From left, IAC Executive Director Aidan Connolly, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and IAC Vice Chair Pauline Turley.
PHOTO BY AMANDA GENTILE
By Peter McDermott
“We are eager for the community to grab hold of this thing, to be proud of it, to be part of it.” So said Executive Director Aidan Connolly about the Irish Arts Center’s latest, and most ambitious ever venture, its new building on 11th Avenue, adjacent to the existing venue on West 51st Street.
At a March 16 gathering at the new site – formerly occupied by the 1916-founded Cybert Tire company – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that the Irish government was giving an additional $2.5 million, bringing the IAC campaign total to $60.5 million and ensuring that Phase I was fully funded.
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Construction is expected to begin on the new building in the next three months. It will take two years, and extensive renovation work will begin “immediately thereafter,” on the existing venue on 51st Street, involving another eight months to a year of construction.
“We’re doing our best to bring this to fruition,” Executive Director Connolly said, but adding that “this is not the property of the current board of directors and staff of the Irish Arts Center.”
As for being “proud of” and “part of” the Irish Arts Center’s project, the executive director said that might entail initially “coming to events a little more often than you do, making a donation, learning more about it and asking questions.”
One question that people have had is: will the old and the new be physically linked? “Yes” is the simple answer. The 11th Avenue structure will form with the existing building a “perfect L that will in turn create a natural courtyard where the two buildings meet,” and the courtyard will provide the entrance to the renovated 51st Street building when it reopens in 2021.
The construction schedule means that the Irish Arts Center will never have to close or leave its headquarters at any point. The second phase of construction from 2020 will also give staff the opportunity “to really focus on the new building in the first year.”
That new building will include a lobby café and a “flexible” 200-seat theatre, as well as classrooms and studios. The theatre will employ the latest in lighting systems and the most advanced push-button seating technology, which can mean no-seating if required.
The artist’s impression of the Irish Arts Center’s 11th Avenue building.
PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
The new space means a “huge increase in the range of possibilities,” according to Connolly.
He said. “The easiest way to think about it is in the arena of theatre and dance. It allows for a much broader canvass for theatre and dance.”
The expanded range of options also involves maintaining the “sense of intimacy in the existing theatre which already, we would argue, is one of the best places for live music and spoken word in the city.”
The new development has grown organically, Connolly said, from “what we’ve learned working with hundreds of artists across a range of disciplines.
“It isn’t a situation where you build a building and then figure out what to do with it,” he said.
Private donors have contributed $9.5 million to the $60.5 total required to begin the new building, while the Irish government has given $8.3 million, New York State $5.9 million and New York City $36.7 million. The additional value of city-owned land conveyed to the IAC is $21 million.
At the March 16 event, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the “construction of the new Irish Arts Center, a historic new chapter in the long relationship between the City of New York and Ireland and a vibrant space where all New Yorkers can get together and celebrate contemporary Irish and Irish American arts and culture.”