When the Royal Ulster Academy asked me to take on the role of President I was initially skeptical, perceiving the organization, as many do, as being outmoded and irrelevant. I took a closer look. With 60 members, it’s the largest artists collective in the North, it sells quite a few artworks every year, and as such is financially sound. It does not receive public funding. I got more interested. With the remit to showcase visual art, they attracted over 8,000 visitors to the Ormeau Baths Gallery last year and secured the largest visual-art sponsorship from KPMG accountants.
This is an organization of professional artists working together to promote an annual exhibition, which is consistently the most ‘popular’ exhibition in Belfast. Each year, artists working in various media benefit from financial awards given for excellence. There is an opportunity to sell a work to someone who wants to collect, thereby earning freedom for the artist to do whatever else can be imagined. I celebrate the individual who chooses to purchase a work of art, and believe the collector should be assisted and encouraged with more choice and better quality of artworks. Can we afford to ignore the available middle-class money that collectively can be used to assist the working lives of artists? Is it possible to reinvent the RUA and earn the space to do more than one big exhibition a year? Can we forge a new and productive relationship with the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA)? Can the RUA do for Belfast what the RHA has done for Dublin? This, I believe, is all creative territory worth exploring.
The timing has never been better to introduce a new professional approach to the visual arts in Belfast. The RUA, from the sidelines, has been harnessing support from the private sector and continues to build vital relationships with business, potentially releasing the artist from dependent relationships and reliance on low-level funding. We have secured city-centre offices, thanks to a prominent property developer and collector in Belfast, and employed Gail Ritchie, an artist with considerable experience of the public sector, as Development Manager.
Finding a unique venue for the Summer Exhibition was my first challenge. I have always been interested in showing work in spaces that provide an interesting context for engaging with art. This is a process of reinvention, after all, and in my efforts to build respect and interest in the visual arts, I approached Harcourt Developments in Dublin. Suffice to say they understood our vision and we have now secured the ground floor of the old Harland & Wolf shipyard headquarters and drawing offices. The drawing offices, (where the Titanic was conceived, designed and built), offer artists an exciting possibility to explore important cultural narratives. The RUA will open up the venue to artistic response before the process of renovation begins and whilst the emotionally evocative interior remains unchanged. Exciting times in Belfast.
This is, perhaps, the most culturally significant venue in Belfast. Its faded grandeur echoes beautifully the former navy shipyard, the Arsenale, in Venice. The project has taken on its own momentum and is looking more like a Belfast Biennale than we could ever have imagined. Invited international artists include Kara Walker, Anselm Kiefer and Daniel García and we are in the process of inviting local artists to respond to the building. The majority of the works, however, will continue to be selected from open submission. (The RUA website is being redesigned in advance of the exhibition and submission forms should be available for download from mid-May).
We are working with a range of other partners (Translink, NITB, Belfast Visitor Centre, etc) to maximize publicity and audience for this event, ensuring that the work of contemporary Irish and Northern Irish artists is brought to international attention, here, in Belfast.
We aim to promote excellence and challenge current processes in the visual arts, which are falling short of what we need to collectively achieve.
Rita Duffy is President of the Royal Ulster Academy.