Stand-out arts centre a reality in Skibbereen

West Cork Arts Centre’s new, €3.5m, 10,000 sq ft Uillinn building is a feature in Skibbereen, says Noel Baker.

IT is appropriate that the inaugural exhibition,opening today in the newly relocated West Cork Arts Centre is called ‘Fourth Space’ — for, make no mistake, there is plenty of dramatic new space here in the heart of Skibbereen.

The new centre is also called Uillinn, and it’s fair to say the pipes have been calling for some time for a larger location for the WCAC. Highly visible across the town, with its rust-hued Corten steel skin, the centre is a booming 10,000 sq ft, a quantum leap from the original, 890 sq ft of its former base, in an old street-side building.

It’s not just the size of the building, set in the car park of the SuperValu supermarket, that represents another dimension for the arts in West Cork.

According to Rita O’Driscoll, development manager at Uillinn, the centre reflects ambitions that go beyond the locality.

The five-storey building, on a site once occupied by Wolfe’s bakery and grocery, wants to support local artists and be a destination and exhibition point for national and international names.

“It’s something we are very, very proud of, it is completely paid-for, and we have great ambition for it,” Rita says, outlining some of the plans its artistic director and 10-plus staff have for the building.

It is undeniably a stand-out structure in a lovely old town. Staff moved into the new building, which cost €3.5m, on January 5, but the handing-over of the keys, in December, was the culmination of a long journey.

WCAC first secured the site in the late 1990s and a number of local people who championed the arts, and West Cork, set about turning the dream into a reality. The Bollinger family was chief among them, committing serious funds - on the proviso that it was matched elsewhere.

The Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) ran a competition for the design of the building, attracting international interest and won by a Dublin-based firm. Progress was tangible until the recession hit with a vengeance.

First one construction firm, then another, found themselves unable to proceed, with the understandable delays putting extra pressure on the budget.

Yet, unlike many a project that pre-dated the Celtic Tiger and the crash, not only is Uillinn finished, it is paid-for, thanks to contributors, such as the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s ACCESS II Scheme for capital arts projects, Cork County Council, fundraising and donations.

The fruits of all that labour are evident in the striking building, which stands proudly in the town centre, finished in Corten steel.

Designed by Donaghy + Dimond Architects, Dublin, and built by MMD Construction, Cork, it has a double-height ground-floor gallery and artists’ studios, with the gallery dedicated to deceased barrister and long-time champion of the arts, James O’Driscoll.

The second floor has three artists’ studios and workspaces, while the third floor has the University College Cork and Bollinger family space for dance/performance/lecture/film, complete with a sprung floor, floor-to-ceiling full-length mirrors, and ballet barres.

The fourth floor has a changing area and mezzanine over the dance space, and the fifth floor has office space.

It also features a sheltered courtyard and tea rooms — and no end of creative potential.

“West Cork has always had an interest in the arts. It is a very open community and, as a result, is a very cosmopolitan community,” Rita says.

“There is such beauty and tranquility here. It seems to appeal to artists.”

The rusty-looking finish of the building, as well as its height and sheer visibility, caused initial disquiet locally: however, concerns about run-off polluting the stream have been assuaged, with tests indicating there should be no problems.

“There was extensive research into the use of Corten steel, before proceeding with the specification,” she says. “The steel is a sustainable material, which has been successfully used in highly sensitive areas, like natural parks and preservation areas worldwide.”

The potential is also there for other kinds of events, she says, from corporate get-together and team-building gigs to music, and so on.

Uillinn is so named because of the ‘uillinn’ or ‘elbow’ of the narrow Caol stream running alongside and because of the angles of the building: it’s not a reference to the uillinn musical pipes.

The building will be officially opened today by Sam Thorne, artistic director of the regional UK Tate St Ives.

Mr Thorne will talk about the effect that such a facility could have on the West Cork region, based on how Tate St Ives has changed Cornwall.

As a state-of-the art(s) facility, Uillinn certainly has the same level of potential.

According to Ms O’Driscoll, the committedteam in the new building have grand plans: if they succeed, the whole area will benefit.

“If we can have the big names exhibiting here, then people will come and that will have a knock-on effect on the town,” Ms O’Driscoll says, as builders MMD Construction sponsor today’s 3pm official opening and first tours.

From blank canvas to work-in-progress, to completed work. Now, for the plaudits.




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