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Edgy arts ethos

Living

COMMAND CENTRE Sean Walsh at his desk in Ballina Arts Centre. Pic: Paul Fox

Áine Ryan chats to Sean Walsh, the director of Ballina Arts Centre about his career and the centre’s aims.

A picture of the Pope was once the centre-piece of the church-like wooden panels that surround the desk of Ballina Arts Centre’s director, Sean Walsh. Now it is a framed poster of burlesque performer Camille O’Sullivan. The state-of-the-art centre’s original building was the Catholic Church’s Newman Institute. It is almost six years now the impressive arts centre was opened, after the original stone building was significantly extended.
Despite a chasmic recession, which left some of the town’s businesses decimated, the community-focused arts centre – with its gallery of glass-fronted vistas over the weirs and ridge pool of the racing River Moy – continues to thrive and develop.
Although a native of Belmullet, Sean Walsh now lives in Killala with his wife, Aideen, and two children, Méabh (16) and Ruairí (12). The north-west Mayo town is a short commute to his office where he is usually at his desk each day by 8.15ish. After dropping out of a Philosophy degree at the Milltown Institute in Dublin, Sean Walsh’s odyssey with the arts began on his return back home when – at a loose end – he worked at and then managed a community-arts project in Belmullet. This then led to the Mayo County Council Arts Office in Castlebar, where he was based for about five years.
“Working in the Arts Office was a great learning experience, as Anne McCarthy (Arts Officer) had an instinctive feel for equality in the arts, whether people were rich or poor, abled or disabled there should be equal access,” says Sean.

Moving to the Moy
ON February 1, 2006, Sean moved to Ballina in a County Council bid to foster the arts more formally in the north Mayo capital and area. He was first based in the old town council building, now demolished, before moving to the Newman Institute ten months later.
“Around this time I was aware that the Government was about to announce capital funding for arts centres, so we applied and were successful. We also were supported through funding from Ballina Town Council and Mayo County Council. Ultimately, the whole ambitious project cost around €5 million,” he explains.
Ballina Arts Centre encompasses a 220-seat auditorium, dance studios, a drama rehearsal, workshop and printmaking spaces, a music rehearsal room, meeting rooms, a little wine bar and, of course, the gallery.
The centre employs three people, Sean and his colleagues Sara English, Assistant Manager, and Paul Fox, Marketing Officer. There are also some ten people working on various Social Employment Schemes. While the centre continues to rely on continued funding subsidies from the Arts Council and Mayo County Council, it also rents out spaces to a plethora of local groups, which ensures that its rooms are busy every evening of the week.
Sean tells The Mayo News that the arts centre’s presence in the town has helped to spawn new drama groups, and offer a dedicated space, for the more established ones.
“We are delighted to have facilitated several new drama groups, such as the Riverside Theatre Group and Nephin Drama Group from the north Mayo area, as well as the town’s own group, the Ballina Drama Society,” he says.
It had to be challenging, though, building such a big centre during a major economic crash?
“We were expanding our project during the middle of the recession, and we just kept our programme going and used the same principles of reaching into the community with high-quality programming and an ethos of making it work,” replies Walsh.
“The good news for us is that I can see our audience continually expanding – we have people attending our various events from Enniscrone to Foxford, Ballycastle to Crossmolina. People even travel from as far as Westport and Belmullet for specialist events. In the beginning, if there were 30 people at a gig, I was delighted; now if there are only 60, I am depressed,” he continues.
Ballina Arts Centre not only facilitates all sorts of classes, from hip-hop to yoga, it also liaises with Western Care for a broad range of initiatives. Indeed, the ‘Silent Moves’ film project, which was managed by the centre, was selected – amid stiff competition – to represent the 2015, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks. This was an Irish Times and Royal Irish Academy initiative celebrating Ireland’s literary and visual arts legacy over the last century (1916 to 2016).

Silent Moves
DEVELOPED by visual artist Aideen Barry, choreographer, Emma O’Kane, the short film, Silent Moves was a collaborative process involving members of the Ridgepool Training Centre and Scannán Technologies and managed by Ballina Arts Centre. Its narrative – which was based on a traditional love story with all its elements of heroism and villainy, beauty and bravery – had the added challenge of disability.
Funding for the project was provided through Ignite, an Arts Council funded programme offering ‘a new and innovative approach to commissioning and touring works work by artists with disabilities’, however.
This initiative perfectly suited the ethos of Ballina Arts Centre, which already had a proven record for developing outreach programmes with local disability groups.  
 Ballina Arts Centre has a busy spring programme with Richie O’Donnell’s acclaimed film, Atlantic, on tonight, Tuesday, January 31. O’Donnell himself will be in attendance, facilitating a Q&A session afterwards. For more on the centre, visit www.ballinaartscentre.com.