh, where I live, the weather is always an influencing factor to the start of day. These days it’s mostly dark, with wind and rain.
After the school drop-off at Achill Sound it’s the long drive to Westport. As I encounter road works along the way, I’m reminded of tourists’ complaints about the destructive impact of these road works – including the felling of mature trees – on the beauty of Clew Bay.    
After around an hour, I reach the Custom House Studios, the artist-led studio and gallery space at The Quay, Westport. Housing seven studios, a print workshop and two gallery spaces, it is funded by the social-inclusion agency Pobal, Mayo County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland. Since its establishment by Westport Artists Group and Mayo County Council back in 2002, it’s been running a full programme of exhibitions, print workshops and studio occupancies – including a residency for  artists from overseas.
West Mayo, and especially Achill Island, has a long tradition as an area of interest for artists – first documented by Evans of Eaton 1836 and continuing up through the 20th century – and the Custom House Studios is proud to play its part in ensuring that this tradition is kept alive and vibrant in Mayo.
The county supports a dynamic visual arts community, made up of local artists and others from elsewhere in Ireland and overseas. This diverse and vibrant artistic community is supported by a host of offerings around the county, including fine art courses in GMIT; various post-Leaving Cert courses; artists’ residencies at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle and The Heinrich Böll Cottage in Dugort; art centers in Castlebar, Ballina and Bellmullet; commercial galleries in Westport, Achill and Claremorris and, of course, Mayo County Council Arts Office. It’s a privilege be part of such a lively scene.
Westport, a magnet during the summer for tourists with its cute painted shops and homes and fabulous downtown, is the centre of artistic life in Mayo – helped in no small part by its wonderful backdrop of mountains and seas. The town’s arts and culture are an important draw too, and we frequently welcome visitors from all over the world into the gallery.
My day is full of a variety of tasks, from arranging exhibitions and managing the studio spaces to meeting with artists and liaising with funding agencies. In between all, I like to nip into The Helm or The Creel for lunch to keep me going.
We host 16 exhibitions annually in two gallery spaces. Our programme aims for a consistently high quality and standard, in terms of both artistic content and presentation. It must also be as dynamic and varied as possible, to ensure repeat visits from the public.
The artists who exhibit in the gallery and occupy studio spaces are selected through an independent artist peer selection panel. One studio offers shorter-term stays, attracting artists from the UK, Germany, France, Holland, USA and Austria, as well as Ireland. We also host an annual month-long funded artist exchange with Krems in Austria. Our studios have proven to be very desirable among recent graduates who fancy living in the west after college, as well as more-established artists who are working on specific projects or want to relocate to  Mayo.
A hugely rewarding aspect of the job comes from the studios’ focus on social inclusivity. We work with artists from the Carrowbeg Training Centre for Adults with Learning Disabilities in Westport, supported by Westport Lions Club and Mayo Arts Office. We also host an annual project for Upstart, an initiative of Mayo County Council’s Arts Service that supports quality artistic collaborations between artists, groups and individuals with disabilities, and arts venues and organisations. With our Upstart project, participants make works that reflect their interests, and we support an annual end-of-year group exhibition. Last year, for example, the group worked with DJ and sound artist Christopher Coe (AKA Digital Primate) to produce four five-minute sound art pieces.
At the end of the day, it’s the busy drive back to Achill, along with all the other commuters from Westport and Castlebar. After dinner and Channel 4 news, I like to head out for a walk, catch up on some of my own, personal work and read – before preparing for that early commute in the morning.

In conversation with Ciara Moynihan

Name: John McHugh
Lives: Achill
Occupation: Manager, Customs House Studio & Gallery

Quickfire questions

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?
Fish crisps.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

What do you miss most about being a kid?

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Always finish reading books.

Name three things that are always in your fridge?
Butter, beer and coffee.

Who was your first hero/heroine?
Rosa Luxemburg.

What makes you nervous?

What’s your most prized possession?
My full collection of ‘Kavanagh’s Weekly’.

If money were no object, what would you do all day?
Read and walk.