Former McDonagh building would be ideal location for Galway City Municipal Art Gallery

While viewing the exhibitions at the Galway Arts Festival box office in the former McDonagh/Instore building on No 5 Merchants Road last Saturday, it struck me that this building would be ideal to develop as a municipal art gallery for Galway city.

The building currently hosts three art exhibitions. While Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song, with its large scale lime green photos of clichéd war images, is a massive disappointment, Max Streicher’s giant inflatable men were a delight, and fascinated the children who were allowed touch them and had fun escaping the the giant’s moving hands. Upstairs, Artspace’s excellent In Situ yielded a diversity of styles (paint, mural, video, installation ), and points of view that were engaging, clever, and sometimes provocative.

In summer 2000, there were talks, plans, and reports about a municipal gallery for the city, with the subject being discussed many times at city council meetings. Then the idea was to locate it at the former Presbyterian church in Nuns Island.

Although there was much excitement at the prospect, the idea disappeared over the next few months and has never - to my knowledge - come up again. The former church in Nuns Island is now the Galway Arts Centre Nuns Island Studio and home to Galway Youth Theatre.

Perhaps it is time for City Hall to re-open this idea and to seriously consider buying or else going into a public-private partnership to acquire No 5 and develop it as the Galway City Municipal Art Gallery.

Why would turning No 5 into a municipal gallery be a good idea?

No 5 is located in an area the city council is consciously developing as the city’s ‘cultural quarter’. The Galway City Museum is located behind the nearby Spanish Arch and hosts exhibitions, lectures, book launches, and classes. Moves are afoot by City Hall and the Solas group to develop an art house cinema at 15 Lower Merchants Road. The area is also home to The Bold Art Gallery. As such, No 5’s location fits in with City Hall’s vision for the area.

No 5 is one of the few, and also one of the best, Art Deco buildings in the city. Art Deco was a art, design, and architectural movement in the 1920s and 1930s, characterised by its combination of the geometry then popular in avant garde art with the decorative flourishes of its predecessor movement Art Nouveau. No 5 also boasts a wide and impressive Art Deco stairway. Therefore the building’s style and era fit in well with the idea of a municipal gallery.

The building has large windows which would allow passers by to see the art and could help in attracting people off the street. This also means it is well lit by natural light. As such it is bright, airy, and spacious - allowing for numerous works without ever being cluttered.

The ground floor is wide and its walls are high allowing for large scale paintings, installations, and sculptures to be exhibited - as the three current exhibitions there prove. Upstairs allows for more average sized works to be displayed and its long aisles means a large number amount of works can be shown. It also has a charming fireplace which makes for a quirky feature that itself is of visual interest.

In it’s architecture, layout, and design, No 5 has everything it needs to be the perfect location for the city’s municipal gallery. It also means that two/three exhibitions in a variety of media can be shown at one time, and there is enough space for a permanent collection of works.

However, Galway has no shortage of galleries - The Kenny Gallery, The Black Cat Gallery, The White Room, G126, etc. All are important to maintaining and promoting the city as Ireland’s cultural centre. However many of these are either privately run galleries, businesses, or artist run collectives - there is no formal gallery, run by and for the city.

During July, the venue could be given over to the Galway Arts Festival for its use as a box office, shop, press room, and exhibition centre.

No 5’s space is such that it could also be a great location for concerts. The wonderful ConTempo Quartet could perform hold here and it would be worth exploring the idea of hosting acoustic performances from the likes of Jape, Fionn Regan, Declan O’Rourke, etc, in association with the Róisín Dubh or Town Hall on the ground floor.

In a time of economic downturn, surely City Hall has better things to spend their money on? In a time of economic downturn, money should be spent wisely and buying No 5 would also be a sound property investment and a sound investment in the city’s culture. Fee paying concerts and a bookshop could be a way to recoup some of the money. Also it makes no sense for such a fine building to be lying idle for most of the year.

Furthermore it was in the economically dire 1980s that Temple Bar was revitalised as Dublin’s Latin Quarter, when U2 and Neil Jordan emerged, and in a Galway context, when Macnas began to make their mark. Who would deny that these people and organisations brightened somewhat that grim era in our history?

Art does not have to be an indulgence, it can be an investment in the city’s future. The economy is down but no-one who cares about Galway city would seriously argue that City Hall therefore cut funding to the Galway Arts Festival, Macnas, or the Town Hall.

The purchase of No 5 Merchants Road would be a great investment for the arts and for the city.

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