Elizabeth Whyte’s responsibilities simply grow bigger and bigger – which is both exhilarating and exhausting for the experienced Irish arts administrator.
In a few months, the former actress and producer will be the proud overseer of a completely revamped performance venue, the Wexford Arts Centre, now being renovated at a cost of around 2.5 million euro in the heart of the southeastern Irish city. It will include an all-access entrance, new box office, new dressing rooms, an art show area with dedicated workshop and a landscaped patio for D’lush Cafe.
But until construction work is completed on the former town hall, the many tasks facing the centre’s friendly executive director is finding alternative sites for concerts, plays and exhibitions. So far, so good.
“After all, the show must go on,” says the friendly Dublin-born woman with an easy smile.
It hasn’t been easy for Elizabeth and her team, as re-shaping of the historic Arts Centre, one of the oldest cultural buildings in Ireland, was due to be completed in April but delays occurred due to building supply shortages and delivery issues related to Covid. It is hoped it will be finished in October, just in time for the famed Wexford Festival Opera.
“We’ve had to look around to see exactly what else is available that is suitable, especially as the summer season is well underway and we have a full programme of events to host,” said Elizabeth, who has worked both behind and on-stage in Ireland, as well as in the US, including Boston and New York where she lived for some years.
Such alternative venues have included the Annexe Courtyard in John’s Gate Street, Crown Live, Green Acres Gallery, the Irish National Heritage Park, the Creative Hub, and sister venue, the Presentation Arts Centre in the nearby town of Enniscorthy.
Upcoming events include the return of ‘Summer Sessions: Young Voices,’ an initiative organised in partnership with Music Generation Wexford to encourage and support young singer/songwriters within the county. August also sees the return of ‘The One Voice Festival’ in association with Paul Walsh Productions, a series of short theatrical works directed by Paul.
In July alone, the Presentation Arts Center, managed by Larry Dunne, hosted a diverse menu of performances, from a dynamic Celtic music concert by La Buelga that my wife and I attended featuring both Irish and Spanish musicians from Asturias to blues, rock n’ roll and traditional music concerts, to creative writing workshops, drama and open mike poetry nights. Its many activities also includes hosting a Kids Summer Camp of Art and co-ordinating an ongoing Enniscorthy Walls Trail Guide whose aim organisers say is to “rejuvenate the town’s rebel spirit and a renewed sense of pride of place by creating vibrant large scale mural artworks in key locations.”
An innovative project organised by Elizabeth and her team is the Creative Hub, a collection of artist studios in a property rented by the county council close to the Wexford Arts Centre. Here, a range of creative minds have found their ‘home away from home.’ People such as talented San Francisco-born Nadia Corridan, who studied fashion previously and whose work focuses around the themes of memory and touch, is experimenting with creating three dimensional art out of two dimensional paintings by innovatively adding embroidery elements to her paintings; Deirdre Meehan-Buttimer, transplanted to Wexford from Dublin, worked in finance before deciding her real passion lay in artwork and now runs the printmaker’s hub; and Ciaran Bowen, who has exhibited his art, including brightly-colored woven work, nationally and internationally.
Aside from the activities associated with the Wexford Arts Centre, other attractions of the ‘Irish Riviera’ of Wexford is Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum & Gardens, with its a long and colourful story stretching over 800 years. It extends over four kilometers, with a picturesque lake and ornamental gardens. You can picnic on the grounds while watching peacocks strutting around displaying their finery.
Recently, on a sunny weekend, I was delighted to attend several concerts as part of the estate’s first-ever July jazz festival over three days. It featured 16 bands and 30 musicians on several stages, an example of the many activities there including heraldic tours, heritage skills open days, guided bat and tree walks, even a ‘Spooktacular: Halloween Tunnel of Terror.’
The project is now under the guidance of general manager, Brenda Comerford and hardworking Visitors Services staff such as co-ordinator Carmel Whitty and Eoin Ennis. Two years ago the estate opened a brand new ‘3 in 1’ visitor attraction, with upgrading works on the Gothic-Revival Castle undertaken and guided tours now available for the first time daily, including the 86-metres long servants’ tunnel. This new attraction also includes the award-winning Irish Agricultural Museum’s exhibitions and a 1.5 kilometer lake walk opened with a new woodland children’s play area.
Wexford is home to many castles and one of the most intriguing stands overlooking the downtown area of Enniscorthy. Here you’ll see a diverse range of artefacts from a 100-year-old penny farthing bike to art nouveau fireplaces and medieval armour. You’ll also learn about the town’s historic role in the Irish Revolution and Civil War 1916-24. One room is devoted to native-born Eileen Gray, architect and furniture designer who became a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture. You may even be lucky enough to enjoy panoramic views from the castle roof over the town as far as Vinegar Hill, site of a famous 1798 Irish rebellion by local peasants.
While here, I enjoyed a special exhibition entitled ‘That’s true, you know,’ on Irish folklore and superstitions, including faeries and banshees, curated by Michael Fortune with the support of museum manager Mico Hassett and his deputy, Eve Furlong. Presented in an entertaining mixed media manner with photos, videos, text and various objects, it grants, among other things, insights into the role of May bushes in keeping ‘the little people’ from stealing milk and the significance of magpies, whitethorn bushes and sacred wells, with display boards for every month highlighting traditional dates of importance.