Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny on Monday unveiled plans to build a brand new state of the art 199 seat Irish Arts Center theater and performance space just around the corner from the center’s current residence on West 51st Street. The gleaming new building was first reported in The New York Times.
The new Irish Arts Center will also have a music venue and performance cafe, a dance studio and rehearsal space, classrooms for its Irish cultural activities, space for visual arts and a community garden.
Construction on the new building is slated to begin next year and it is expected to open in 2016, in time for the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The pricetag on the work will be an eye-popping $54 million, of which the center has already raised $37.5 million to date.
Of that amount, New York City has donated $30 million, $3.5 million came from board gifts, $3.4 million from the Irish government and $600,000 from New York State. It’s an impressive haul for a venue that, since it was founded in 1972, has always worked to reflect the richness and variety of Irish culture.
“Monday was the ideal opportunity to release the new design for the building with the help of the Taoiseach Enda Kenny,” Irish Arts Center executive director Aidan Connolly told the Irish Voice. “We are just very excited to show people what this new building is going to be.”
Located in a once dilapidated but now up and coming section of the city, the new Irish Arts Center will find itself surrounded on all sides by one of the most dynamic districts in Manhattan.
“One of the things that is so remarkable about the location on the far West Side, thanks in a large part to Community Board 4, is that they have been very proactive in the way they are shaping their neighborhood,” says Connolly.
In the last decade the Irish Arts Center has been home to some of the most memorable signature events in Irish theater culture in New York, staging shows such as Pat Kinevane’s Forgotten, Deirdre Kinehan’s Those Halcyon Days, Raymond Scannal’s remarkable Mimic, Gary Duggan’s Trans Euro Express and The Cambria by Donal O’Kelly.
“I think this new building will continue our work to contribute to the cultural ecosystem of the area,” says Connolly. “It also has a lot of residents, which means we won’t only be a cultural destination but a place to just wander by for a cup of coffee and engage in the social programs of this new building.”
The contrast between the old and new buildings could hardly be more pronounced. Currently the old theatre seats just 99 people, and popular performers like Julie Feeney and the Guggenheim Grotto tend to sell out quickly and leave many wanting. That’s a state of affairs that had to change, Connolly says.
“Our current theater has a very small stage, a very low ceiling and very poor sightlines. The new facility will have 199 seats, double the box office capacity but will maintain the intimacy. It will provide more scale for the artists performing there.”
Dance performances in particular will benefit from the new space Connolly says, since the new lines of vision won’t stop below the waist as they currently do in the old center.
Meanwhile, Irish theater makers in the city (and we know there are lots of you) will also want to take note — the new center promises to be especially attentive to your needs, Connolly says.
“In addition to the formal performance space we’ll have a studio space where both theater and dance rehearsals can happen (the floor will be sprung). It’ll be a great space for the development of new work,” he feels.
Connolly says the new center hopes to create a collaborative space where Irish artists living in New York can work with artists working in Ireland and elsewhere.
“It’s 1,250 square feet and we think it’s going to be a hugely important tool for Irish artists across a range of disciplines here in New York,” he explains.
The live music café venue will also be an exciting new innovation. “If we want to run a play for three weeks that’s all that will be in that space for three weeks. But we have a whole other range of disciplines in our mission — literature, humanities, film, music and dance.”
A play or a show running for three weeks in the 199 seat theater will be supplemented by the 80 to 90 seat live music café, which will allow for more intimate informal programming. “It increases our volume in a way that’s sustainable. I think the potential to grow is inevitable,” Connolly says.
But it’s the new arts center potential in regard to the creation of new Irish work that most excites him. “The new studio will increase collaborative space and increase the center’s profile as a place that generates new work. The new café will provide a performance space across multiple disciplines. That empowers us to program more work.”
Besides its scale, the new center will also have looks. Says Connolly, “The new space is just going to feel better. Packaging matters. It affects how you feel about it. It will be appropriate to the stature and esteem of where Ireland is in world culture. I think it’s going to provide more opportunities for engagement.”
The educational aspect of this changeover will also have enormous repercussions because arts education in Irish music, language and dance, all mainstays of the center, are at its center.
“If you’ve been to any of our classes at the old center you’ll know the facilities are woeful. They’re an embarrassment frankly. We will soon have classrooms that are genuinely equipped,” Connolly says.
The last piece of the puzzle is investment in technology. All of the new center spaces will have the infrastructure to accommodate the latest technology.
“We want to be able to create and share the experiences created here with a wide audience beyond the four walls of 51st Street and 11th Avenue. So we’ll host podcasts, conversations, video work, all so that the people around the country and beyond will have access to what we do. We can connect them. The new building will provide for that.”
Does the Irish government now grasp how important Irish culture is to our ability to have our voices heard internationally?
“The Irish government have played an important part in this project from their early seed funding to the participation of the gifted architects at the Office of Public Works (who designed the new space),” Connolly says.
When it’s completed the new center will be a milestone, the first Irish cultural facility developed in America with direct creative and financial contributions from the government of Ireland.
“I am very confident that all the elements from the City of New York, both this administration and the previous are on board. From the private sector and our donors on the board and people in the American Ireland Fund, they have strongly supported us and we believe they will continue to,” Connolly says.
For four decades the Irish Arts Center has been a place that has built community around shared culture. By 2016 when the new space opens it will have a state of the art new venue from which it can engage the city and the world.