Royal Ulster Academy

Iconic former Northern Bank in Belfast plays host to 128th annual exhibition of the best in Northern Irish art

With over 300 pieces from such eminent artists as Rita Duffy, Graham Gingles and Neil Shawcross, the 128th annual Royal Ulster Academy exhibition is a fantastic showcase of contemporary Northern Irish art. The show runs from the 2 – 31 October in the old Northern Bank on the corner of Waring Street and North Street in the centre of Belfast.

In this excerpt from ‘The RUA is on the Move’ essay featured in the 2009 exhibition catalogue, Dr Denise Ferran, ARUA and former head of education at the Ulster Museum, looks at the history of the RUA and its annual exhibition since 1950.

After the war, in 1949, the academy again held its annual exhibition in the Belfast Museum & Art Gallery, which was arranged by John Hewitt, then keeper of art, and opened by the sculptor Morris Harding, who was president from 1946 until 1957.

In 1950, as part of the Festival of Britain of 1951, the royal prefix, was granted by King George VI, and the academy acquired its present title, the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts. The academy’s organisation has changed little since the instigation of 'the Ulster Academy of Arts' in 1930. On Harding’s resignation, William Conor was elected President.

The 1958 annual exhibition, held at the Belfast Museum, was severely pruned to 37 works to raise the standard of the exhibition which many members felt had disimproved during the previous decade. Following this exhibition the Academy exhibited in College Square. Wilfred Haughton became president in 1964 and continued until 1970 when Patric Stevenson took over the position for the next five years.

There was no annual exhibition in either, 1971 and 1972, due to the increasing turbulence in Belfast and Patric Stevenson moved the Diploma Collection out of the Old Museum in College Square to the safety of the Shambles Gallery in Hillsborough, close to where he lived.

These events could well have dealt a fatal blow to the Royal Ulster Academy had not the Ulster Museum proved again to be a lasting friend and hosted the exhibition in 1973 after the approaches of Mercy Hunter, who became president in 1975 for two years. This practice continued during TP Flanagan’s presidency from 1977 – 1983 and through David Evans’ presidency.

When the Ulster Museum’s galleries were undergoing major refurbishment in the late 80s and early 90s, the annual exhibition was mounted at Queen’s University in the department of architecture’s building in Chlorine Gardens.

During Rowel Friers presidency from 1993 until 1997, the annual exhibition moved back to the Ulster Museum and attracted on average 14, 000 visitors, the largest number for any exhibition over its three week run.

Throughout this period arrangements were energetically organised by the academy’s secretaries, Helen Falloon, Doreen Crockard and Harry Reid and works were sympathetically and skillfully hung by Anne Stewart, from the museum’s art department with an innovative and well supported education programme, delivered by the museum’s education department.

This successful and seamless arrangement continued throughout the presidencies of Richard Croft, Joe McWilliams and Carol Graham with welcome sponsorship from the Wellington Park hotel and Audi (NI). When the Ulster Museum closed its doors in 2005 for major renovation, the Royal Ulster Academy was homeless again after a settled period when the quality and range of its exhibitions increased and the academy’s finances consolidated.

A new venue was provided by the Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG), with a very successful exhibition in 2006 of 292 works with 180 works from non-members, attracting record sales of 124 works and 8000 visitors over four weeks.

The success of this exhibition was followed in 2007 in OBG with over 1000 entries and a new and Gareth Reidinvaluable three-year sponsorship from KPMG, arranged with the assistance of arts and business and an imaginative partnership proposal initiated by the RUA’s honorary secretary, Mike McCann. Not only does this sponsorship allow the Academy develop an education programme but it has also resulted in “The KPMG Emerging Artist Award” of £1500 to a selected artist. 297 works were exhibited and 178 of these were from non-members.

A new exhibition venue had to be found again for 2008 and the newly elected president, Rita Duffy, arranged the annual exhibition in Harland & Wolff’s Titanic Drawing Offices which were generously provided by Harcourt developments.

The RUA appointed its first fulltime Development Officer, Gail Richie, in June 2008 to develop the strategic plans of the RUA and to oversee all arrangements for their most important event, the annual exhibition.

A newly designed, larger format catalogue was produced to appropriately represent the 516 works exhibited, including 25 invited artists and 387 works from non-members. A similar design has been used this year and for the first time each work on display will be illustrated providing a more comprehensive record of the annual exhibition.

This autumn, the academy’s annual exhibition, moves to 2 Donegall Street to the former Old Assembly Building which became the Northern Bank. This has been made possible by the current owners, Dunloe Ewart, under the direction of the Academy’s new President, Julian Friers and Administrator, Irene Fitzgerald.

John BehanThe historic Northern Bank building, with its downtown central position is ideal although the exhibition space is small and curtails the number of works exhibited, disappointing many artists whose works were exhibited last year. In 2004, in his president’s foreword, Joe McWilliams recorded with regret that only 15% of the 550 open submission entries could be hung due to restrictions on space.

There are four components to the annual exhibition, works from members who submit two works each, works from invited artists, which this year are eminent practicing sculptors, works by invited graduates from the University of Ulster and works selected from the open submissions of non members which include established and emerging talent.

The relationship with the art college has been sustained from the early days of the academy but strengthened by artists who exhibit with the academy and who taught at the Belfast College, especially Bob Sloan, Neil Shawcross and Joe McWilliams and more recently by the introduction of an annual award from the academy to a final year student.

The more exhibition space available the more lively and varied the exhibition will be and as a consequence will attract even more submissions from throughout Ireland and further afield, continuing the practice initiated 128 years ago by the Ramblers’ Sketching Club.

After extensive renovations, the Ulster Museum is due to open this October and expectations are high that the Royal Ulster Academy will return to the Ulster Museum for its 129th annual exhibition, continuing a tradition initiated by Arthur Deane, 80 years ago in 1929.

Whether the 2010 exhibition space will be able to accommodate 400 works, as it did in 1930 or the 519 works exhibited in 2008, will be of interest to members of the Royal Ulster Academy, its sponsors and patrons, the wider visual arts community and the public. In any event the Royal Ulster Academy is on the move.