This article first appeared in the Visual Arts Newsheet published by Visual Artists Ireland in Spring 2016
R-Space Gallery is a contemporary arts space in Lisburn, Co Antrim occupying the ground floor of the Georgian Linen Rooms, former rectory to Lisburn Cathedral. The building was the childhood home of co-director Anthea McWilliams, who now runs R-Space with her partner, Robert Martin. Between them, Robert and Anthea have a wealth of professional arts experience – Anthea as a dance practitioner and Robert as a former officer with Arts Council England. The Gallery celebrated 5 years presence in Lisburn at the end of July, with a party in the courtyard enjoyed by an eclectic gathering of assembled friends.
Presenting and commissioning a programme of visual arts, craft and performance, R-Space is supported by funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), and focuses on the work of artists and makers who explore “materials, messages and meaning” in their work. This curatorial focus is in the hands of Robert Martin, who seeks out high quality applied and fine art and craft, as well as digital and installation works. The gallery is unique in the region in being neither artist-lead nor municipal. Anthea’s knowledge of Lisburn’s cultural heritage brings a depth of local knowledge to the space, while Robert’s connections have brought artists from across the water – and beyond. The welcome is as warm as the gallery fireplace, and R-Space hopes to encourage visitors into thinking and talking about the arts, as well as providing an opportunity to purchase.
Since opening in 2011 it has showcased local, national and international artists including Anna Dumitriu’s Normal Fauna in 2011; Japanese artist Toshinobu Takamitsu’s 2014 residency and Double Flipside, a collaboration between Dr Sarah McAleer and Eddie J Doherty for Craft NI’s August Craft Month 2014. This year’s programme has included a solo show by Belfast silversmith Stuart Cairns, winner of the inaugural Rosy James Memorial Bursary (awarded by ACNI); Visioning Weekender – a regular digital art presentation; performance installation Readings in Passage by the CAAKE Project; an exhibition of works inspired by tattoo culture; and Film Makers – contemporary craft inspired by heritage film footage, in conjunction with NI Screen and the BFI.
In contrast to the high-spec modern finish of the gallery, the rest of the Linen Rooms building is ripe with potential for redevelopment. The City of Lisburn sits at the heart of Ulster’s linen heritage, and this particular theme features strongly in the gallery’s programming, from Linen Diaspora in 2012, a joint collaboration between Ireland and Canada, curated by Karen Fleming of Ulster University to On Your Marks, another international exchange that concluded in Sweden earlier this year. In 2015, David Littler’s Is she Blew? created a sonic sampler of sounds collected from the linen industry, the title being a reference to the 5pm horn that would have signalled factory closing time. Nora Fok’s Project Linlon saw flax fused with nylon to create new fibres. In Linen Futures, Jane McCann took this further, with 20 makers from NI and Wales in collaboration to develop new linen products. Jane has a particular interest in new technologies and the composite materials now being made from flax. Linen Futures has since toured to the Lisburn Linen Centre, Ulster Museum and Wirksworth Festival in Derbyshire, England.
This curatorial strand is part of a wider ambition to showcase linen past, present and future in a high profile biennale with R-Space as the lead partner. This cultural celebration of Lisburn’s Linen history will give it contemporary relevance through a festival programme of visual arts and other related activities. In 2014, ACNI awarded funding for a feasibility study that formed the basis of plans for this flagship event. As of July 2016, the British Council and ACNI have jointly approved seed funding for the next stage of its development. This project exemplifies the directors’ ambition for the gallery to be a catalyst for contemporary arts activity in the area, and to encourage and engage audiences through a range of exhibitions and events, enhancing Lisburn’s cultural tourism by associating its linen heritage with contemporary visual arts and other practices.
Five years in, R-Space Gallery has established itself firmly within the NI arts scene, and in that time has shown the work of close to 300 artists and welcomed well over 4,000 visitors to exhibitions, screenings, performances, workshops and talks. External funding provides the means to employ freelance admin support and Rob Hilken has been instrumental in taking the project forward. Robert and Anthea also extend their thanks to Sharon Adams for her continuing input on marketing and welcome Mags White, who has recently joined.
The annual programme currently has 6 funded exhibitions, between which the space is available for hire to individuals or groups whose work fits with the ethos and standards of the gallery. These are a mixture of privately and publicly funded projects and bring great diversity to the schedule. Robert welcomes proposals for 2017 onwards from artists interested in showcasing their work here.