The Irish Arts Center, a New York nonprofit devoted to championing the culture of Ireland and Irish Americans, is finally moving into a home as big as its aspirations.
The organization, founded in the East Village in 1972, has been operating for decades out of a onetime tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. Now, wrapping up a pandemic-delayed construction project first set in motion 15 years ago, the center is moving just around the corner after converting a longtime tire shop into a state-of-the-art performance facility where it aims, starting in December, to present theater, dance, music, visual art and more.
Ireland “still has these incredibly deep roots to its own artistic legacy, and it still fundamentally feels like a land of poets in its sensibility and its storytelling,” said Aidan Connolly, the center’s executive director. But, he added, “New Yorkers might not know how exciting the emerging contemporary dance scene in Ireland is; they might not know how Ireland’s cultural evolution in the last 20 years has yielded an exciting, dynamic, more diverse generation of musical artists, and on and on.”
The centerpiece of the new building is a flexible theater space that can seat up to 199 people.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
The four-story, 21,700-square-foot building on 11th Avenue, which retains its original brick repair shop facade, houses, at its center, a black box theater space that has 14 approved configurations, the largest of which will seat 199 people. The theater is a major technological upgrade for the center, with retractable seating, flexible lighting, sound, and set rigging, an overhead wire tension grid and the capacity for digital capture and streaming.
On the ground floor, the building has a cafe, with blackened steel panels and a walnut bar, which will be run by Ardesia, a local wine bar. And above and below the theater are rooms that can be used for educational and community programs, as well as rehearsals and meetings.
The $60 million building was designed by Davis Brody Bond, a New York-based architecture firm, in consultation with Ireland’s state architect. There are nods both to the industrial history of Hell’s Kitchen, and the Irish mission of the center — lots of brick and steel, and also lots of places to sit and talk, because the center sees hospitality as an Irish virtue.
There are Irish touches throughout the building — most conspicuously, the main stairway will feature lines of Irish poetry on the risers, but also the signs throughout the building are in Irish as well as English, in a font created in collaboration with the Irish typographer Bobby Tannam. Much of the furniture is from an Irish craft furniture designer, Orior, which makes pieces “injected with Irish character.”
The center plans to keep its offices in its existing building, on West 51st Street; at some point, it plans to redo that building and resume using its 99-seat auditorium for smaller-scale performances. Cybert Tire, which previously occupied the 11th Avenue site, by the way, still exists — founded in 1916, it claims to be the city’s oldest tire shop, and has simply moved around the corner, onto West 52nd Street.
The Irish Arts Center began its life as an Off Off Broadway theater that produced its own work, but over the last 15 years it has embraced a broader portfolio; Connolly often says he likes to think of the center’s programming as a hybrid of the 92nd Street Y and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Irish culture is represented in New York in any variety of ways — there are periodically Irish writers on Broadway, for example, and the Irish Repertory Theater presents often acclaimed productions of Irish drama, but Connolly argues that, until now, there has been “no flagship hub to celebrate and promote Irish culture in a way that is commensurate with its impact,” akin to institutions like the French Institute Alliance Française or Scandinavia House.
The organization remains modestly sized, at least by the scale of New York City nonprofits, with an anticipated $7 million budget for its first year in the new building. But it has been growing at a steady clip — its operating budget was only $690,000 in 2006-07.
In a demonstration of the expanded work made possible by the new theater, the center plans next summer to stage its first musical, an adaptation of the 2012 film “Good Vibrations,” about the Belfast punk rock scene. The first year will also include a production of “The Same,” a play by Enda Walsh about two women in a psychiatric institution, and “Chekhov’s First Play,” via Dead Centre, an Irish/English theater company.
The center will open with a monthlong run by the Irish-French cabaret singer Camille O’Sullivan, who said she would fondly remember the old building, where she performed several times.
“They’re family, and they’re friends,” O’Sullivan said, “and they’re very much giving a home to people like myself.”
There will also be dance programs from Oona Doherty; Mufutau Yusuf; and Sean Curran with Darrah Carr. And there will be an array of music, poetry, readings and visual art.
There are 31.5 million Americans of Irish ancestry, but the center has a broad view of Irishness, and although its donor base is made up primarily of Irish Americans, its audience is varied.
“They have a really inclusive way of thinking about the culture of the Irish diaspora,” said Georgiana Pickett, an arts consultant who staged several collaborations with the center when she was executive director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. “They’ve done a lot to ensure that they’re linking the histories of the arts that come through Ireland to many other places in the world, and that’s allowed them to include Appalachian music, new immigrant communities in Ireland, people of Irish descent that collaborate with other cultures — it’s the Irish Arts Center, but has a really diverse definition of what that means.”
The project is primarily funded by government largess in both the United States and Ireland — New York City, which has supported multiple arts institutions over time, set aside $37 million for the project.
“This amazing building is so timely,” said Gonzalo Casals, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, “because it brings down the barriers among disciplines, and offers an in-depth understanding of Irish culture.”
The Irish government contributed $9 million, and the state of New York gave $5 million. Private donors contributed $15 million. That’s $66 million raised thus far — the money not spent on the new building will be used in part to support the operating budget.
The Irish government continues to support the center through Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish culture around the world as part of an effort announced in 2018 to double the country’s global footprint. The Irish Arts Center has been a significant beneficiary of that effort; Christine Sisk, the director of Culture Ireland, said her agency is making a “big investment” in the center.
“New York is an amazing city for the arts, and we also see it as a gateway to the rest of the U.S.,” said Sisk, who said she expected that Irish artists whose work is presented at the center could then more easily tour the United States. “It’s a shop window, and a guaranteed space, to present Irish arts.”