There is a photograph in the collection of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland by John Duncan entitled Donegall Pass, 2016 that was included in the highly acclaimed exhibition 'Portrait of Northern Ireland: neither an elegy nor a manifesto', hosted by the Golden Thread Gallery as part of the Northern Ireland Centenary cultural programme in 2021.
It depicts roadworks outside a dilapidated, fortified building that Duncan notes 'was originally purpose-built for the Girls' Friendly Society and was repurposed as a police station in the 1950s. The Northern Ireland Policing Board gave approval for the disposal of Donegall Pass Police Station in 2012. In 2016 the fortified police sangar at the entrance was removed.'
One of a number of similarly decommissioned police stations from across the city, it is part of a series entitled Belfast Resurfacing, that 'explores the urban landscapes of Belfast as it transforms in its 'post-conflict' period' and 'critically examines the projects that are attempting to make the city sustainable in the long term, as a place people want to live in, invest in and visit.'
The impetus for change behind Duncan's image can be seen as a metaphor for the regeneration and transformation of Belfast from a run-down Victorian city largely shunned by visitors to a modern metropolis that is exploiting its industrial, literary and cultural heritage as a vibrant tourist destination.
In the 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Belfast has changed dramatically – economically and socially, architecturally and culturally – and visual artists have documented, benefited from and responded to these changes over the years.
The Victorian architectural core of the city is relatively unchanged. Belfast City Hall remains a constant motif as seen in William Conor's City Hall under Snow (from the 1920s), David Turner's nighttime rendition Belfast City Hall 1996 and in Cityscape by Colin Davidson.
Better known today for his large-scale portraits of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Angela Merkel, Ed Sheeran, Brad Pitt and Northern Irish cultural figures such as the pianist Barry Douglas and the painter Basil Blackshaw, Davidson also painted a series of panoramic views of Belfast from high vantage points such as Belfast Landscape: St. Anne's from River House and Belfast Landscape towards Cavehill from Bedford House.
At street level, he concentrated on the reflections of the old and new buildings in the glossy shop window displays, as in Mannequins, Bedford Street.
The investment in new construction projects since the Good Friday Agreement has been considerable. Building sites proliferate across the city and their scaffolded frameworks have been a source of inspiration for Simon McWilliams whose large-scale paintings such as Blue Scaffolding and Stairwell celebrate the city's progress, prosperity and architectural regeneration.
Landmark buildings such as the Waterfront Concert Hall (1997), the Odyssey Arena, now the SSE Arena (2001), the Victoria Square shopping centre (2008), the Obel Tower, Donegall Quay (2010 – the island of Ireland's tallest building), and the Titanic Museum (2012) have transformed the city's skyline and revitalised the riverfront, building on the mission of the Laganside Corporation (1987–2007) 'to contribute to the revitalisation of Belfast and Northern Ireland through the regeneration of the Laganside area.'
Identifying Clarendon Dock, the Cathedral Quarter and the old Gasworks site as key areas for redevelopment, in 1998 Laganside turned its attention to public art, seeing it 'as a vehicle for improving the quality of the built environment, creating dynamic and memorable areas' that 'in turn will contribute to economic recovery by promoting cultural tourism and resulting in the employment of artists and craftspeople.'
Numerous landmark, site-specific sculptures were commissioned 'Connecting people, places and art', most notably Vivien Burnside's Dividers at Clarendon Dock in 2002, which connects the city and the sea, referencing the trade and navigation history of the dockland, and Bigfish by John Kindness at Donegall Quay which has become one of the city's iconic tourist sights since its installation in 1999.
Positioned at the confluence of the rivers Farset and Lagan, the ten-metre-long fish celebrates the return of the salmon to the Lagan and its blue ceramic scales depict the history of Belfast from its Tudor origins to the millennium. Eleanor Wheeler's ceramic wall map Mapping History (2003) at Cotton Court, Waring Street in the Cathedral Quarter also charts the history of the area.
Laganside's Art Trails include Deborah Brown's Sheep on the Road (1990), purchased from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 1999 and relocated from the Sculpture Park at Riddel Hall, Stranmillis to outside the Waterfront Hall, Lanyon Place – originally the site of a sheep and cattle market.
Further down river, Claire Sampson's two Stone Columns (1995) representing Belfast's past and future industries – linen, shipbuilding and ropemaking opposite new computing and communication technologies, mark the entrance to the old Gasworks site. The old gasometers recorded in earlier paintings such as Gasworks from the Embankment by Trevor McElnea have been flattened but the architectural splendour of the tiled stairwell in one of the original office buildings has been captured in Tom Hallifax's painting Monument to Commerce, Gasworks (1995–1996).
Belfast's thriving cultural tourism industry now includes its literary heritage with the C. S. Lewis Square in East Belfast featuring seven Narnian sculptures such as Aslan and The White Witch by Maurice Harron and The Searcher (1998) by Ross Wilson.
The success of its public art programme has also attracted funding for larger-scale projects such as Andy Scott's Beacon of Hope (2007) (known locally as Nuala with the Hula) at Thanksgiving Square and Wolfgang Buttress's RISE (2011) on the Broadway Roundabout, Westlink, which are the two largest sculptures in the city.
Belfast's artistic reputation has also greatly benefited from the stability accrued in the twenty-five years since the Good Friday Agreement. Cultural hubs like the Grand Opera House, Lyric Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre and the Ulster Museum, host to the ever-popular annual Royal Ulster Academy exhibitions, have all been renovated and there is a vibrant network of galleries, collectives and artists' studios ranged across the city that attracts artists and visitors from around the world.
Galleries such as the Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG 1995–2006/2011), and the thriving Golden Thread (first opened in 1998), Belfast Exposed and The MAC galleries based in the Cathedral Quarter exhibit local luminaries and have hosted international artists such as Yoko Ono, Bill Viola, Gilbert & George, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, L. S. Lowry, Kara Walker, Martin Parr and Ron Mueck – an exciting mix of contemporary fine arts that would hold its own in any major capital.
Some galleries have made important contributions to the social, political and artistic history of Belfast. The photographic gallery Belfast Exposed was founded in 1983 to exhibit and care for its cross-community archive of images of Belfast and it continues to produce 'exhibitions, publications and projects, often informed by questions that resonate with local experience: representation, identity, history, memory, commemoration and attachment to place.'
NEW EXHIBITION ALERT!— Belfast Exposed (@BelfastExposed) March 23, 2023
Acclaimed documentary photographer Donovan Wylie will be showcasing his short film in our NEW SPACE, Belfast Exposed Bank Gallery, situated on High Street. Join us for Donovan Wylie's short film documenting the destruction of the Maze prison in 2006 pic.twitter.com/Vxs06QNywX
From 2005 to 2015, Peter Richards, director of the Golden Thread Gallery, initiated a series of twelve interconnected exhibitions 'Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art'. Each presented by a different curator, the exhibitions 'form a significant historical archive of Northern Irish Art from 1945 to the present' giving a 'much-needed historical context to both engage, and help engage with, artists who are practising today'.
A beautiful book from our Collective Histories series is a perfect gift for anyone interested in the Arts in #NorthernIreland Individual editions are just £10, alongside the unique box set for £250. All sales support the #GTGBelfast But be quick - we close for Christmas tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/bjg2Spd2cf— GoldenThreadGallery (@goldenthreadg) December 20, 2019
Much of this new self-confidence in the contemporary arts originates from the success of Northern Irish artists at international art fairs and exhibitions supported by commercial galleries and visionary curators at home.
Northern Ireland's first representation at the Venice Biennale was in 2005 with a group exhibition entitled 'The Nature of Things', curated by Hugh Mulholland, previously Director of the OBG and now Creative Director (Visual Arts) at The MAC and was followed by solo shows by 'Willie Doherty: Ghost Story' in 2007 and 'Susan McWilliam: Remote Viewing' in 2009.
For the first time, in 2021, the prestigious Turner Prize was awarded to a group of Northern Irish artists. The Belfast-based Array Collective received recognition and the award for their collaborative, performative tableau, The Druthaib's Ball which 'responds to a variety of socio-political issues affecting them and their communities'. Recently acquired for its permanent collection, it is currently on display at the Ulster Museum.
Looking to explore something new today? Why not take a Sunday trip to Ulster Museum to see our new Turner Prize winning exhibition, '@array_studios: The Druthaib's Ball'.— Ulster Museum (@UlsterMuseum) March 5, 2023
Find out more here → https://t.co/TbHHWDjkPV pic.twitter.com/GfmUh4vLDA
In 2005, in her introduction to 'The Nature of Things', Roisín McDonagh, Chief Executive of ACNI, noted that 'this new generation of artists share the benefits of the cultural and economic stability enjoyed by present-day Northern Ireland. Prosperity has bred a newfound confidence, and the arts have become less introspective and more outward looking' and presents 'a culturally and artistically mature society.' What was pertinent in 2005 remains so today.
Amanda Croft, art historian and curator
This article was supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland