Rory Harron is 36 years old. He’s an artist based in Derry-Londonderry, who works in drawing, sculpture, installation art, video, and text.
Raised from the age of 10 in the city, he has left and returned twice. The first time he left, it was to do an MA in Fine Art at Manchester. When he came back in 2005, he took a studio at the Void Gallery. He left a second time to complete a PhD at the Glasgow School of Art, before coming back in 2012, excited at the prospect and prospects of the City of Culture year.
Harron is no different from the hundreds and maybe thousands of other artists in Northern Ireland. He wants to work, he wants to develop his work, and he wants to exhibit.
He is positive about the visual arts scene in Northern Ireland, although he feels more can be done for artists in Derry-Londonderry and beyond.
'Here in Derry we have wonderful, critical galleries, like the Centre for Contemporary Arts and Void. They exhibit work by cutting edge, international, contemporary artists, which is brilliant for local artists to see. Void also offers classes run by Damian Duffy, which are a brilliant preparation for art school. There are six studios there, and another dozen or so studios recently opened by Richard Gordon of the Gordon Gallery. But more spaces are needed where local artists can create work in response to the exhibitions we see here. And we need spaces where local artists can exhibit and display their work.'
Talking from the perspective of an artist working in Derry-Londonderry, Harron identifies two things which would vastly improve life in the city. 'We need a college that offers an arts degree. That would mean artists don’t have to leave and it would attract students into the city, with fresh, challenging ideas. And we need gallery spaces like in Glasgow and Manchester, committed to delivering local, contemporary art. There are vacant spaces here, but we need the council to make them available.'
Nevertheless, Harron remains bullish. 'Yes, student numbers are small, and more facilities do need putting in place, although every city and town has a space of some sort. I’m positive about the future. The artists are here. Northern Ireland is full of creativity and is becoming more international.'
Harron himself has followed a route that many other artists are exploring in forming a cooperative, there being greater power, energy, and resources in the group than in the individual. In 2012, he helped form Open Door 77, a collective of 12 artists all based in Derry-Londonderry. 'If there aren’t places to exhibit, then you have to seek them out yourself. The arts world has lots of gatekeepers, and there are lots of closed doors. The idea of the group is, through collaboration and support, we can instigate work and make our own open door.'
Harron himself opened a door wide for all artists last year, when he curated the No Jury No Prize exhibition at the London Street Gallery, and he’s working on a repeat of the project for later this year, along with Creative Village Arts. 'Last year we had work from about 300 artists on show. This year we’re aiming for 500. No-one except the viewing public will decide on quality. As long as it’s legal, we accept anything.'
Northern Ireland is a good place to be an artist, Harron is convinced of that. It’s a place that believes in creativity. 'You can make a living here,' he says, 'either through selling or from funding, or both.'
That optimism is shared by Suzanne Lyle, Head of Visual Arts at the Arts Council Northern Ireland. 'The arts scene here is very vibrant,' she says. 'In each genre of the visual arts, our own artists produce work of a good critical standard. They can hold their heads high, and contrast very favourably with the rest of the UK and Europe.'
And she echoes the words of Harron, who himself received a grant of £450 from the Arts Council to produce a book of his work, to take round galleries. 'There are opportunities here for artists,' she says. 'It’s a good place to be.' The opportunities she refers to are diverse. 'We have schemes for the production of public art – Re-imagining Communities, Building Peace – where artists can train to become facilitators, working with cross-community groups to create public artworks. It’s hugely important work. The community arts scene is expanding, becoming really vibrant, and artists play an important role, giving access and encouraging participation, whatever the art form, to create meaningful engagement.'
She highlights the work of Belfast Exposed as working with community groups to develop both practical skills and a creative voice, and mentions Seacourt Print Workshop, in Bangor, where there is specialist printing equipment suitable for those with physical disabilities.
The principal role of Lyle and her team is 'to consider funding for the visual arts in Northern Ireland, and to help individual artists or artists’ organisations to understand the requirements and sources of funding.' It’s a matter of being both conduit and facilitator. 'It’s difficult for emerging artists to access funding. We let them know what’s there, both in terms of public and private sources, and then it’s up to the artists themselves.'
Lesser-known artists can access funding of up to £1500 in the form of a range of arts awards, and there are also opportunities for travelling and study abroad. 'There’s a fellowship at the British School in Rome that we offer, but we also ask artists to suggest residencies themselves.' The ACNI judge each application according to background, education, the body of work produced so far, and the aims of each proposal. Lyle is clear about what she and her team look for in all their dealings with artists. 'The key things are quality, challenge, and innovation.'
Lyle clearly states that Northern Ireland is a good place to be an artist. 'There are a whole range of opportunities here, and not just in facilitation work. We are well-served for galleries across Northern Ireland, with places like The Mac, Belfast Exposed, The Golden Thread, The CCA, Void, and Millenium Court, in Portadown, which is active in contemporary arts, and is partly funded by the ACNI and Craigavon Borough Council.' Lyle stresses the importance of council-run galleries which, along with the ACNI, ensure that there is an exhibition space within 25 miles of every person in Northern Ireland. 'In Portstewart we have The Flowerfield Arts Centre, there’s The Alley Arts Centre in Strabane, and Enniskillen’s Clinton Centre, all doing excellent work.'
Northern Ireland also has a range of private galleries, with a particular cluster on Belfast’s Lisburn Road. 'However,' says Lyle, 'there isn’t a dealer kind of culture here, like you might see in places like London.' The ACNI is attempting to address that. 'We’re hoping to develop the Own Art scheme here, whereby a buyer can borrow as much as £2000 to buy a work of art from a gallery in Northern Ireland, and pay off the loan over 10 months, with the interest paid by the gallery in question and the Arts Council.'
One area where Northern Ireland is lacking is a gallery exhibiting the work of artists of significance who are known to a wide public audience. This is something of which Noelle McAlinden is convinced. She is a board member of the ACNI, and has spent 30 years working in arts administration, curation, and education. She is also a practising artist. 'There are brilliant things happening here, edgy, contemporary, and traditional. The broad picture is very healthy, but we must have the ambition to secure a gallery of international standing, to complement what we already have.'
By Dominic Kearney