On the last day of January (traditionally the last day of winter and St Brigid’s Eve) the new West Cork Arts Centre opened its first exhibition in Skibbereen. We have taken a great interest in this building during its construction: the very strong architecture has aroused a lot of negative comment in the community, but now that it is virtually complete the general view of it seems to be mellowing a little. For my pennyworth this bold, modern insertion into the townscape has provided Skibbereen with a new visual focus and with great potential for a successful future.
The name of this new building is Uillinn – it means ‘elbow’, a reference to the angled plan of the building and its cantilevered location over a bend in the Caol Stream that snakes through the town’s back yard. Dublin based Architects Donaghy and Dimond won the international design competition in 2009: have a look at their plans for the building here.
One of the exhibits is titled ‘Flying Colours’ and is a project by the West Cork Education Centre in collaboration with local Primary School children: stairways and circulation spaces in the new centre are alive with colour and creativity. How wonderful that these children can feel they have played such a significant part in this new venture.
This building simmers with potential: the gallery spaces and facilities are impressive and architectural elements are well detailed. Skibbereen has been given a high quality civic building that will last for generations: it’s now got to be used creatively.
It’s no coincidence that one of the speaking guests at the opening was Sam Thorne, artistic director of the Tate St Ives Gallery in Cornwall. Comparison between West Cornwall and West Cork is inevitable: both regions have a history of attracting artists because of the very particular light that comes from close proximity to the Atlantic coastline. Also, artists have been drawn to these places because of enduring lifestyles that are simple, basic and close to nature. Thorne made the perhaps surprising statement that West Cork is home to more artists per capita than both Paris and London.
Sam Thorne said that having a community of artists contributes all kinds of different aspects to a region. One of the simple ones is tourism. “That’s been a really important thing in St Ives over the past two decades,” he said. “The gallery contributes £11m (€14.6m) every year to the local economy in St Ives – three times that which was anticipated when the gallery opened… So there’s a very real powerful impact that having artists there, having art there, creates for the community.” He added that the St Ives Gallery now needs to extend its buildings and anticipates over £80m coming into the local coffers over the next few years.
I spent many years in Cornwall and watched the development of the Tate Gallery in St Ives. It has become a year-round tourist destination: in all seasons – and in all weathers – the streets of the little town are crowded with visitors who are, of course, using the local shops, b + bs and restaurants. It has also created problems: overloaded car parks, strained infrastructure. But surely this is better than closed shops and failing businesses?
Of course, Skibbereen is not St Ives – and our Arts Centre doesn’t have the backing of a body like the Tate, with its enormous resources of historical art. But there are great possibilities nevertheless: Ireland has a wonderful art heritage, much of which is seldom seen outside of the big city galleries. And there are strong links between Irish artists and Britain which could be delved into. Think of the Newlyn School artists – Alexander Stanhope Forbes and Norman Garstin were both Irish; Cornwall was also home to Breon O’Casey and Tony O’Malley. Other artists moved from Cornwall to the west of Ireland, including Nancy Wynne-Jones, Conor Fallon and – mentioned above – Michael Ray.
The St Ives Tate works so well because it is able to show the ‘big names’ – but it also encourages young and local artists, whose output often interacts with the historically established works. There is no reason why the Skibbereen centre couldn’t build on similar links: wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see paintings by the likes of Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry, Sara Purser or Daniel Maclise on our doorstep – complimented, of course, by the very best of home grown talent? The ‘big names’ would be the crowd-pullers – at least initially: these are the building blocks for forging a lasting reputation.
The new building still awaits its official opening: this will happen in the summer and the President of Ireland – Michael D Higgins – will have that honour: a scoop for Skibbereen! The Board of the West Cork Arts Centre – and the sponsors and donors – have moved mountains to realise the vision of this building. Now it’s down to creativity and dynamism from the team – and to enthusiasm and encouragement from us, the visitors, whose support is vital to this building’s future success.