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Atmospheric art at Custom House Studios


ART HOUSE Custom House Studios and Art Gallery, The Quay, Westport. Pic: Conor McKeown

Áine Ryan

ARTIST Tom Climent’s work focuses on ‘the creation of structured space, while investigating the boundaries between abstraction and representation’. With titles such as ‘Shepherd’. ‘Solar Waterway’, ‘Allotment’, ‘To Belong in Time’, his latest exhibition juxtaposes structured space in the environment, intimating both ‘formal and emotional qualities of architecture’.
Its clean lines and strong colours offer a suggestive narrative for the first of 16 exhibitions that will be on show over 2017 as part of the Custom House Studios’ busy programme.
Opened to the public in 2002, the genesis of the  Custom House Studios at Westport Quay, reaches back to the 1980s and ’90s when the town’s vibrant artistic community formed the Westport Artists’ Studios group.
As far as the studios’ manager, John McHugh, recalls: “They did a feasibility study, which included a questionnaire, and its results led to an application for European funding for studio facilities. They then went to Mayo County Council and Westport Town Council, and there was a proposal to develop this building, which was owned by the OPW (Office of Public Works).”
John McHugh says that while the imposing building had been closed for some time, it had operated until some years earlier still as a Customs Office.
 “If you brought in a car from the North, it could be re-registered here, or if a vehicle was impounded,” he explains.
Ultimately, the artists’ group and the county council came together and founded the not-for-profit organisation, The Custom House Studios Ltd.
Fifteen years later and the centre has four full-time and dedicated employees, Clora Quigley, Linda Ryder and Caroline Masterson, as well as Achill native, McHugh, who also cites the wonderful contribution of the longtime Chairwoman, Margaret Adams, a retired Fianna Fáil councillor.  

Funding for the future
LIKE the majority of arts centres it is funded through a complex stream of schemes, including Pobail’s Community Enterprise Scheme, Mayo County Council and Arts Council funding.  
“Mayo County Council has been continuously very generous  to us – both the Arts Office, through their partnership programme and the West Mayo Municipal District. The local authority’s support has effectively ensured the survival of the centre. Arts Council funding has  been significantly cut back in recent years but it continues to support the studios and the allocation of a Department of Arts capital grant this year was also most welcome,” says McHugh.
For him, the centre’s distinctive ethos is ‘to provide facilities to support artists working in the area, by providing studios, a print-making studio and information dissemination to serve the needs of the artistic community’.
“As we are a publicly funded centre, each year we engage an independent artists’ panel – peer review panel – to select the artists for the exhibitions and for the use of the studios.
We usually get up to 80 submissions and choose the 16 exhibitions from these applications, as well as the artists who will use the studios. Typically an artist might use a studio for a period of three years.”

Open door for locals and visitors
OPEN to the public seven days a week all-year-round, the gallery is visited by both tourists and locals, who come to the Quay for lunch or drop in while out walking.  
“One of the things we have noticed since the economic crash, independent travelling Americans haven’t returned, they are now on bus tours. Generally, visitors come from a broad range of nationalities – Irish and Northern Irish to European and American.
We get a lot of people who would not normally visit an art exhibition calling in too,” McHugh says.
Despite the financial challenges, he believes ‘there is a good future for the centre because of the interest and involvement of young artists and the centre’s integral relationship with the town.
“Westport, as a tourism destination, requires cultural and artistic facilities that are real. When it comes to cultural tourism, visitors can be very discerning and expect a high-quality artistic experience. Part of the role of the Custom House is that it complements and builds on the artistic events and facilities in the town and area. There are many examples of this, including the recently opened Green Fuse gallery on James Street, the Town Hall, as well as Westport Arts Festival and the Rolling Sun Book Festival. The outcome of all this is that it builds the capacity for harnessing the arts in the community,” he observes.
He explains that the artists who use the studios are often locals, students who have returned from college or people from other countries who have moved to Westport to take advantage of the studios.
“We have hosted artists from the UK, the US, Germany, Austria and Japan, as well as Irish.
“Every Tuesday we also host a group from Carrowbeg Enterprises. This is funded through Mayo County Council and Western Care.
“Over the years they have made a film, ‘Journey on the Greenway’, and have worked with bronze sculpture and ceramics, and this year they made a book in the print studio, under the direction of Caroline Masterson, Grainne O’Reilly and Suzy Quinn.    
“What we try to do with these projects is to take the imagery from the participants and transform it into a different medium.”

For more information on the gallery and studios, visit or call 098 28735. Exhibitions by Malachy Costello and Phillip Shiels will open at the gallery this Thursday, February 23, at 7.30pm.


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