For the month of March (also known as Irish American Heritage Month) IrishCentral is tapping into the heartbeat of the Irish American community. The Unsung Heroes series features inspiring individuals from across the US who do extraordinary work in their communities and respective fields. From advocates to artists, from local legends to dedicated educators, from a high school baseball team to dynamo nuns in their 80s, these people are making a difference and to them we tip our hats in thanks.
In the cultural mecca that is New York City, it’s important to carve out a niche and establish yourself. Some cultural institutions have excelled at this. The Asia Society occupies a massive corner property on Park Avenue and is renowned for its exhibitions. The 92nd Street Y has excelled in its initial aim of promoting Jewish culture and education and has, actually, far surpassed it, becoming a bastion of intellectualism and the arts. The Queen Sofia Spanish Institute is housed in a sprawling town house on the Upper East Side and has become closely linked to many of Spain’s most coveted designers.
Since 1974, two years after its founding, the Irish Arts Center has occupied a beloved but slightly confining and out-of-date multipurpose space on 51st Street, all the way west between 11th and 12th Avenues. It was there long before the area became popular and luxury high-rises began to dot the avenues close to the Hudson River, and there it has remained, increasing each year in scope, impact and prestige.
“When you walk down Park Avenue and across New York City, you find so many wonderful institutions that tell the stories of the various cultures that make up New York,” said Irish Arts Center vice chair, Pauline Turley. “But something is missing. Ireland and Irish America have rich cultural legacies that deserve to be shared with New Yorkers and all Americans.”
The IAC’s early directors were Jim Sheridan and Terry George, both of whom would go on to wide acclaim in the world of film. For many years the IAC has been led by Pauline Turley, originally from Co. Down, and Aidan Connolly, its Irish American executive director. Under their stewardship, the IAC has developed its strengths across the board – from theater to education, music to visual art, Irish dance to community outreach, language and literature to comedy and film.
It has nurtured many up-and-coming Irish and Irish-American performers, and has encouraged U.S. audiences to constantly update their perceptions of Irish arts. Proud supporters of the IAC include Gabriel Byrne, Jimmy Fallon, Liam Neeson, Bono and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Clearly the IAC has long punched well above its weight, or, rather, far beyond its space. Undeniably charming as it is, the IAC's current home is also somewhat limiting. But not for long.
At a special event last night to celebrate the close of Book Day, the IAC’s St. Patrick’s Day act of service where they hand out 10,000 free books by Irish and Irish-American authors across New York’s five boroughs, they officially announced plans for a new building, just around the corner from their current location.
In making this announcement, the IAC was joined by Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Enda Kenny, who spoke of the groundbreaking work between the government of Ireland and the government of New York in helping to make this expansion of the Irish Arts Center possible.
The total budget for the expansion is $54 million, which so far includes $3.4 million from the Irish government, $30 million from the city of New York, $600,000 from the state of New York, and $37.5 million, which the IAC has raised. It operates as a registered non-profit.
The new facility, representations of which are pictured here, will include a state-of-the-art 199-seat theater (up from the current 99), an intimate live music venue and café, a dance studio designed for Irish dance, classrooms, a visual arts project space, a community garden and cutting edge digital technology. The expansion will increase the IAC’s space from 5,000 square feet to 35,000. The plan is for ground to be broken in the spring of 2015, with the opening targeted for the end of 2016.
“This will be a new center for a new century for a new Ireland,” Aidan Connolly said. “We will finally have a proper home to share the excellence, diversity and dynamism of Irish culture with New York and the world, honoring our immigrant roots while telling the story of an evolving Ireland and Irish America, the new Irish Arts Center will look outward and redefine what it means to be an ethnically rooted cultural center.”
To read about the previous Unsung Hero, the man proving the innocence of those who were wrongfully convicted, click here.