Derry and Northern Ireland can’t “let the lights go out” on the new art gallery at Ebrington after the Turner Prize exhibitions closes on Sunday 5th January.
That was the message this week from Noelle McAlinden, curator of the London Street Gallery, as an ‘Ebrington Gallery campaign’ began to take shape.
“This city is capable of being a ‘cityof galleries’,” she told the Eileen Walsh arts show on Drive 105FM radio. “We need to make the most of the success of the Turner Prize show in Ebrington and work together for the good of this city.”
So far, it seems, the plan is that the £2.5m gallery created as a home for the Turner Prize show is to be turned into offices early in January. Or rather into a ‘creative hub’intended to provide a home for ‘Digital Derry’- type small businesses. There are increasing calls for that idea to be scrapped.
Richard Gordon of the Gordon Gallery said: “What you need for a ‘creative hub’ is a bedroom and a socket to plug a computer into. You don’t need temperature control, humidity control and security.
“What we have now at Ebrington is a state-of-the-art gallery. This is appalling. If we lose this gallery 2013 will have been a waste of time. We won’t go back one year, we’ll go back ten years.”
Niall McCaughan, general manager of The Playhouse, said: “To turn it into offices would be a shame. Already we’re seeing The Venue pulled down.
“The Arts Council, in their current five-year plan, are proposing that there should be a regional art gallery for Northern Ireland. That gallery should be here in Derry.
“In recent years we have seen serious investment in Belfast. In the interests of a level playing field, the new regional gallery should be here.
“We are seeing major support from the Arts Council for cultural attractions in Belfast. The MAC in getting more than £1m, there are two or three others in Belfast at that level. No organisation in Derry is getting that sort of money. Why not?”
Leading names in the arts from Derry have already called for the gallery to be retained at Ebrington. Willie Doherty, one of Ireland’s best-known contemporary artists, said the decision on the gallery will illustrate the commitment to Derry and the visual arts here.
For his part, Declan McGonagle, head of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, said Ebrington is ideally placed to be a cultural centrepiece for the city.
At the moment, the decision on the future of the Turner Prize gallery seems to rest with the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
OFM/DFM own Ebrington and Buildings 81 and 82, which house the gallery. The argument is that the business case has already been agreed for the ‘creative hub’ there, which could potentially provide a home for 50 jobs.
However, the counter-argument runs that it’s ludicrous to have a gallery which already has an international reputation, and turn it into somewhere for people to plug computers into.
As Richard Gordon points out, there are ‘digital hubs’ all over Derry lying empty.
In their latest statement on the issue, ILEX suggest the Turner Prize exhibition was just a temporary use for the buildings, which have been earmarked for a creative hub since 2009.
ILEX officials reject the idea that £2.5m was spent on the gallery, saying that £2m of that was earmarked for the hub anyway.
But this growing controversy over the future of the Ebrington Gallery is already being seen as the litmus test in terms of Stormont’s commitment to culture in Derry post 2013.
Charlotte Higgins, Chief arts writer with the Guardian, wrote back in October: “Fears are growing that these [City of Culture] gains risk being frittered away through lack of vision and ambition.
“Symbolic of this for many is the fact that the £2.5m galleries created for the Turner prize – high-spec, museum-quality spaces converted from barracks that will see 8,000 pre-booked schoolchildren and some 100,000 adults come through the doors over the next four months – will revert to the offices of a digital hub after the show has closed.”
She quoted Willie Doherty, himself twice shortlisted for the Turner prize, as saying that it was “ludicrous that a town spending that amount of money would let it last just four months and not take the opportunity to build upon it”. He said that the risk was that after the Turner prize show has rolled out of town, “it will feel like the lights have been switched off again in Derry”.
The Guardian article also quoted Caoimhin Corrigan of Ilex as saying the spaces in question have long been earmarked for offices and had been “borrowed from their intended use for the Turner prize. We can’t turn round and tell people who are expecting them to be one thing that sorry, they are going to be something else.”
Niall McCaughan of The Playhouse said the Culture year has highlighted the exciting progress already made in arts infrastructure in Derry .
“We have had major investment locally - you can think of The Playhouse, the Waterside Theatre, the Verbal Arts Centre, the Culturlann and others.
“What 2013 has done is to highlight the fantastic arts’ offering there is in Derry.
“We have a great opportunity here to make real progress but we do need resources, additional funding. We are having announcements from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council and Derry City. It’s very positive that DCAL is having an office in the city.
“We had the Field Day production in The Playhouse and we had people flying in from New York and California to see it - that has never happened before.
“I was in the queue for the Turner and there were people there from all over, including Dublin and London.
“The Turner Prize show has been a huge success and we must build on it.”
An online petition is running at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-ebrington-gallery-2013/
It suggests: “This gallery has the potential to attract many hundreds of thousands of tourists in the coming years to [. . .] to a world-class cultural resource.”