Against odds, New York’s Irish Arts Center has worked to become a top cultural hub
February 16, 2011
By Jack Holland
It stands three-stories high, a rather insignificant whitewashed building on the corner of 11th Avenue and 51st street, barely a block east of the Hudson River in the heart of what was once the toughest Irish neighborhood in New York City, the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen, now home to a mainly Latino community.
It is hardly where one would expect to find the dynamo of Irish and Irish-American cultural activity in New York City for the last three decades. But that is indeed the home of the Irish Arts Center, founded in 1972, located in its present premises since 1975, and now more lively and more energetic than ever as it roars into its fourth decade.
And yet, the old neighborhood and the little arts center have a lot in common — not just their Irish roots. They both share a certain grit, which has seen both through hard times and uncertain times, grit that was reflected in their determination to flourish — frequently against the odds. After all, in art as in life, a certain amount of grit as well as inspiration is needed, if things are to be accomplished.
The proof it there for all to see. Thirty years on, the Arts Center is flourishing as never before, just coming off a series of theatrical successes including its most recent, a sold-out six-week run for “The Kings of the Kilburn High Road,” the play about the plight of the Irish working man in London. Produced by Irish actor and Hollywood star Gabriel Byrne, it opened to rave reviews and played to packed theaters for the entire duration of its run.
The play was directed by Neal Jones, the center’s artistic director for the last three years. Jones, who is from St. Louis, is a veteran of Broadway and film — he casually calculates he has been in “some 200 plays and 24 movies” — and works in tandem with Pauline Turley, the Irish Arts Center’s executive director since early 1999. Along with Visual Arts director Megan Arney, with the help of their small staff — five full-time and between 20 and 30 volunteers — and a budget last year of $580,000, they have imparted a new momentum to the IAC, and not only on its stage.
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The 30-by-15-foot gallery, which acts also as a kind of foyer, last month hosted to an exhibition of one of Ireland’s most famous and successful contemporary artists, Robert Ballagh, entitled “Land and Language.” This exhibit continues in the center’s third floor gallery, while the main gallery is currently exhibiting “Afterimages,” by one of Ireland’s leading abstract painters, Mairead O’Neill Laher. The work is based on impressions of the countryside of Laher’s childhood, which was spent in County Kerry. It runs through May 19.
“Since the center opened its doors, hundreds of artists have exhibited their works there,” said Arney, who also works in the editorial department at the Metropolitan Museum while volunteering her time at the IAC.
“Most significantly, for 25 years, it has been the only arts space in New York City that consistently shows and promotes art from Ireland, about Ireland or by Irish artists.”
The Visual Arts Program’s current directional focus was established in 2000. According to Arney, its purpose is to continue to improve the gallery’s exhibitions by staging conceptually driven and socially relevant shows of both emerging and established artists.
Meanwhile, the center’s other diverse activities go on — its weekly dance and music classes, Irish-language classes, as well as events that encompass just about every aspect of Irish and Irish-American cultural endeavor, including talks and discussions in Irish history and politics, and the occasional book launch for Irish and Irish-American authors. Just over two weeks ago, the center organized a display of 2,000 Irish dancers at the New York Irish Dance festival held on Chelsea Piers.
A prime example of its engagement with the New York community is the center’s sponsorship of “The Big Potato,” written by actor/writer/performer Macdara MacUibh Aille, a theatrical workshop and performance about the Irish Famine. Based on New York State’s Education Department Great Irish Famine Curriculum, the presentation goes out to schools in the New York area.
“Because Ireland depends so much on America, we have to have something here in the city that is continually renewing, creating and giving people access to Irish culture,” said Turley, who grew up near Newry, Co. Down, a stone’s throw from the Mountains of Mourne.
Turley said she was originally inspired by the upsurge of artistic development in Ireland, which spawned new theaters and cultural centers all over the country
“I saw wonderful new theaters and cultural institutions springing up in Dublin, Armagh, Derry, Belfast,” she recalled. She decided that Irish and Irish American arts and artists in New York, which is, after all, one of the most prominent venues for artists and their work in the world, needed something like that, given the unprecedented prominence of Ireland in arts and entertainment. She has a vision of the Irish Arts Center one day answering that need.
“New York is the place to showcase what you have in art, music, drama, literature,” she said. “But incredibly, there is no Irish facility or venue big enough, for example, to host a Seamus Heaney reading, or a Chieftain’s performance.”
Theater and artistic director Jones expresses a similar frustration with the current resources at the disposal of the IAC and the scale of the task they have undertaken, which is no less than to represent all that is best and brightest in Irish and Irish-American culture.
“There has been a plethora of award-winning plays we were offered but I couldn’t accept because of lack of financing,” he said.
Still, Jones stresses that the center’s theater is not focused only on what has already been deemed successful, either commercially or critically. On the contrary, he sees one of the primary functions of the center’s theater as being the incubator for new works and new talents.
“We should be like a Project Arts Center,” he said, referring to the renowned Dublin theater and workshop which generated new talent in Ireland from the 1970s onward. “I’d like to see us in a position to commission new plays. But that requires funding.”
Though he has earned his bread and butter in movies (most famously in “The Devil’s Advocate,” starring Al Pacino, and “Dirty Dancing,” starring Patrick Swayze) Jones is a firm believer in the theater as a communal experience (unlike the cinema), and an important means for a community to express itself. He sees the center’s stage as being central to the whole project.
“The center was not intended as a professional theater,” he said. “It was part of a range of activities, but the theater became the hub with ‘Celtic Tiger.’ ”
Produced two years ago, “Celtic Tiger [Me Arse],” a satirical look at modern Ireland written by Don Creedon, was one of the center’s greatest successes.
In spite of its “non-professional” origins, the 99-seat theater has been the midwife to a host of actors and directors who went on to find professional success elsewhere. They include Jim Sheridan, Terry George and Chris Noth (of “Sex and the City” fame). Others who have strode the boards on 51st Street include the late John F. Kennedy Jr., Frank and Malachy McCourt, and Peter O’Toole.
Despite the Irish Art Center’s achievements, its facilities continue to lag behind those of other national, publicly funded cultural institutions in New York. Most recently, Scandinavia House opened on Park Avenue with eight floors which contain a 160-seat screening room and theater, a library, a children’s learning center, two gallery spaces, a cafT and a book store, the kind of facilities that the enthusiasts at the center can but dream about at this stage.
“Really,” mused Ms Turley, “our aim should be to build an Irish Lincoln Center — something which reflects the success of the Irish and Irish Americans in arts and business.”