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2003-10-07 Model Niland Arts Centre

Despite intensive campaigning, Lissadell, a vital part of Sligo's heritage has slipped through our hands and "gone private", and we can only hope and trust that it will be treated with the respect it richly deserves and continue to be a vital thread in Sligo's rich tapestry.

 

I suppose I was hoping that the great vision of the Sligo people and of it's local authorities could once again save one of its' flagship buildings, in the way that my old school has been transformed into a world-class Arts Centre. Sligo had been long starved of arts facilities and performance spaces, and now this "gateway city" and county capital boasts a facility many other cities can only dream of.

I am ashamed to admit that until recently I had not done a tour of this thriving "arts powerhouse". I had watched the transition on The Mall as I drove past, and witnessed this old limestone edifice with colourful sandstone trimmings being restored to its' former splendour. Mike Nielsen was giving a lunchtime recital as part of the Model Arts new "Solo" series, so along I went , not before time, back to my old school.

As I sat in the "Black Box" theatre, I recalled being mesmerised in this same space by Bean U­ Cooke as she gave us her Irish dancing demonstration on her desk back in the 1970s, but now I was mesmerised again, this time by Mike's virtuosic and dynamic guitar-playing. The "Black Box" seats 150 and is used for recitals, films, meetings and conferences. The next day I returned for another in the Solo series, this time to hear Elisabeth Gillan as she skillfully executed Baroque flute sonatas, ably accompanied on the harpsichord by the self-depricating Rod Alston.

This recital took place in one of the contemporary galleries upstairs, another of the centre's bright and acoustically pleasing performance spaces. That is the thing that really hit me about the Model Arts Centre : its' flexibility.

I was privileged to have been given a comprehensive tour by the affable Aoife Flynn, recently appointed Executive Development Officer. This is not just another gallery, it is an arts centre and a vital community resource with flexible space to house and entertain artistic, literary, musical and educational events.

The late Nora Niland was Sligo County librarian for over 30 years after the Second World War, and she was instrumental in establishing the museum and Art Gallery in Stephen Street, as well as the Yeats Summer School. In 1960, she purchased 3 paintings by Jack B Yeats, and now that collection has become the largest permanent and most comprehensive collection of his work anywhere. There are 260 works in the municipal collection by artists such as Paul Henry, George Russell, as well as Jack and John Yeats.

I was particularly struck by Jack B's earlier works - Gmorrow Strawberry from his early cartoon days, the reverent funeral portrayals, and The Stargazer stood out for me. The centre has a rotating contemporary collection and is popular with touring exhibitions, possibly also because of its' environmental control policies which are the same as the National Gallery (ie. temperature, humidity and light control).

Aoife took me to Bean U­ Higs classroom where I had begun my educational life as a particularly junior infant. It is now, fittingly, the Education Room. The fireplaces are still there, but our anorak-hooks are gone. The centre also provides a variety of educational and outreach programmes which help build an audience/clientelle for the future.

There are also adult programmes including wood-carving and life-drawing. Our old bike-shed is now an onsite Graphic Design centre, and Bean U­ Ewing's classroom is now a series of arts studios with live-in accomodation.

The airy Atrium cafe is an ingenious use of yard space and has become a sort of fulcrum around which the centre rotates, serving affordable gourmet food cooked on the premises daily, prepared by top chefs.

One of Sligo's finest buildings has been saved and, like the Phoenix has risen, to become one of the city's proudest assets. Sligo has other fine buildings which could easily slip through the net, and ought to really be protected under a Yeatsian umbrella - the landmark Markievicz House and crumbling Elsinore' to name but two from a lengthy list. Let's use the Model Niland's success as a model or Sligo' future.

For more information visit: http://www.modelart.ie/