The cultural presence of Northern Ireland has flourished in recent years, particularly within its capital city of Belfast. Although the history of the city is fraught and complex, Belfast is the center of culture in the north, with numerous up-and-coming galleries, innovative arts centers, and an increasing amount of tourists. Read our updated article on the top ten galleries found in this cultural hot-spot.
Since the beginning of Golden Thread as a linen mill on one of Belfast’s ‘Peace Lines,’ the Golden Thread Gallery has come a long way from its humble origins. Nowadays, this gallery is one of Northern Ireland’s principal contemporary arts organizations, with a focus on both local and international visual arts. Since its establishment in 1998 by Gail Prentice, the gallery has worked with a number of major artists including Locky Morris and Paul Seawright as well as international names such as Tracey Emin and William Kentridge. The gallery is one of the largest venues in Northern Ireland, hosting six large-scale exhibitions in its main gallery and twelve exhibitions in its smaller project space. As well as organizing exhibitions in-house, the gallery also supports and promotes its artists abroad, creating a program to facilitate showcases of Northern Irish art. Outreach is at the core of the gallery’s ethos, and the institution often works in tandem with local community groups to create projects that will engage people in the arts.
Queen Street Studios and Gallery (QSS) was set up in 1984 as a non-profit, artist-lead organization. Their aim is to provide studio provision and gallery exhibitions for both local and global artists. Since its inception, Queen Street Studios and Gallery has provided 22 studio spaces for creative individuals working in various media. The organization also supports up-and-coming artists, giving them a chance to find their feet in Northern Ireland’s contemporary art scene. QSS organizes six exhibitions each year, and in May 2013, moved to its new space on Bedford Street, confirming the organization’s status as one of the foremost contemporary art spaces in Northern Ireland.
Belfast Exposed is Northern Ireland’s leading gallery for contemporary photography. Founded by a collective of local photographers in 1983, Belfast Exposed provides a venue focusing on the production of politically and socially engaged works. The gallery also tries to challenge representations of the city as a place of conflict. The enterprise, which is located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, consists of two galleries, a bookshop and a diverse arts program of exhibitions and workshops. Furthermore, Belfast Exposed boasts an impressive archive of half a million images, of which 2000 have been digitised. These can be viewed upstairs in the Exchange Gallery. The Gallery also provides a platform for international photographers who seek recognition of their work in Ireland. With such rich offerings, Belfast Exposed tops every photo lovers’ list of galleries to experience.
The Crescent Arts Centre started off as a Ladies’ Collegiate School in 1873, which was the first purpose built girls schools in the country. The building fell into disrepair following the school’s relocation in 1972, but the premises were brought back to life in 1979 thanks to its new function as the Crescent Youth & Resource Centre. Throughout the years, the Crescent played host to a number of arts organizations, and following its extensive refurbishment in 2008, the Crescent Arts Centre has been reaffirmed as Belfast’s leading arts centre. Given its central location, the arts centre has multiple links with community organisations, acting as a meeting point for diverse societies. All aspects of the arts are promoted, from visual arts to theatre and music. The centre also stages two important festivals each year: The Belfast Book Festival and the City Dance Festival, and there are also dedicated gallery spaces in the centre which feature frequently changing exhibitions.
Founded in 1990, Gormleys Fine Art has become one of Northern Ireland’s and Ireland’s leading art galleries over the past 25 years. Since its inception, the gallery now has an extensive and diverse portfolio of over one hundred artists and hosts regular exhibitions of contemporary painting and sculpture. With sister offices in Omagh and Dublin, Gormleys is committed to promoting and developing the arts in Ireland, both north and south of the border. In their Belfast location, visitors can explore three stories of visual art. Furthermore, Gormleys is one of Ireland’s main sculpture dealers, representing a number of key sculptors. The gallery regularly displays this vast collection to the public, particularly through major garden exhibitions throughout Ireland, including venues such as Russborough House in Blessington, Co. Wicklow. Some of the iconic artists featured by Gormleys include Gerard Dillon, Norah McGuinness and Colin Middleton.
Since opening its doors in the historical Linen District in 2007, James Wray and Co has firmly established itself on Belfast’s art scene. Its interior design has been praised by art auction houses Christies and Bonhams, who have used the space to showcase Irish sale previews. The gallery space is an intriguing blend of paintings by old masters and modern abstract works, and the space itself is owned by Alan Wray and Toby McMurray, both of whom are no strangers to the world of Irish art. James Wray and Co also holds a prestigious and comprehensive archive and library of Irish and British painters and sculptors. Featured artists include works from the pioneering sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the modernist Irish painter Louis le Brocquy, abstract artist William Scott, and the colorful American printmaker Frank Stella.
The Metropolitan Arts Centre, or the MAC, as it is widely known, is a relatively recent addition to Belfast’s cultural quarter. Open since April 2012, it has become one of Northern Ireland’s premier venues for the arts. Housed within its impressive six stories are three art galleries, two theatres and numerous studio spaces. The building itself was a design entry for the International Open Design Competition, and following a worldwide response, the Belfast-based firm Hackett Hall McKnight won the commission. Open seven days a week and featuring an extensive arts program of innovative exhibitions, specially commissioned works and dramatic theatre performances, the MAC achieves its aim of bringing the very best of local and international talent to the locals and tourists of Belfast. Previous exhibitions include a retrospective of the acclaimed British artist L.S. Lowry, LA-based contemporary sculptor Robert Therrien, and local artists Nicholas Keogh and Maria McKinney. One can only conclude that the MAC’s reputation will continue to grow over the coming years.
Bursting onto Belfast’s art circuit in 2009, Platform Arts has strived to develop a contemporary art practice in the city for the past five years. An artist-focused studio group, their role is to actively develop creative expression and to make it accessible to communities in Belfast. The space runs three program to achieve this aim, with exhibitions, education and studios. Exhibitions take place in the main gallery, which is roughly 3000 square feet in size, and is adaptable to suit the themes and specifications of any show. The space can be lit naturally or enclosed to create a white cube aesthetic, and the versatility of this space facilitates Platform Arts education program, which consists of events and workshops aimed at getting members of the community more involved with the arts.
Surrounded by Belfast’s beautiful Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum provides 8000 square metres of interactive and innovative exhibition space. More than a museum, this venue is an exciting mix of astrology, zoology, geology, artefacts, design and modern art. Visitors ascend the museum following the designated pathway until they reach the summit of the venue, with breath-taking views across the gardens below. The museum boasts a vast collection of works, with paintings representative of key art movements throughout history as well as the decorative works of other countries such as Africa. A highlight from the collection is the selection of Sir John Lavery paintings. The museum began life as the Belfast Natural History Society in 1821, began exhibiting in 1833, and incorporated an art gallery in 1890. Following renovations in 2009, the museum continues to develop its reputation as the top cultural and historical venue to visit in Belfast.