From salt of the earth L.S. Lowry tributes to learning music machinations at AVA Festival, the Northern Irish arts centre has become a model capturing public interest
The usual crowd of The MAC is slightly different from other contemporary arts centres, this is not a headsy art lovers paradise. Young and old gather around the building in Belfast's newly developed Cathedral Quarter to study, to sample visual and performative art and to learn more about their city, it feels as much a community hub as a exhibition venue. "It has transformed Belfast" say's Anne McReynolds the Chief Executive of the centre and the person responsible for both the artistic and strategic vision for The MAC, being involved in its implementation since the idea first came about in 2007.
"Its a project of such scale and ambition from a contemporary perspective that it hasn't only contributed to the regeneration of the Cathedral Quarter in the city centre but it's also created so many opportunities for artists and audiences who otherwise would have to travel to other cities to see this kind of work."
For the last few years The MAC has hosted the Audio Visual Arts (AVA) festival conference in their halls, with talks from people from within the electronic music industry and visual arts. Alongside the music festival, held in a former B&Q in the south of the city, AVA runs competitions to highlight the immense talent of local artists and musicians. The winning visual artist for this years edition was photographer Audery Gillespie who photographed women who use drag as a way to free themselves of performative sexuality.
"The style for AVA’s visual work is reflective in Belfast’s unique character; bold, industrial and full of energy! " comments the festivals brand and visual guru Kevin Gartland.
"We prefer to use analogue production methods to create our work; with weeks of printing, photographing, scanning and glitching artwork to create the AVA style and live visual show at this year's Festival. Across the weekend we showcased installations from local and international visual artists; Visual Spectrum, 19Mil, Intercity-Express and exhibited our Emerging Visual Artists competition shortlists. For a small city, Belfast has an incredibly rich artistic community that is growing really fast; so it’s exciting and inspiring to be part of this movement."
In its 5th year AVA has brought international recognition to Belfast's budding musical and artistic communities, with not just rave reviews but also visitors. "We get around 30 per cent of our ticket sales from tourists" say's Sarah McBriar the founder and Creative Producer of AVA, getting the idea while working for Glastonbury Festival. "You know before AVA most of the festivals in Northern Ireland were just about selling alcohol, they weren't a celebration of what we have to offer and that's what I wanted to create - something that attracts people to the city but also engages with young people, creating an idea that Belfast is a really cool city to visit."
This years edition saw international talents such as Len Faki, HAii, Courtesy, Avalon Emerson and Ben UFO, but made sure to pay tribute to people from its home city - with debut Boiler Room sets from locals Sally C, DSNT Records' Myler and up-and-coming producer Mount Palomar.
“I spend all year researching what is going on in Belfast" Sarah McBriar laughs. "You know you have to book your headline acts 9 months in advance and before that you need to have all your other stuff locked up. But you know we’ve really developed our reputation within the industry now a lot of agents want their artists to be booked with us. It takes a long time to develop that reputation and respect, but we've managed to do it in 5 years. I like doing new things and pushing boundaries.”
The MAC first opened in 2012 following a long construction on the city centre building and is designed by Belfast-based architecture firm Hackett Hall McKnight after they were selected from a RIBA national design contest in 2007. The structure is built from local materials and sits on a trapezium shaped area nearby St.Annes Cathedral, its seven stories contain shops, bars, two theatres and three exhibition spaces. In 2013 it was awarded the RIBA National Award, in 2014 it was awarded the Downes Medal and in 2015 shortlisted for the Museum of the Year Award, alongside the Tower of London and the Imperial War Museum.
"It was our second year in operation can you believe." Ms McReynolds tells us. "I remember a conversation with Hugh Muholland our senior curator and he said I’m going to fill the form in and I said Hugh no, we haven’t a hope we’ve only just opened there’s no chance of getting on this shortlist."
"For our opening we had an exhibition by Nicholas Keough and Robert Therrien, a new emerging artist and a well established artist that was set to the context of the importance of work by LS Lowry and William Connor - it was our amuse bouche and it worked so perfectly as our introduction in cultural terms to the people of Northern Ireland and it let people know our collaborators were going to be the best of the best from an international artistic community."
"Another highlight was the On Refusal exhibition that was curated by Claire Gormley introducing six US/American artists that have never exhibited in Ireland before - and its such a deeply political work; relating to issues around body autonomy, reproductive rights, gender issues and when you consider the enormous social and political human rights inequalities that people in Northern Ireland are subject to, you understand that this is so relevant and really important for the people of this city to see."
In the last 7 years the centre has managed to attract the talents of both local up-and-comers as well as internationally renowned artists, contributing to the master aim of the cities creative community, to give Belfast its rightful and deserved reputation as an exciting cultural destination.
For the younger people in Belfast this is an exciting development, the pride they have for their city (and country) confounded by its new position as a European cultural haven, inspiring more artists and creatives onto the scene. DJ and Producer Timmy Stewart a long time veteran of promoting Belfast's culture insists "easily this is the biggest flux we've seen as far as young people connecting with music and other art forms." In the last five years the surge has caused a increase in new venues, collectives and performances in the city, where once the calendar was sparse with exhibitions and parties compared to the UK now things are slowly, but surely, filling up with the opening of The Art Department
"You know Belfast isn't London, and we don't want it to be" says Timmy "In London you have 20 per cent of the clubs closing, we want to grow - we don't want to fight against our young people and the way they want to shape our city, we want to enable them and lift them up."For more information on AVA Festival's outreach in Belfast and early tickets to next years festival head to AVAFestival.com