The small county making a big noise in the arts world
Carlow's Visual Centre for Contemporary Art has a growing reputation at home and abroad
It may be Ireland's second smallest county, but thanks to a combination of creative thinking, perseverance and community support, Carlow's Visual Centre for Contemporary Art is making a big impact at both national and international level.
Since it opened in the teeth of recession in 2009, the €18m centre has been making its mark on the world stage, culminating in a recent invitation from London's Tate Modern gallery to take part in Tate Intensive, an upcoming programme that will see Visual among a select group of 25 renowned international institutions gathering to discuss best practice and exchange ideas.
"Visual is starting to be recognised internationally," says CEO Ann Mulrooney. "One Tate Intensive curator said of Visual that he was both delighted and disappointed - delighted that we belong at that table, and disappointed that he hadn't heard of Visual before now."
Incorporating the 335-seat George Bernard Shaw Theatre, Visual has yet to receive National Institution status, but thanks to its growing reputation both at home and abroad, it looks like it will be only a matter of time before it takes its place among Ireland's officially recognised bodies as a centre of artistic and cultural excellence.
"We are in discussions with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and other authorities about this," Ann explains.
"The ambition for Visual was always to be a national centre for contemporary art, and it is the largest white-box space in the country.
"We receive visitors come from all over Leinster, as well as Cork, Limerick and Galway, while 10pc are international."
It's a heartening story, but it hasn't been an easy journey. According to Ann, the centre's success is a testament to the determination of local people who battled for a creative space to host their long-established arts festival.
"It would have had a much faster trajectory had it opened in a healthier economy, but the struggle to survive has made us very resourceful," she says.
According to Ann, Visual has made a positive impact on the community beyond the world of arts.
"International pharmaceutical firm Merck Sharp & Dohme made it clear that Visual was one of the main deciding factors in locating its facility in Carlow," she says.
"It and other multinational companies saw how the county council had recognised the vision of the people. This is the kind of effect you dream of having."
The breadth of culture on offer in Visual includes art exhibits, plays, music, comedy, literature, dance, workshops, tours, film and talks. And underlying it all is a fundamental remit of making art accessible to all.
"We remove art from its ivory tower," says Ann. "We've hosted Public Participation Networks talks, which provide a platform for decision making at local level. It's about active citizenship, and art is a very powerful way of facilitating that.
"Last autumn, in collaboration with the UK's Baltic Centre, we put on an exhibition called the Playground Project, which looked at the history of planning for a children's play which drew more than 2,000 schoolchildren from throughout the region to come and have fun with art. This autumn we're planning a retrospective of the work of Irish artist Paul Moss, and one of our current highlights is an exhibition by renowned US film-maker Daria Martin, 'Subjects and Objects', which runs until September 3, the first time the artist's work has been shown in this country."
According to Sinéad Dowling, Carlow's Arts Officer and Creative Ireland Team Co-ordinator, Visual has been one of the best things to emerge from the county in decades - and it's helped encourage participation in creative projects elsewhere in the county.
"Last month's 'Walk with Willibrord', an event run by Carlow County Museum, saw 50 visitors from Luxembourg and 100 local people come together to honour St Willibrord, a 7th-Century missionary who was ordained in Carlow and went on to become patron saint of Luxembourg, where he is now buried," she says.
CARLOW is being funded by the Arts Council in a pilot project called 'Take A Part', which is hoped to become a model of cultural democracy that can be rolled out nationwide.
"The principle is that communities decide for themselves what they want for their own cultural offering, not have it dictated to them," Sinéad says. "It involves breaking down preconceptions of what art is, and opening up a space where people can see the art in everything. We're embedding contemporary arts in the regeneration of Carlow.
"'Music Generation' is another phenomenal success story. We recognised that the biggest barrier to a musical education is the affordability of an instrument. So the council spent €75,000 on building a music bank, which means that you can walk into any Carlow library and choose an instrument to practise with. Now four years in operation, 4,500 young people are engaged in music education across the county.
"Young people are at the heart of Carlow's Creative Ireland plan. Like many other counties, we've had issues with young people and suicide, and the ramifications of so many young people leaving the county. We're working in collaboration with the Education and Training Board, national and local youth service providers, and other stakeholders to develop a long-term, sustainable youth arts policy that we believe will be of enormous benefit for generations to come."