Bringing It All Back Home

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In the shadow of St. Augustine’s Church next to the City Walls, a unique creative endeavour in a restored Old Schoolhouse is helping to bring Derry into focus on the global arts scene.

Art Aracadia has been developed by artist, Paola Bernardelli, as a means of providing opportunities for local and international artists to live, work and host exhibitions and to “give something back” to her adopted base of Derry.

Lens-based Italian artist Paola said Art Arcadia evolved out of the networks she has developed during her own international residencies and the missed opportunities following the spirit of optimism that Derry’s year as the first UK City of Culture would lead to major cultural revival and investment in the arts.

“In 2013 there was this huge tsunami of funding and things happening and soon after that there was an anti-climax really, where nothing happened,” she noted. “There was no money to make it happen; there was no willingness from funders to make it happen and, at the same time, the only subsidised studio in the city closed, an art school closed, some smaller galleries closed, so basically it really felt like you were living in a wasteland. That was the general context.

“Then on a personal basis, I graduated with my Masters in Fine Art in Belfast in 2011 and I have been doing a lot of artist residencies in places including Toronto, Winnipeg, Reykjavik and Rome. By default I started accumulating this kind of network and people would say, ‘I’d love to come to Derry to do a residency’.”

Initially, Paola did organise a few residencies under the umbrella of larger organisations and also set an exchange between art students here and the most prestigious photography school in Rome. “For two years each year, five or six students from here would go to Rome for 10 days to work there and do exhibitions and then the following month or so, five or six students from Rome would come over here and they would do joint exhibitions. 
“After that someone suggested to start my own organisation, I suppose from the outside people could see the value of what I was doing. So this was how Art Arcadia was born. I asked a few people to join me in this mad adventure, and we constituted in January, 2016. With the other driving force behind Art Arcadia, Kieran Ferris (chairperson), we decided from the start we wanted to start small and let it grow organically. We want to make things happen but we didn’t force it because the economic climate was not the right one to start big.”

In fact, in that initial period, Paola’s office for the fledgling social enterprise was in her own living room, and despite trying to secure a base there was nothing suitable or manageable in Derry. “All our projects were made everywhere but Derry. I used my house in Italy in a tiny little village (Pietrafitta FR) between Rome and Naples up on the mountains. It’s a remote area, 200 inhabitants and I enjoy bringing artists there. I love doing it because you take an artist out of their comfort zone and to the middle of nowhere, where they cannot talk about art with anyone. The villagers are slowly getting used to the artists roaming the village and the field carrying all sort of equipment and materials.”

In 2016 Mak9 arts collective from Belfast was Art Arcadia’s first project in the village, followed by Irene Bindi from Winnipeg and Sara Reil from Reykjavik but with no suitable base locally, the project was evolving elsewhere, with residencies in Belfast and exhibitions in other countries. “This is how we started, with artists taking up residency in my village and then trying to finding a place somewhere for the exhibition. As someone who does residencies all the time I know how important it is to have an end of residency exhibition. A lot of residency places don’t do that but I felt we had to.

“I wanted to bring it back here because I have been here a long time. I moved here around 2002. Just like how I bring things back to my village and I feel I am giving back somehow, I wanted to do the same in Derry but it has been really difficult.”

Then in 2018, a major opportunity arose when Art Arcadia secured a partnership with a local heritage site, St Augustine’s Church. This came about through a “series of occurrences” Paola said. Derry City & Strabane District Council were doing consultations with arts organisations and Paola mentioned problems with securing spaces for smaller organisations.

“They were looking to do something with this space. The Council now is doing a programme with several heritage buildings and open to the public old buildings like the Schoolhouse here. I got in touch with the rector, Rev Malcom Ferry, and we agreed to do a one-off six months residency programme. Within a month that had turned into a pilot programme.”

Art Arcadia invited five local female artists – Pascale Steven, Sue Morris, Stephanie Gaumond, Gail Mahon and Anne-Marie McKee – to take up residency at the Old Schoolhouse, a building adjoining the church and old graveyard, bringing contemporary art to a location mainly known as a heritage attraction. What began as a one-off programme, taking place over a six-months, was a great success and feedback from the artists was extremely positive. Paola said the congregation at St Augustine’s have also been extremely welcoming to their new neighbours,

“They have been brilliant,” Paola says. “Art Arcadia is a social enterprise and we do feel we are doing something for the artists, the community and for the heritage. It’s here to bring people over to Derry,

Art Arcadia is not a gallery, we do artist residencies with exhibitions at the end of each residency. This is a multi-functional experimental space, a working and living space, and studio and exhibition space. This is something different from the three galleries in Derry. Void, CCA and Nerve Visual, who all have excellent programmes.”

And just a year in, the word is spreading among artists internationally. “I’m getting so many expressions of interest from Canada, Iceland, Italy, Spain, Greece and so on because with social media it’s so easy to get your word out and generate curiosity. Artists want to come to Derry, they want to go to my village in Italy. It’s exciting because the international side of Art Arcadia is always there, even though now we have premises in Derry. We are also unique in Northern Ireland, because there is no residency in the region that offers exhibition space. At St Augustine’s we have accommodation, studio and exhibition space.”

And, speaking as Derry-based artist Sue Morris prepared to open her (currently open) new exhibition based on her experiences at Paola’s home village at the Old Schoolhouse, Paola reckons that while it is still a struggle for many artists, there are signs that the Council and others are listening and becoming proactive in helping to develop the arts and culture sector. ““There are new studios in Clarendon Street, with a beautiful exhibition space on the ground floor of the building. At St Augustine’s Old Schoolhouse we organise residencies and exhibitions in a heritage setting. There’s a small programme of exhibitions at Verbal Arts Centre, curated by Gregory McCartney. You feel like there is a bit more going on.”

And if proof were needed, you only have to glance to Art Arcadia’s impressive in-year programme which, with its strong European and local line-up points to the importance of connections in what are uncertain times as Brexit looms.The programme began in April with Sue Morris at Art Arcadia’s site in Italy and then continued in May with Italian lens-based artist Valeria Pierini’s residency and exhibition centred around the Walls and featuring local people’s stories at St Augustine’s Old Schoolhouse. Sue Morris’ current exhibition will be followed by Nicola Renzi’s outdoor project at St Augustine’s graveyard in August, while September will inaugurate Art Arcadia’s new partnership with the Liverpool Irish Festival. Derry-based artist Locky Morris will travel to Liverpool for a residency, culminating in an exhibition during the Festival in October. At the same time, Paul Sullivan, Director of Static Gallery, Liverpool, will take up residency at St Augustine’s Old Schoolhouse, with an exhibition opening on Culture Night. The programme will continue with artist collective CAAKE (Gail Mahon and Tara J. Murphy) from November 2019 to January 2020, through a series of collaborations, workshops and film nights. February 2020 will see the return of Locky Morris at the Old Schoolhouse, and the current programme ends in March 2020 with French lens-based artist Philippe Grollier.

Meanwhile a new free Music 360 programme is under way at St Augustine’s Church every Tuesday from 1pm to 2pm over June, July and August, featuring young musicians from schools and universities.

So it seems that the quest to find a home for Art Arcadia has come to a successful conclusion in what Paola and others are helping to ensure remains very much a City of Culture.

For more information on Art Arcadia, see www.artarcadia.org and see the ‘Art Arcadia’ Facebook page.