NUI Galway launches new digital exhibition: The Joe Vaněk archive of theatre and opera design

Pictured l-r: Joe Vaněk and playwright Brian Friel, Greencastle, Co. Donegal, 1993. Photo: NUI Galway Archives
Aug 18 2021 Posted: 14:30 IST

A new digital exhibition from a team at NUI Galway has been launched, opening up the archive of renowned theatre and opera designer Joe Vaněk.

Drawing on material held at the University’s Hardiman Library, the exhibition offers a unique insight and perspective into the work of one of European theatre’s most highly regarded designers, from Dublin to Broadway, since the 1980s.

Made up of more than 300 archive images, from costume drawings to set designs, production photographs and notebooks, the newly digitised material showcases a new history of design in contemporary Irish theatre.

It also includes correspondence with directors and playwrights such as Brian Friel, whose work he was closely associated with.

Joe Vaněk said: “Over the years, it has been my privilege to work with several esteemed directors - Patrick Mason, Alan Gilsenan, Michael Barker Caven and Annie Ryan. Also, it has been a source of great professional pride, that I have had the opportunity to design premieres of new plays by major Irish playwrights including Brian Friel, Tom Kilroy, Frank McGuinness, and Tom MacIntyre.

“Now I find myself with an archive dedicated to my design work in theatre and opera at NUI Galway, and I am honoured to be amongst such luminaries as the novelist John McGahern, actors Barry Fitzgerald and Siobhan McKenna, and director Garry Hynes. My thanks - needless to say - goes to the Hardiman Library of NUI Galway, to Barry Houlihan and colleagues, for their enthusiasm and persistence in getting this digital show on the road.”

The online exhibition is curated by researcher Grace Vroomen with a project team from NUI Galway including Dr Barry Houlihan, Dr Cillian Joy, Eimhin Joyce and Aisling Keane.

It can be viewed at

The exhibition charts a scenographic journey from page to stage through the theatrescapes of Vaněk’s distinguished career.

It also includes newly published materials that show landscapes, architecture and related items that were documented during Vaněk’s early research and ideas for productions.

It focuses on key material in the archive, such as design for Friel’s plays, including the Tony Award-winning production of Dancing at Lughnasa, as well as work with theatre companies Druid, Landmark Productions and Corn Exchange, and designing new plays by many of Ireland’s leading writers including Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr, Tom Murphy, Frank McGuinness, Tom Kilroy, Hugo Hamilton and Tom MacIntyre. Opera designs include work for Opera Ireland, Opera Theatre Company, Irish National Opera, Wexford Festival Opera and Opera Collective.

John Cox, University Librarian at NUI Galway, said: “We are honoured to hold the archive of Joe Vaněk at NUI Galway and to be able to share insights into his work with an international audience through this online exhibition.”

Dr Barry Houlihan, NUI Galway Archivist, said: “Joe Vaněk’s archive of theatre and opera design, and its digital exhibition, are a window into the vibrant world of Vaněk’s set and costume designs for more than three decades. Joe’s kind support of our digitising this remarkable archive means it will inspire students and theatre-makers all over the world.”

Professor Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway, said: “Joe Vaněk has made an enormous contribution to Irish culture over many decades. The donation of his archive to NUI Galway makes an amazing resource available - a resource that is of national and international significance. These designs and other archival items will inspire our students, stimulate new research, and stand as a lasting testament to the work of a great theatre-maker. We are proud and grateful to host this work.”


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