A home for art in Belfast's stained soul


The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts is taking over the Titanic Drawing Offices for its annual exhibition. And the historic shipyard building would be an appropriate location for a permanent Belfast gallery, according to the show's curators.

A GROUP OF tourists who took a walking tour of Belfast's old shipyard site a couple of weeks ago will be telling their own Titanicghost story by now. In the middle of what is now a vast building site, the redbrick Drawing Office building still stands, a century old, its elegantly curved roof sprouting butterfly bushes.

Their guide stopped to tell them that this was where the legendary ship was designed, and that they were right outside the office of Lord Pirrie, chairman of Harland & Wolff at the time. Suddenly, from within the apparently abandoned building, a voice rang out: "Man overboard!" It was followed by another: "Women and children to the boats first!"

Inside, Gail Ritchie, artist and development manager for the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts (RUA), and Rita Duffy, artist and president of the RUA, giggled and ducked below the windows until the party moved on. Then they got back to work. For the past month, they, along with friends, relations, volunteers and conscripts, have been toiling to transform the great vaulted halls of the Drawing Office into an art gallery for the RUA's 127th annual exhibition.

Duffy describes watching as a cascade of water crashed through one of the wrought-iron ceilings, bringing the plaster down after a month's worth of rain fell in 24 hours last month. She worried briefly about the hundreds of vulnerable, beautiful things entrusted to her and protected only by bubblewrap and cardboard - and then got back to hammering in picture-hooks.

There are pools of rainwater on the floors. There's broken glass. Rust. Paint curling off the walls in page-size pieces. A deep layer of dust. Graffiti. Spikes of buddleia thrusting their way through gaps in walls and windows. And yet, as artist Hector McDonnell says: "It is awe-inspiring."

McDonnell, a member of the academy, has come to deliver two of his paintings, one of them a large exterior of the Crown Bar, another of Belfast's Victorian treasures. We climb the magnificent staircase and walk through rooms that still have mahogany draughtsmen's desks, and parquet floors littered with "orders to proceed" for some of the last ships built in Belfast.

All around, there are huge views out over Goliath(the shipyard's famous yellow crane), the city, and the Divis and Black Mountains.

"This is Belfast's Pompeii," McDonnell says. All this grandeur and decay. It is overwhelming. There is a real generosity of scale - it would make the most wonderful modern art museum."

And that is precisely what the formidable Duffy has in mind.

"You need to maintain a sense of identity for an artistic community, and Belfast has no worthwhile major gallery," she says. "I feel sorry for tourists who come here to see Northern art. There is nowhere for them to go. I recently learned that George McClelland's fine collection, with paintings by Colin Midleton, Gerard Dillon and George Campbell, has been bequeathed to Imma in Dublin."

THE DRAWING OFFICEis uniquely suitable, she believes, writing in her catalogue essay that the building "quite possibly contains the stained and grey soul of Belfast". Now part of what has been renamed the Titanic Quarter, the building is listed for its architectural interest, and so cannot be demolished. Soon, however, it will be surrounded by shiny new office and appartment blocks built by the new owners of the site, the Dublin-based Harcourt Developments.

This is to be "Europe's largest and most exciting waterfront development" and the declared "vision" of its new owners includes art galleries. Duffy says that when she first stood in Pirrie's office and saw the shelves stacked with original drawings of Harland Wolff ships, she knew this was the place for the exhibition. Pirrie, as it happens, founded the Ulster Sketchers' Club, which became the RUA. Duffy took the train to Dublin and asked Mike Murphy, of Harcourt Developments, to lend the RUA the space.

"He replied with the beautiful words: 'Yes, certainly, how much will you need?' "

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (using lottery funds) and business people have also been generous. Duffy is hoping that the North's new Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Gregory Campbell MLA, of the DUP, will be similarly inclined when she asks him about some more permanent arrangement.

"A sort of dull lack of belief has taken root here over the past 30 years or so," says Duffy, who took over as RUA president last year. "I want to reposition the RUA as a force for change, cohesion and positivity."

There is, she says, a snobbery towards the academy among some "professional" artists: "They see it as stuffy and full of amateur, Sunday artists." But she's inspired by the example of the Royal Hibernian Academy in the Republic.

"Fifteen years ago, the RHA was in the same boat as we are now," she says. "Pat Murphy reinvented it and now it is regarded as cutting-edge."

It is true that among the stacks of work waiting to be hung, there are some earnest but plainly bad paintings, and some of these, on inquiry, turn out to be by members of the academy, each of whom has a right to have two works included. However, there are many, many amazingly fine things, some of them lovely, some of them strikingly good. Work by art students stands confidently beside work by well-known artists.

A lot of women have work in the show. "A high proportion of art students are women," Duffy says. "Then most of them just disappear. Arrogance is a large part of success for an artist here."

DUFFY AND RITCHIEvisited studios and workshops and urged emerging artists to submit work. A panel of experts and artists whittled some 1,300 pieces down to a couple of hundred for the show. Twenty-five artists were also commissioned to submit pieces.

There is a sensitive Belfast streetscape by Adele Pound and an atmospheric light installation by Emma Donaldson, which looks as if it has been trawled up from the Titanic. "She specifically asked for one of the shabbier rooms," Duffy says.

There is a fascinating video installation by Susan MacWilliam, who will represent Northern Ireland at the next Venice Biennale exhibition. There is a moving and accomplished triptych of paintings by Jennifer Trouten. Dermot Seymour is here, along with Alice Maher and Paul Seawright.

Duffy and Ritchie are bringing a subversive sense of humour to their curation. There is a bronze statue by Paddy Campbell of the Mata Hari in a state of ecstasy, which is to be placed beside an exquisitely glazed porcelain vibrator by Emma Kelly.

They've polished one pane of a window that looks out on to a courtyard of flourishing weeds. "We had an expert on flora out there, and she has discovered weeds from all over the world that must have come into Belfast on ships and boats," says Duffy.

The exhibition, which opened last week, comes with an impressive range of educational workshops, talks and guided tours. Whatever happens in the future, this show is unique. As Duffy points out: "Never again will this building have the touchable smell of its past life."

Most eloquent of all, Dorothy Crosss wonderful Ghost Shipwill be shown on screens in Pirrie's office. That really is haunting.

• The Royal Uster Academy of Arts Annual Exhibition '08 runs until Oct 19 at the Titanic Drawing Offices, Belfast; rua.webcorona.com