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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The very Model of a modern arts centre

From Review in today's Independent

As opening night pitches go, ‘come and sleep with us’ is certainly one to grab the attention. That’s exactly the proposition that the Model arts centre in Sligo is giving to the public during its official re-opening bash next weekend (May 1).

Having being closed for two years as part of an extensive renovation and extension, the newly re-opened Model kicks off its programme next Saturday with the start of the Dorm exhibit, which aims to be a sort-of parody of a commercial arts fair.

Essentially, 22 artist collectives will take residence in separate booths in the gallery. At the same time, the public are invited to take part in a sleepover in the Model on opening night, with design students from the local IT providing cheap, easily disposable beds for hardy culture vultures. One bed prototype is made entirely of balloons and cardboard.

“We're opening on May Day and we expect it to be mayhem,” laughs Aoife Flynn, Music and Events Programmer. “We chose to start with Dorm because our programme is very contemporary and sometimes hard-hitting, and we want to keep it at that level, but help people to interpret and access it too.

“It really is about educating people a bit, but I think, more than ever before, people want the arts to be interactive. It's a
conversation. We're not putting on something for people to look at and then just walk away. We want to start a debate.

“This is a way to do that, and also through the website where people can leave comments and get into a discussion.”

The Model’s re-launch provides a rare glimmer of light in an arts world that has been cast more and more into the shade by a State deep in the (empty) pockets of a recession. Be that as it may, the centre’s ambitious and quirky programme aims to bring the arts directly into the lives of not just those in the region, but to extend its reach on a national and international scale too.

It's an ambitious agenda at a difficult time for the Irish arts.Funding to the Arts Council was cut by 6pc for this year (dropping
from €73.35m in 2009 to €69.15m for 2010). As a result, all arts organisations are feeling the squeeze. Be that as it may, the
operators of the Model seem undeterred.

Now comprising a purpose-built performance space, a cinema, a gallery circuit and a suite of nine residential artist studios, the Model's building – which dates originally from the 1860s – has almost become an exhibit object in itself.

It may be a regional arts centre, but that hasn't put a limit on its head honchos' ambitions. “A very big part of how we approach our programme is to make it both nationally and internationally relevant,” says Aoife. “It's good not to have everything happening in Dublin, and to have that diversity.

‘The artists, especially, respond so much better if you say to them, ‘We have this fantastic gallery in a rural context, with a beach down the road, and the mountains behind you in a really unspoiled area with a huge amount of history'. For instance, in 2006 we had Patti Smith come to do a week-long exhibition, and performance, that she'd also brought to London, New York and Tokyo.

“She came to Sligo because of her love of Jack Yeats (the subject of his own Model exhibit from July onwards). She actually said she probably wouldn't have responded to the same invitation to a show in Dublin because there's a certain sameness to that city circuit. So I think Sligo's location can be an advantage.”

Seamus Kealy, director of the Model, was born in Sligo but spent most of his life in Canada, so perhaps understandably has a vision for the centre that goes beyond the local and the national. “We'll be bringing in international guests and a residency programme for international artists, and we're also engaged in a global scholarship scheme,” he says.

“We're already part of international exhibition tours. For example, last year we had a tour from Germany that was very critical of how religion represents itself today in new forms of media. It proved to be very topical around the time the Blasphemy Bill was being drawn up. It's possible to use an arts programme to provide a commentary on the socio-economic and political situation in the country right now.”

The Model's renovation was made possible by funding from Sligo County Council and from the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, but, like every other arts organisation, cobbling together operational and programme funding is a constant struggle.

“We just fundraise like hell,” reveals Seamus. “It's ongoing, and we also have self-generating forms of income, like the cinema, restaurant and the nine artists’ studios that we rent out.”

Aoife Flynn adds: “The programme funding has obviously had reductions, and that makes it difficult, but I find the very nature of working in the arts is to respond creatively to that challenge. If your ambition is high, you will find a way.

“We spend a lot of our time applying for funding. You really have to work with all sorts of organisations and sponsors, and it's hard work, but very rewarding. We have a lot of funding that would come from local authority, the PEACE III programme (a cross-border initiative), and the International Fund for Ireland scheme.

“At the same time, for smaller amounts we can work with good cultural institutes like Alliance Francaise or Goethe Institut. We start with the ambition and then try match the funding to it.”

See The public sleepover on May 1 requires advance registration.

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