Sirius Arts Centre is the place to be

The Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh is encouraging local people to engage with their creativity, through a series of events and workshops, writes DON O’MAHONY, who talks to its director
Sirius Arts Centre is the place to be
miranda driscoll sirius cobh

THE Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh is currently playing host to a series of events and workshops titled This Must Be The Place — the Great Island, a five-week project aimed at energising and mobilising the local community into engaging with their creativity. The initiative is the brainchild of the arts centre’s director Miranda Driscoll.

Having spent seven years running The Joinery, a not-for-profit art space she co-founded in Dublin, Driscoll moved to Cobh to take up her position at the Sirius at the end of 2014. A native of Bray, County Wicklow she could identify with the small seaside town.

The elegant gallery space presents regular exhibitions throughout the year across a variety of media and also plays host to a prestigious artists-in-residence programme. Under Driscoll’s stewardship it also provides an intimate space for live music.

In her first year in situ, she noticed the contrast in rhythm between the busy tourist season and the quieter winter period.

“It feels like it’s quite quiet and there’s not that many people around,” she noted. “So I really wanted to see who’s around on a Wednesday lunchtime in February and what are they looking for.”

That was the impetus for the project, but there were also other issues that needed investigating. In its prominent seafront location, the gallery is a magnet for the curious visitor to the historic harbour town, while its exhibitions attract its own audience.

However, Driscoll was curious about the centre’s place in the community and she wondered how better it could serve the locality.

“I’m an outsider so I’m coming in and seeing what are people’s relationship with the arts centre and I think all of these cultural places all around the country and in other places, we could do better at that. You’ve got a programme and it’s a very mixed programme so you might have local artists, you might have national artists, and you might have international artists, and they can be all different levels of activities. So you’re not going to appeal to everybody, and you can’t,” she observes.

Despite the building’s beauty and heritage Driscoll wondered if something of its history as a yacht club with its attendant elitist associations still clung to the edifice. She thinks that goes into people’s psyches a little bit and that it can be associated with the arts as well.

“That it’s a membership, club thing, or ‘it’s not for me’, that it can be quite exclusive,” she elaborates. “So we’re trying to break that down that a little bit by almost taking the word art out of the equation a little bit and just saying we’ve got all these activities and workshops and all sorts of things that are affordable or free for people, so that they might take a re-look at the place and kind of go ‘Oh, okay. I didn’t know that.’”

Last year’s inaugural This Must Be The Place — the Great Island saw a diverse programme of film screenings, music and other performances, workshops, discussions, artists’ talks and child friendly events.

The Sirius lacks a café but for the event a pop up coffee shop was created. It proved an effective lure.

“While it sounds simple it’s actually a really great way to get people in for starters without too much of a sense that they have to commit to anything or take part in anything,” says Driscoll.

“They just can come in and have a coffee and enjoy the space. That was interesting in terms of just to see how a very small gesture can get people to come in who haven’t come in before.” Through this they became exposed to the programme and the different and mostly free lunchtime events on offer. To Driscoll’s delight they returned for these and through word of mouth others came too. While the event achieved its aim the challenge this year is how to keep those people coming back and how to keep the conversation going?

Accordingly, she changed the focus a little this year. Where last year the purpose was to explore the role of the arts centre in a town this year’s focus is on the broader role of arts and creativity while further probing the idea of the arts centre as a civic space on a similar standing as a library.

She suggests: “One of the ideas behind it and we’re continuing this year is looking at the creativity and skill and knowledge of the people who are living here and so rather than them being audience members they’re taking part and participating and even part of the programme. So there’s very much a connection between the what you might call audience and then the people who are actually taking part.”

Among this year’s events are talks on local history and customs, patchwork and quilting, a guided tour of the 21 Ditches public walkway of the Great Island, a screening of documentaries by the East Cork Cinema Club and the intriguingly titled The Story of Objects, hosted by Brian Mac Domhnaill, an artist with a background in archaeology.

The final event will be a street performance through the town by performance artist Áine Phillips in collaboration with local schoolgirls celebrating the theme of boats and women.

“I think it’s important that we’re taking it out onto the streets so people will really get a sense that something is happening,” says Driscoll.

This Must Be The Place — the Great Island runs until March 26 (closed Mondays) at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh. The Sirius Café will be open in the Centre Gallery daily from 10.30am to 4pm. Drop in any time. For more info please contact Sirius Arts Centre at 021 4813790 or check www.siriusartscentre.ie

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