Contemporary cool in Northern Ireland

The MAC, Belfast city
The MAC, Belfast city

With the arrival of the 2013 Turner Prize to Derry-Londonderry, and the opening of MAC in Belfast, Northern Ireland is the bright new face of the contemporary art world

When it comes to visual arts, apart from Willie Doherty, whose work featured in the 2003 Turner Prize exhibition, Northern Ireland’s artists tend to keep a low profile on the world stage. But two major events look set to change that.

The first is the Turner Prize, which will be hosted by Derry-Londonderry during its 2013 tenure as UK City of Culture – and will see one British artist under 50 being honoured in the city.

It’s quite a thing in the art world: this is only the third time in three decades that the Turner has left Tate Britain – the first was Liverpool in 2007 and the second in 2011, when it went to Baltic in Gateshead.

A city with artistic credentials

So why Derry-Londonderry this time? Over the last few years, the city has become a major centre of contemporary art. Besides Doherty, the city can boast Declan McGonagle, the curator and gallerist nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987. It was McGonagle who helped bring Antony Gormley’s earliest public art projects to the urban walls.

And the two contemporary art spaces Void and Context Gallery (now the CCA), have given artists a real chance to show their work to a wide audience.

Belfast’s MAC

Down the road, Belfast is also celebrating a new arrival: the £28 million MAC (the Municipal Arts Centre) – which contains three art galleries and two theatres. It’s in “a frankly eccentric site tucked around the back of St Anne’s Anglican cathedral,” reports the Architectural Review.

Local architects Hackett Hall McKnight have done a fantastic job, using local materials including basalt to reference the famous Giant’s Causeway.

In short, concludes the Architectural Review, it’s a “splendid facility, a thoughtful yet robust building that bodes well for future contributions to the built fabric in these islands and abroad.”

It looks as if Northern Ireland’s artists – and architects – are on the up, while the Republic’s contemporary art scene is equally dynamic and impressive, with new spaces springing up in Dublin all the time. Of course, the island’s arty side isn’t confined to contemporary galleries and works, modern art and fine art are in abundance throughout the island, in galleries including the National Gallery of Art and the Hugh Lane in Dublin, the Hunt Museum in Limerick and the Crawford Gallery in Cork.