A Photography Gallery for Belfast?
Paul Seawright spoke to Una McCarthy, Director of the Old Museum Arts Centre in College Square, Belfast.
by Paul Seawright
Una McCarthy was appointed by the Old Museum Arts Centre, known as OMAC, over a year ago. What is evident since that appointment is that OMAC does not fall into the stereotypical perception of an Art Centre space. It is closer in identity to contemporary multi-media spaces like Watershed in Bristol. Originally founded to service emerging and innovative art forms, it has been known principally as an arena for the performing arts with various theatre companies based there. The arrival of a new director also saw the development of new initiatives. The most prominent has been the launch of a gallery space. Una explained that she identified a need to address the visual as well as performing arts within the same policy framework as before which is "a commitment to indigenous and experimental art". She was very aware of the imbalance and looked at both the space and at what was happening in Belfast generally, and saw "a glaring need for a space that would concentrate on showing photographic work".
They don't have a visual arts officer and I asked Una did she see a need for someone to look after the exhibition programme. She perceives that a person with an educational remit would best serve the needs of the centre. Having someone to give rise to debate and supply a context for the work shown would not only benefit the photographic community but help broaden the audience. Because the gallery space is located in an Arts Centre, there is a welcome cross fertilisation of audiences within the building, with performing artists becoming interested in photographic activities and vice versa. OMAC strongly believe that Photo Works North has a role to play, through their existing educational programme and from the expertise available from its membership. We have both identified the same need and it would seem obvious that we should pool resources. What arose from this line of discussion was that "OMAC is a natural and obvious place for PWN lectures that are raising important issues within contemporary photography. What is immediately important is the need for collaboration and cooperation by exchanging ideas while still maintaining two independent structures".
At the moment the specific focus has been on photography. That emerged from a demand, if that demand changed or the momentum was lost then it is possible that OMAC might address other forms of visual art. Photo Works North has been lobbying for a photographic gallery for over two years and obviously applaud a positive response to that need. There is however, still a need for a dedicated gallery and resource centre. What OMAC is doing creates a desire for more, a taste of what is possible. All those committed to the pursuit of photography in N. Ireland should support the exhibitions and events at the OMAC gallery. The next six months will see a major show from Cameraworks, London, the Photo Works North lottery show as well as work by local practitioners. Una revealed that it has become apparent that there is more quality work by native photographers being submitted than we might have imagined. It is also important however that established photographers from outside Ireland can exhibit in the space. Una agreed that this is essential to enable us to provide a form of reference in an educational sense. The future offers the prospect of commissioning work specifically for the space and hopefully closer links with Photo Works North. We concluded our conversation with Una explaining:
"It isn't a question of competition with Photo Works North - rather we should complement our activities, by utilising resources and skills - if we don't the result will be an array of unfocussed piecemeal photographic events."
I couldn't agree more.