Belfast's MAC opens for art

By Phillip Coulter
BBC News

Image caption,
American artist Robert Therrien's Table and Four Chairs

Take a stroll through cobbled streets of Belfast's Cathedral quarter and you will find a beautiful new building nestled amongst some of the city's oldest watering holes.

After a generation of violence that ravaged a lot of Belfast's traditional architecture, 2012 has seen the opening of two special buildings.

The new Titanic Belfast has received much of the limelight this month. But a couple of stones throw away, on the other side of the River Lagan, sits the Metropolitan Arts Centre - a more understated example of Belfast's brave new architecture.

Simply known as the MAC - the distinctive piece of modern architecture, will give visitors a real chance to experience world-class art in all forms.

Located directly behind one of Belfast's oldest landmarks, St Anne's Cathedral, the newest addition to the city will give people more of a reason to venture further from the more traditional tourist spots.

'Unapologetically Belfast'

From the outside, the building looks deceptively small. But walk inside from the Exchange Street West entrance and suddenly the size of the main atrium reveals the real scale of the MAC.

On the right hand side is the Sunken Gallery, currently home to Dublin-based artist Maria McKinney's exhibition - a restructured version of an earlier work, Somewhere But Here, Another Other Place. The display is made up of a number of second-hand tables stacked imaginatively to fill the gallery which visitors are invited to explore.

Built with Belfast brick and Antrim basalt, Chairman Len O'Hagan describes the MAC as being "unapologetically Belfast". Indeed, enormous feature windows turn the city itself into a living gallery.

Walking up the central staircase a piece of art appears to burst through a window tucked into the top of the building - Mark Garry's, The Permanent Present. Four hundred copper strands in all the colours of the rainbow drape down from the high ceiling to the first floor.

In one of the galleries, celebrated Chicago-born artist Robert Therrien displays his work. Named Table and Four Chairs, his work is simply that, an enormous table with four chairs that visitors can interact with.

World-class building

The second gallery hosts the hottest attraction at the MAC. Alongside paintings by the world renowned L.S. Lowry sits the work of Belfast's William Conor. Born in 1881, the son of a wrought-iron worker, Conor was commissioned by the British government in World War I to produce official records of soldiers and munitions workers.

The centre's celebrity ambassador Sean Bean thinks that the MAC "puts Belfast and the arts on the world stage".

Chairman Len O' Hagan finds it hard to disagree:

"Because it is a wonderful, world-class building. Now we have the ability and the confidence of major lenders to give us pieces," he said.

Image caption,
Works by L.S. Lowry and Belfast-born William Conor

The building also has two theatres. The larger, a 350 seater venue is tucked away on the bottom floor underneath the stairs beside a row of intimate snugs facing a very modern bar.

Exiting the MAC, you can see St Anne's Square has had new life breathed into it. The ivory white surrounds feel something like a continental courtyard complete with a number of new cafés and restaurants.

It is safe to say that the MAC certainly adds something a little bit different to Belfast - a renewed energy and sense of pride around a city with high hopes of being able to take a place at the top tables of the European cultural scene.

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