Visual Arts Institutions

A survey of visual arts institutions in Northern Ireland.

Visual Arts Education

In 1816, two years after its foundation, the Belfast Academical Institute appointed its first drawing master, the Italian Gaetano Fabbrini. However, the temperamental master provoked both internal and public controversy. After dismissal in 1820, he sued the school and was in turn summonsed for assault.

Fabbrini’s pupil James Atkins painted the copy of Titian’s 'Martyrdom of St Peter', which hangs in the Great Hall, Queen’s University, Belfast. The original was destroyed in a fire in 1867.

Art education at 'Inst' was threatened by the establishment of a government funded School of Design in 1849. The School of Design occupied two floors of the Academical Institution’s building in College Square, and numbers attending the college’s own drawing school fell dramatically.

The Government School of Design, however, fell into financial difficulties and closed within five years. Re-established at new premises in the 1860s, it evolved into the Municipal College of Art in 1901 under local, rather than national government control. Dominated by the design needs of the linen and printing industries, the Municipal College was forerunner to the Ulster College of Art and Design, now the York Street campus of the University of Ulster.

Alumni of the art college in its various manifestations have included William Conor, Colin Middleton, Mickey Donnelly and Carol Graham. David Crone and Neil Shawcross have numbered among their teaching staff.

The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts

In 1881, employees of the printing firm Marcus Ward founded the Ramblers Sketch Club. Reorganised as the Belfast Art Society in 1891, with membership now open to those outside the firm, the group’s agitation for a public art gallery in Belfast culminated in the establishment of the museum and art gallery on the upper floors of the public library on Royal Avenue.

In 1930, the Art Society was renamed the Ulster Academy of Arts, earning its Royal prefix 20 years later. Notable presidents of the RUA have included William Conor, Mercy Hunter, TP Flanagan and Rowell Friers.

The Arts Council

At its inception in 1943, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts set out to build a collection of artworks on behalf of the public, and to encourage and support local artists.

CEMA’s gallery at 55a Donegall Place, Belfast, exhibited the work of painters like Gerard Dillon, T P Flanagan, Arthur Campbell, Leslie Zukor and Thomas McCreanor.

The Donegall Place gallery was a cramped and difficult space and closed in 1958. While CEMA sought a new exhibition venue, painters Tom Carr and Robert McKinstry were financially assisted by CEMA to run the Piccolo Gallery at Wellington Street. A new space at Chichester Street, converted by McKinstry, was opened in May 1960. It served as the Belfast base for the collection of the Arts Council, as CEMA was renamed in 1962, and for visiting shows until the ‘shop window’ gallery in Bedford Street was opened in 1968.

The Arts Council finally withdrew from the commercial centre of the city in 1995 when the converted Ormeau Baths was officially opened. The event also represented a withdrawal of direct Arts Council involvement in the management of its own gallery. However, the ongoing Cathedral Quarter urban redevelopment project continues to hope that the Arts Council and gallery may return to the city centre in the near future.

Local and international artists who have exhibited at the Ormeau Baths Gallery include Basil Blackshaw, Jack Packenham, Jack B Yeats, Mary Farl Powers, Gilbert and George, and Yoko Ono.

The Ulster Museum

The museum and art gallery on the top floors of Belfast’s Central Reference Library rapidly began to build its own collection, and on assuming responsibility for the scientific and antiquarian holdings of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, the Belfast Corporation began to search for premises. Not until 1929, however, did the new Museum and Art Gallery on the Stranmillis Road open its doors. 

In 1961, central government took control of the re-named Ulster Museum. A large extension to the building was opened in 1972. The museum’s collection now contains work by Dutch, Flemish and Italian Old Masters, twentieth century British painters and sculptors, and Irish artists including John Lavery, William Conor, Paul Henry, Basil Blackshaw, Louis le Brocquy, FE McWilliam and Roderick O’Conor.

In addition to approximately 5000 paintings, drawings, and works on paper, the Ulster Museum holds sculpture, glassware and ceramics, costume, textiles and jewellery, and items of furniture.

In response to changes in art practice and theory, and to political and social upheaval in the wider Northern Irish context, the late twentieth century witnessed the flowering of small groups of artists into a number of artist led initiatives, united by outlook, discipline or simple economic need.

Belfast Print Workshop was founded in 1977 when the Arts Council of Northern Ireland provided financial support and Stranmillis premises for a pre-existing group of artists known as the Endhouse Print Workshop. BPW is now the longest established Northern Irish resource for artists working in print media.

Photo Works North was first constituted in 1991 in order to promote photography in Northern Ireland, and to agitate for the foundation of a photographic gallery. Its newsletter expanded to become Source magazine.

Established in 1983, Belfast Exposed is a photographic gallery and community photographic resource centre. The organisation has traditionally focused on the development and exhibition of community photography, placing emphasis on the darkroom as workshop, and on ways in which photographic vision can contribute to self-esteem and social and political perspectives. Its exhibition and commissioning policy seeks to promote the work of local, national and international photographers engaged in social comment.

Additional interests include the architectural development of post-industrial, post-conflict cities as signifiers of economic and cultural confidence.

Catalyst Arts is a non-profit organisation and gallery space that administers, facilitates, and presents arts exhibitions and events. Established in 1993, the emphasis falls extensively upon art not normally represented by commercially orientated, established institutions. A keystone of the regeneration plans for the Cathedral Quarter area of Belfast, Catalyst Arts are known for challenging and progressive art presentation.

Creative Exchange is an artist led studio group based in east Belfast, set up to address a lack of visual art activity in the local area. Aside from the obvious practical benefits of having a studio space, the artists also gain the opportunity to mix with fellow practitioners.

Queen Street Studios is a charitable company set up to enable artists to create and develop their artwork while raising awareness of the artists’ contribution to that community.

Outside Belfast, Derry’s Orchard Gallery opened in 1978 on a ‘temporary’ site under St Columb's Hall. Declan McGonagle presided as director of the gallery in its formative years. In 2003, however, Derry City Council announced the closure of the gallery and its transformation into an agency for the promotion of visual arts around the city.

Seacourt Print Workshop is an artist print studio located in Bangor, Co Down, with extensive facilities for etching, relief printing, lithography, screenprinting, and photo-intaglio. SPW maintains an annual artist residency, and regularly invites artists to give talks and demonstrations. It also holds at least two exhibitions a year, and has established international links with similar studios in Europe.

Further Reading

The Arts in Ulster (1951) by Sam Hanna Bell, John Hewitt, and Nesca Robb; A Retrospective Exhibition of the Belfast College of Art 1849-1960 (1960) by K Jamison; Causeway: The Arts in Ulster (1971) by Michael Longley; Dictionary of Twentieth Century Irish Artists (2002) by Theo Snoddy.