Athlone bucks trend with new gallery launch


The Luan Gallery hopes to build on Athlone’s annual drama festival and broaden the region’s cultural image, writes AIDAN DUNNE

Does Ireland need another public art gallery at the moment? On the face of it, no. Substantial arts centres in several parts of the country, including Letterkenny’s Regional Arts Centre and Carlow’s Visual, are struggling to function effectively in trying financial circumstances. It is against this difficult background that Athlone is launching a new gallery, propitiously situated on the Shannon at the western edge of the town bridge. Its name was chosen by popular vote: the Luan Gallery derives from the Irish Baile Áth Luain.

The question is not as simple as it seems, however. For one thing, the Luan Gallery fills an obvious gap. It’s accurately described as “the first purpose-built, modern visual art gallery located in the midlands”, but this is not the whole story.

While a substantial part of the building is new – it was designed by Keith Williams architects, which is responsible for the Wexford Opera House and Athlone civic offices – the project tactfully extends a well-known building, the 1897 Fr Mathew Hall, fondly regarded by many in the town for its erstwhile roles as library, town hall, concert hall and cinema. The budget was €3.4 million, invested by the town itself, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Border, Midland and Western Regional Assembly.

The original building, the location next to St Peter and Paul’s Church, and the compact, architecturally impressive castle with its decagonal keep set the scale, so that the gallery’s several exhibition spaces are capacious but very manageable and approachable.

They are also equipped with impressive audiovisual and other facilities. The inaugural exhibition, Borrowed Memories, shows off the space well.

Drawn from Imma’s collection, it is intriguing for the number of regional connections one can discern, even though that wasn’t the rationale governing the selection. In several cases there’s a sense that work by these artists really should be seen here, and we may well gain insight into it by viewing it in context.

For example, Longford-born Daphne Wright’s 2000 installation Where Do Broken Hearts Go alludes to the Irish fondness for country and western music.

Using tinfoil to create an installation of giant cacti, she mingles the prosaically domestic and the culturally exotic.

Another Longford-born artist, Shane Cullen, shows his text-based installation Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV. In it he reprints the hunger strikers’ messages smuggled out of the H-Blocks in 1981, tiny, compressed and perishable things, in the form of an establishment monument: in fact, the apparently stone slabs, incised with chiselled lettering, are polystyrene.

On the one hand it can be read as monumentalising the republican struggle; on the other, it might suggest that in the long run republicanism is institutionally comparable to the order it seeks to replace. In this regard, the nature and texture of the language used in the messages is particularly interesting and worth close attention.

Patrick Graham’s richly textured paintings, layered with detail, are steeped in references to his midlands background, geographically and culturally.

As if to demonstrate the scope of the space, Hughie O’Donoghue’s vast Blue Crucifixion is on view. It’s notable for conveying the sense of a human figure embedded in the Earth, and O’Donoghue has extensively explored his family’s links with Bangor Erris in Co Mayo.

Even with artists without any obvious links to the region, resonances are apparent, as with Amelia Stein’s photographs of personal objects relating to her parents, and American Ann Hamilton’s ethereal, translucent, circular installation Filament II, particularly nice next to the river, with its shifting light.

It’s fair to say that, the legacy of John McCormack notwithstanding, Athlone is best known culturally as the venue of the phenomenally successful and popular annual all-Ireland drama festival. Now the aim is to build on and broaden the town’s cultural image. The body established to oversee the process, Athlone Arts and Heritage, shows encouraging signs of co-ordinated thinking, linking the nearby Abbey Road studios (with four individual studios and a group workshop space), the Luan Gallery and the castle, newly reopened with a highly structured historical display designed by Event Communications.

The idea of a gallery for Athlone had been mooted from the turn of the century, says Miriam Mulrennan, manager of Athlone Art and Heritage.

Mulrennan is nearly a year in her position. From Tulsk, Co Roscommon, she’s lived and worked in London, Dublin and Waterford. Prior to taking up her job in Athlone, she developed the training and education side of Nemeton Television. She has a very considered, realistic view of what she’s taken on. For example, she’s well aware that, in Ireland, “there isn’t a readymade audience for contemporary art”, and that educating and reaching out to the potential audience is key.

Abbey Road studios, open for the last year, has been useful in that regard, she says. Following Borrowed Memories, early in the new year the Luan Gallery will host A Very Grand Canal, a strong thematic group exhibition on the Grand Canal (with work by Veronica Nicholson, Geraldine O’Reilly and more) and a show of work by the artists who’ve been resident in the Abbey Road studios to date.

Mulrennan says she’s been struck by the positive, supportive attitudes towards the gallery she’s experienced on the part of both townspeople and councillors, and she’s determined to build on that.

Borrowed Memories is at the Luan Gallery, Custume Place, Athlone, until February 24th

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