The Irish Arts Center, a New York nonprofit dedicated to advocating for the culture of Ireland and Irish Americans, is finally moving into a house as big as its aspirations.
The organization, founded in the East Village in 1972, has operated for decades from an old building in Hell’s Kitchen. Now, concluding a pandemic-delayed construction project first launched 15 years ago, the center is moving just around the corner after converting a long-standing tire store into a state-of-the-art performance facility where it aims, from December, to present theater, dance, music, visual arts and more.
Ireland “still has these incredibly deep roots in its own artistic heritage, and it still fundamentally feels like a land of poets in its sensitivity and storytelling,” said Aidan Connolly, executive director of the center. But, he added, “New Yorkers may not know how exciting the emerging contemporary dance scene in Ireland is; they may not know how the cultural evolution of Ireland over the past 20 years has produced an exciting, vibrant and more diverse generation of musical artists, and so on.
The four-story, 21,700-square-foot 11th Avenue building, which retains its original brick repair shop facade, houses, at its center, a black-box theater space that features 14 approved layouts, the largest of which can accommodate 199 people. The theater is a major tech upgrade for the center, with retractable seats, flexible lighting, sound and set rigging, an overhead wire tension grid, and digital capture and streaming capability.
On the ground floor, the building houses a cafe, with blackened steel panels and a walnut bar, which will be run by Ardesia, a local wine bar. And above and below the theater are rooms that can be used for educational and community programs, as well as for rehearsals and meetings.
The $ 60 million building was designed by Davis Brody Bond, a New York-based architectural firm, in consultation with the Irish state architect. There are nods to the industrial history of Hell’s Kitchen and the Irish mission in the center – lots of bricks and steel, plus plenty of places to sit and chat, as the center considers the hospitality as an Irish virtue.
There are Irish touches throughout the building – most visibly the main staircase will feature Irish poetry lines on the risers, but also the signs throughout the building are in Irish as well as English, in a created font in collaboration with Irish typographer Bobby Tannam. Much of the furniture comes from a handcrafted Irish furniture designer, Orior, who makes pieces ‘injected with Irish character’.
The center plans to keep its offices in its existing building on West 51st Street; at some point he plans to redo this building and resume use of his 99-seat auditorium for smaller-scale performances. By the way, Cybert Tire, which previously occupied the 11th Avenue site, still exists – founded in 1916, it claims to be the oldest tire store in town and has simply moved around the corner to West 52nd. Street.
The Irish Arts Center began life as an Off Off Broadway theater that produced its own works, but over the past 15 years it has embraced a broader portfolio; Connolly often says he likes to think of the centre’s programming as a hybrid of 92nd Street Y and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Irish culture is represented in New York City in a variety of ways – there are periodically Irish writers on Broadway, for example, and the Irish Repertory Theater features often acclaimed productions of Irish drama, but Connolly maintains that, so far, there has been “no flagship hub to celebrate and promote Irish culture in a way that matches its impact”, like institutions like the French Institute Alliance Française or Scandinavia House.
The organization remains modest in size, at least compared to the scale of New York City nonprofits, with a planned budget of $ 7 million for its first year in the new building. But it has grown steadily – its operating budget was only $ 690,000 in 2006-2007.
In a demonstration of the expanded work made possible by the new theater, the center plans to stage its first musical next summer, an adaptation of the 2012 film ‘Good Vibrations’, on Belfast’s punk rock scene. The first year will also include a production of ‘The Same’, a play by Enda Walsh about two women in a mental institution, and ‘Chekhov’s First Play’, via Dead Center, an Irish / English theater company.
The center will open over a month run by Franco-Irish cabaret singer Camille O’Sullivan, who said she will fondly remember the old building, where she has performed on several occasions.
“They’re family and they’re friends,” O’Sullivan said, “and they really give people like me a home.”
There will also be dance programs by Oona Doherty; Mufutau Yusuf; and Sean Curran with Darrah Carr. And there will be an array of music, poetry, reading, and visual art.
There are 31.5 million Americans of Irish descent, but the center has a broad view of Irish, and although its donor base is predominantly made up of Americans of Irish descent, its audience is diverse.
“They have a really inclusive way of thinking about Irish diaspora culture,” said Georgiana Pickett, an arts consultant who organized several collaborations with the center when she was executive director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. “They’ve done a lot to make sure they connect the arts stories that run through Ireland to many other places around the world, and this has allowed them to include the music of the Appalachians, the new immigrant communities. in Ireland, people of Irish descent who collaborate with other cultures – that’s the Irish Arts Center, but has a very diverse definition of what it means.
The project is primarily funded by government largesse in the United States and Ireland – New York City, which has supported several arts institutions over time, has set aside $ 37 million for the project.
“This amazing building is timely,” said Gonzalo Casals, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, “as it breaks down barriers between disciplines and offers a deep understanding of Irish culture.”
The Irish government contributed $ 9 million and New York State gave $ 5 million. Private donors contributed $ 15 million. That’s $ 66 million raised so far – the unspent money on the new building will be used in part to support the operating budget.
The Irish government continues to support the center through Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish culture to the world as part of an effort announced in 2018 to double the country’s global footprint. The Irish Arts Center has been a major beneficiary of this effort; Christine Sisk, director of Culture Ireland, said her agency was making a “big investment” in the center.
“New York is an incredible city for the arts, and we also see it as a gateway to the rest of the United States,” said Sisk, who said she expected Irish artists whose work is presented at the center can then more easily visit the United States. “It is a showcase and a guaranteed space to showcase Irish arts.”