The Crawford Gallery building is an important historic building, parts of which date back to the early eighteenth century. The building is comprised of three different building phases: The building which now houses the Crawford Art Gallery, erected in 1724, as Cork´s Custom House recalls the ties between commercial success and the development Cork city in the early eighteenth and nineteenth century. In 1830 the old Custom House building was given to the Royal Cork Institution, (a forerunner of the present University College Cork) with the object of ‘diffusing knowledge and the application of science to the common purposes in life.´
A new house was built at this time to accommodate the rapidly expanding port operations. The building became a Government School of Design in 1850 and part of the South Kensington School system some years later.
A magnificent extension, housing studios and galleries, was added in 1884 to accommodate the growing number of students, at the expense of William Horatio Crawford, after whom it was named the Crawford School of Art. The conversion of the building into a School of Art and Gallery in the early nineteenth century was the first step to the establishment of art collection. When the School of Art relocated to its current premises in 1979, the building became the home for the Crawford Art Gallery.
In 2000, the Crawford Gallery further expanded its gallery space by creating a new exhibition wing of contemporary art designed by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat and funded by the Department of Arts and Heritage. This new expansion has created 1000 square meters of additional exhibition space with which the Gallery has been able to present a broader, more contemporary spectrum of work to visitors.
The Crawford Art Gallery´s art collection was formed in 1819, when a set of Graeco-Roman and Neo-Classical sculpture casts were presented to the Cork Society of Arts. This collection was quickly augmented with works by students and teachers of the Cork School of Art, formed that same year: the students included Samuel Forde, Daniel Maclise and John Hogan. In 1825, the collection was moved to its present building, the former Custom House of Cork. The old Custom House provided a home for the Royal Cork Institution, the body that had taken over responsibility for the art collection, between 1825 and 1849. With the founding of a university in Cork, responsibility for the art collection was transferred to the Cork Government School of Design, established in 1850, that continued to occupy the old Custom House. In 1884, a new extension was added to the building, providing purpose-built galleries for exhibiting paintings and sculptures. Renamed the Crawford School of Art, the art collection, used also as an adjunct to the teaching of art, continued to grow, under the stewardship of the Technical Instruction Committee.
The collection was augmented with the purchase of works by Irish artists, many of them staff or graduates of the Cork School of Art. This pattern continued through the twentieth century, although there were several developments, notably the bequest of funds for the purchase of works for the collection by Joseph Stafford Gibson in 1919. This fund was used through the mid-20th century to acquire a sizeable collection of mainly academic paintings.
In 1930, the Technical Instruction Committee was replaced by the Vocational Education Committee, and the City of Cork VEC continued through the twentieth century as owners and managers of the building. The Arts Council introduced a joint-purchase scheme in the late 1960´s, under which a number of mainly contemporary works were purchased by the Gallery. The Friends of the Crawford Art Gallery have supported acquisitions for the permanent collection over two decades. Private donations of works, such as the Seamus Murphy sculpture collection, will continue to form an important part of the Gallery´s acquisition strategy in the future, although such acquisitions need to be guided by this policy document.
In 2006, a new company was established by the Minister of Arts, Sport and Tourism to manage the Gallery. Ownership of the building was transferred to the Office of Public Works, and the Gallery designated a National Cultural Institution. The School of Art had long since moved (in 1979) to a different building, and in 2007 the administrative offices of the City of Cork VEC were also transferred to new premises nearby. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht now provides an annual grant in aid that enables the purchase of a small number of significant works, both of historic and contemporary art. The legislation Section 1003 of the Finance Act, through providing income tax relief on works donated to the Crawford and other National Cultural Institutions, has become an important avenue for acquisitions to the permanent collection.
The permanent collection of the Crawford Art Gallery has grown steadily in recent years. It is strongest in 20th century and contemporary Irish art. In 1990 the collection numbered some 1500 paintings sculptures, prints and other works of art. These works were listed in the Illustrated Summary Catalogue, published in 1992. Since that date, over 1000 new works have been added to the collection, which now contains over 2500 items.