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Irish Arts Center breaks ground for new home

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson speaking at the groundbreaking. Photo by Amanda Gentile.


By Ray O’Hanlon

Hard hats are a familiar sight in New York City.

These ones were gleaming and looking in need of a few days in the trenches of a Manhattan construction site.

And yes, this was a site, albeit with a roof on it and an evident purpose: the repair of cars.

But not for much longer.

A gathering of supporters of the Irish Arts Center donned the hats on Thursday afternoon, October 11, for the long awaited formal breaking of ground for a new center on 11th Avenue.

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So on the eleventh on the eleventh.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson led a gathering of city politicians, business figures, Irish community leaders and representatives of the arts at the ceremonial groundbreaking.

Johnson also announced $5 million towards the second phase of the overall Irish Arts Center project - that being the renovation of the center’s long serving 51st Street building which will follow the completion of the new building on 11th in 2020.

The new Irish Arts Center will, said a release, culminate IAC’s decade-long institutional transformation.

Stated the release in part: “Actor and IAC Honorary Chair Gabriel Byrne; Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council; Congressman Joseph Crowley; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl; Ciarán Madden, Consul General of Ireland; and other city and state dignitaries joined the Irish Arts Center board, staff, and supporters as they broke ground on the new Irish Arts Center, ‘a heralded multidisciplinary center that will bring people of all backgrounds together through the excellence and dynamism of Irish arts and culture.’”

The ceremony, added the release, marked the start of construction on Phase One of the new facility, a state-of-the-art new building at 726 11th Avenue, now fully funded and scheduled to open in late 2020.

The new facility and the revamped current one will result in a combined L-shaped facility for the arts.

In the coming weeks, the release continued, IAC will announce a campaign to complete fundraising for the 51st Street renovation, alongside a Growth and Sustainability Fund and Endowment.

“The New Irish Arts Center is not just a new building, it’s a new understanding of who we are and how we relate to the world,” said Gabriel Byrne.

“We need a place where the new voices of Ireland and Irish America can be nourished and celebrated and born. The new Irish Arts Center is that place.”

“There has never been a more important time to build cultural platforms that bring people of all backgrounds together to express our common humanity,” said Aidan Connolly, Executive Director and the organization’s chief executive since 2007.

“Irish Arts Center is a home for global Irish artists to share the stories that both distinguish and bind us, and for a community of communities rallying in support and celebration of their excellence, dynamism, and innovation.”

“Irish heritage is an integral part of New York City history, and the Irish Arts Center does so much to preserve that history and celebrate Irish and immigrant culture in the five boroughs,” said Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council.

“The Council is proud to fund the New Irish Arts Center, a state-of-the-art cultural facility that will reflect the dynamism and energy of Irish arts and culture, as well as the immigrant experience as a whole. I am thrilled to be here at this groundbreaking today, and I can’t wait to visit the New Irish Arts Center when it’s open for everyone to enjoy.”

“We’re thrilled to join the Irish Arts Center and its supporters to mark the start of construction on the organization’s extraordinary new home,” said New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl.

“This partnership between the City, the government of Ireland, and IAC will bring New Yorkers a new multidisciplinary art center where artists and audiences can experience and celebrate the creative energy of Ireland and the Irish diaspora, which has such deep roots here in New York.”

Pauline Turley, IAC Vice Chair, said: “I first came to IAC as an intern, right out of college. It’s so thrilling to see the strides the Irish Arts Center has made in its programming and goals over these years now being matched with a new facility that can fully support its expansive vision of the traditions and innovations of Irish culture.”

Congratulations were also sent from Ireland.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “I very much welcome the start of work on the New Irish Arts Center in New York, and I am delighted that the Irish Government has been in a position to support its development. It marks a new and exciting phase in the life of the Center and ensures Ireland’s place at the heart of the vibrant cultural life of New York City.”

“This new world-class facility in New York will increase the capacity to develop and showcase the excellence and dynamism of Irish arts in the world’s cultural capital,” said Josepha Madigan, Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

“It will significantly increase the opportunities for Irish performing artists to share with audiences the best of Irish music, dance, theatre and storytelling on the world’s greatest stage.”

Ciarán Cannon, Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development said: “I want to congratulate the Irish Arts Center on their drive and vision as they embark on their ambitious redevelopment plans. The Irish Government recognizes the vital work of the Center in promoting Irish arts and culture in New York and has been proud to support this project from the outset.”

The Irish Arts Center, founded in 1972 and based in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s west side bills itself as a national and international home for artists and audiences of all backgrounds who share a passion for the evolving arts and culture of contemporary Ireland and Irish America.

Designed by Ireland's Office of Public Works (Wexford Opera House) and the New York architects Davis Brody Bond (National September 11 Museum), the New Irish Arts Center culminates a dramatic transformation of the organization, stated the IAC release.

It continued: “Over the past decade, Irish Arts Center has grown from a beloved small Irish theatre in the Off-Off Broadway landscape to a vital, dynamic, inclusive multidisciplinary institution deeply integrated into the cultural ecosystems of Ireland and New York, offering a panoramic view of Irish and Irish-American arts and culture presented in a global context.

“The organization has widened the network of artists in its family across disciplines of music, dance, theatre, literature, film, visual arts and interdisciplinary work; formed partnerships with other organizations around the city (BAM, St. Ann’s Warehouse, National Sawdust, Baryshnikov Arts Center, etc.), across the country (Old Town School in Chicago, Largo in Los Angeles), and in Ireland (Project, Landmark, Fishamble); toured works developed at IAC (e.g. the acclaimed collaborative performances by Cassandra Wilson and Liam Ó Maonlaí; the upcoming famine song cycle with Declan O’Rourke); and shown how an ethnically-specific institution can promote and practice an intersectional viewpoint, and be a place where one culture and so many others meet, combine, and cross-nourish. All while growing the annual fund to support this mission from less than $700k in 2007 to $3.5 million in 2018, and raising now more than $65 million from the City, State, Irish government, private donors, and foundations to support the organization’s vision.

“The conception and construction of the New Irish Arts Center marks the first time the New York City government has partnered so closely with a foreign government to build a cultural platform to serve its citizens.

“This support was powerfully illustrated in March 2018 with Mayor Bill de Blasio hosting Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the site of the new building. The City of New York has contributed $36.75 million and city-owned land to the project’s transformative first phase, and the Irish government has contributed $8.3 million through the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht. This historic partnership has been sustained by Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Johnson, and the City Council Irish Caucus, building on the commitment of previous administrations including former Speaker Christine Quinn, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The project also enjoys significant support from the State of New York, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and the American Irish Legislators Society led by Assembly Member Michael Cusick.

“The new facility will house a flexible theatre for multidisciplinary performance, installations, residencies and special events; classrooms and studio spaces for community education programs in Irish music, dance, language, history, and the humanities; technology to stream and distribute the Irish Arts Center experience on the digital platform; and a spacious, vibrant, avenue-facing café lobby that will be a hospitable hub for conversation and interaction between artists and audiences. With the new building’s flexible seating venue accommodating up to 200 (and more for standing events), and the eventual renovation of IAC’s historic theater into a second intimate venue, the institution will be more equipped to present works that vastly range in scope and form.

“The New Irish Arts Center will complement the urban context of today’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood while engaging in dialogue with history. Out of respect for the existing streetscape, the original Cybert Tire brick façade at 726 11th Avenue will be incorporated into the facade of the new building. The New Irish Arts Center will bring together the old and the new in a dynamic, inclusive, sustainable flagship destination for New Yorkers who love great art, for visitors seeking an authentic cultural experience, and for the global Irish community.”