Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Arts Council of Northern Ireland

The main agency responsible for the development and promotion of Irish painting and Irish sculpture in the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. It is the only national funding support for artists and arts organisations, and offers a broad range of financial help through government funding measures and its National Lottery funds. Its aims and objectives are outlined in its five year strategy document, which is accessible from its website ( (See also Ulster Visual Arts.)

Support For Visual Arts

Visual Art - including: painting, sculpture and printmaking, is a key area of involvement for the Arts Council. The agency combines directing funding of individual Irish artists with support for an ongoing series of local activities, cultural festivals and other events to stimulate both the practice and public awareness of all visual art forms.

Specific Programs

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has a number of goals, including:

• To provide funds via its Support for the Individual Artist Program.
• To maintain a visual arts infrastructure through a range of grant programs.
• To support education, outreach and participatory opportunities through a range of lottery funded programs.
• To strengthen its relationships with other Irish art organizations, in particular MAGNI and the University of Ulster School of Art and Design.
• To provide visual artists with international opportunities through specific award schemes as well as its ongoing partnership with the British Council.

General Arts Plan

The work of the Arts Council is organized around three basic plans: the Strategic Plan, which lists principal priorities over a 5-year period; the Three Year Corporate Plan, which outlines specific objectives; and an Annual Business Plan which lists the detailed activities by which the Arts Council achieves its objectives and strategic aims.

Current Main Priorities

At present, the seven main priorities of the Arts Council for Northern Ireland are as follows:

• To boost opportunities for artists.
• To improve the arts infrastructure.
• To further develop community arts.
• To develop voluntary arts.
• To improve access facilities for disabled people.
• To encourage awareness, access and participation of young people in the arts.
• To raise the audience numbers for the arts.

The Arts Council Collection

The Northern Ireland Arts Council's collection of artworks was started in 1943 by its predecessor - the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) - to support local painters/sculptors and to illustrate and promote the story of the visual arts in the North of Ireland.

In addition to a modest fincial budget to acquire suitable works of art, CEMA organised a number of art lectures by contemporary artists like Kathleen Bridle, Sidney Smith, John Hewitt and John Hunter, in country towns and in Belfast factories which helped to stimulate public interest in the arts.

The art collection slowly grew in size, while - in keeping with the aim of promoting art throughout Northern Ireland - steps were also taken to establish local galleries and stage exhibitions. The first CEMA Belfast gallery was established at Donegall Place, then in 1960 a new CEMA gallery was opened in Chichester Street, followed in due course by the successful Bedford Street Gallery.

These CEMA exhibition venues were very useful for artists and helped to stimulate the growth of audiences. It also provided an impetus for the continued expansion of the Arts Council's collection of pictures.

By the start of the 1950s, the collection amounted to thirty-six Irish paintings. In 1955, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art was shown at the Ulster Museum. This resulted in a major purchase by CEMA of "Self-contained Flat" by Gerard Dillon.

During the next two years, the collection was displayed in a wide variety of public places including hospitals and schools throughout Northern Ireland. Increased publicity led to a number of generous gifts from artists and others, including F.E. McWilliam's collection of lithographs (including works by Henry Moore, Duncan Grant and John Piper); Louis Le Brocquy's gift of a portrait head of James Joyce; the gift made by Colin Middleton's family of "El Patio"; and many others.

In 1961/62, CEMA launched its first open painting competition which attracted three hundred submissions. In total, 92 paintings were selected and displayed to bring top quality contemporary paintings and sculptures before a Northern Irish audience. CEMA itself purchased 11 of these artworks which then toured the province. This open painting competition endured biennally throughout the sixties.

Tragically, in October 1967, many recently acquired paintings were irreparably damaged in a fire. Plans for reconstructing the collection were made but due to financial problems it was determined that renewal would be undertaken gradually over a period of years.

To encourage companies to support the arts, the Northern Ireland Arts Council copied the Republic of Ireland's picture purchasing scheme for hotels (under which hoteliers might purchase paintings at half-price), and instituted a scheme to permit half-price purchase of works of art by various institutions and public bodies - the other half being met by the Council. Over the past 25 years, this scheme has been tremendously successful.

At the same time, the collection itself has been augmented through both the purchase of important works by Northern Irish artists (eg. William Scott's "Still Life with Orange Note") and by special commissions to create works for thematic touring exhibitions. At present, the collection numbers approximately one thousand paintings and sculptures. Some critics claim that it has too few sculptures and too few 'experimental' works in new or mixed-media. However, it remains a valuable resource for promoting Northern Irish art and artists at international events and exhibitions. Witness the 1990 exhibition, "On the Balcony of the Nation", which toured artworks by Micky Donnelly, Rita Duffy, Dermot Seymour, Chris Wilson and Gordon Woods for 2 years across the United States: and the 1995-7 Basil Blackshaw exhibition which also toured throughout America.

Thus without doubt, the Northern Ireland Arts Council's collection is a national asset, whose value would be greatly enhanced by the establishment of a permanent home. Over the past decade, the collection has been exhibited in public offices throughout Northern Ireland, in circulating exhibitions at home and abroad, at the offices of the Council or held in secure storage. A dedicated art-gallery to house and display the collection remains an essential next step.

For more information about the Art Council’s funding programs and/or its visual art activities, contact:

Arts Development Officer
Arts Council of Northern Ireland
MacNeice House
77 Malone Road
Belfast . BT9 6AQ
Tel: 028 9038 5241

• For more about Irish cultural organizations, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.
• For the evolution of sculpture and painting in the 32 counties, see: History of Irish Art.
• For facts about the art industry in Northern Ireland, see: Homepage.
• For a personal view of the top 20 contemporary fine art painters, see: Best Irish Artists.
• For details of museums and contemporary arts venues, see: Irish Art Galleries.

© All rights reserved.