'He’s based in London, he’s never here and, trying to explain to someone outside the art community what we were going to do…? We didn’t even try.'
The landlord who owns Satis House, an otherwise unremarkable two up, two down on Belfast's Deramore Avenue, has no idea what’s going on inside the property he has rented to curators Kim McAleese and Eoin Dara.
Far from being nefarious, however, Satis is a cozy, welcoming art space, a far cry from the stark white cubes that typically house contemporary art. It is located in a first-floor room overlooking the Ormeau Road, and the smell of toast – at least when I'm there – fills the air.
After working closely together as directors at city centre gallery Catalyst Arts, McAleese and Dara realised that they weren’t finished collaborating, and set out to find a space they could programme. Since they were also both looking for a place to live, the two goals melded naturally into one. The Satis House concept was born.
'I think we work really well together,' Dara says. 'We know where each other’s skills lie. I know certain areas where I’m weak and it just so happens that they’re the areas that Kim excels in, and vice versa. Between the two of us, we have all bases covered.'
Both McAleese and Dara already have jobs in the arts – she’s a curatorial consultant at the Belfast Festival and he’s the assistant curator at the MAC – but the house, which receives no funding, gives them the freedom of complete control. They can exhibit whatever visual, performance or literary art they like, or that they feel deserves more exposure, without the question of cold hard cash ever coming up.
'There’s lots of commercial galleries, but the work is there to be sold. It’s just a buying space,' McAleese says. 'Satis House is an opportunity to program in an innovative way, where you feel less restricted by the institution or funding and where you can approach people to react to the space.'
Indeed, reacting directly to the space is important to the pair. From the outset, McAleese and Dara refused to allow their home turned gallery to be a place for artists to hang work already completed. Their inaugural show, held at the end of March 2012, featured four artists interacting with the room in its original state. They made art out of the bed, the wardrobe, the fixtures and the floorboards.
'We were going to white out the space and scrub up the walls and put spotlights in, but then we realized that that would have been insincere, would have been glossing over the immediate history of the room,' Dara explains. 'It still doesn’t look like an art venue, and we never want it to.'
Satis House offers plenty of advantages to its curator-inhabitants, but it also comes with a few disadvantages. Contemporary art isn’t known for its accessibility and Dara and McAleese are aware that their space, existing as it does within their private home, can be even more intimidating to patrons.
Then there are the neighbours to contend with. Located on a leafy street where there are plenty of families, workers and elderly people resident, Satis House works hard to maintain good relations. When the pair host an opening, for example, all partying and tail-feather shaking is over by 10pm.
'We have no intention of taking the mick in terms of partying or disturbing the peace. We’re fully aware that this is still a residential area,' Dara says. 'A couple of neighbours have asked what’s going on, but talking with them it’s been received pretty positively – touch wood.'
Ultimately, the goal of Satis House is to function not only as a gallery but as a meeting place for the burgeoning arts community in the Ormeau Road area. When they were first searching for a place to set up their domestic art space, McAleese and Dara didn’t look anywhere else.
'There’s been a huge influx of the artistic community into the Ormeau in the past five or six years, but there’s never been a venue on the Ormeau, a sort of nucleus,' Dara concludes. 'We’re drawing on what we’ve discovered here.'
Satis House is located at 86 Deramore Avenue. Its latest exhibition, featuring the work of Hannah McBride, opens July 19. Visit the Satis House website for more information.