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Arts Council of Northern Ireland to quit its Belfast HQ

Organisation moving from grand historic house to bland, drab office block

By Lesley Houston

Published 17/09/2015

The Arts Council is switching from MacNeice House (above) to the less impressive Sidings in Lisburn
The Arts Council is switching from MacNeice House (above) to the less impressive Sidings in Lisburn
The Arts Council is switching from MacNeice House to the less impressive Sidings in Lisburn (above)

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is moving from a historic house steeped in local culture to a bland modern office block.

As cutbacks bite, staff working at MacNeice House in the leafy suburbs of Belfast's Malone Road will be moving next month to purpose-built offices in Lisburn.

According to an email sent to Arts Council clients yesterday, the move to the The Sidings is a short-term one, expected to last around 18 months.

MacNeice House - which was given its name by the Arts Council because of its links with the famous Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice - is now listed for sale for £3.5m via McKibben Property Consultants.

The relocation of the Arts Council from the imposing double-fronted Victorian merchant's villa dating from 1889 will come as a blow to its prestige.

Moving day is on October 23, with premises being "reviewed thereafter" according to an Arts Council email.

It also revealed that offices would be sought in Belfast to be "used periodically by officers and the sector for meetings", suggesting a reluctance to host visitors at The Sidings and a potential increase in transport costs for staff.

Despite that, Arts Council clients from the worlds of drama, dance, literature, music and the visual arts and crafts were told by email that the council looks forward to inviting them to their new premises, off Lisburn's North Circular Road, 8.7 miles from the Malone Road home.

The shock news is part of a cost-saving exercise that is in line with the Department of Finance's Government Estate Management Strategy. The decision is understood to have required the ratification of Arts Minister Caral ni Chuilin, and it follows dramatic cuts to arts sector budgets during the past year.

Employing just under 60 people at MacNeice House, the Arts Council is responsible for many of Northern Ireland's popular annual festivals, including the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast Children's Festival, Belfast Festival at Queen's, Feile An Phobail and the 2013 City of Culture event in Londonderry.

Louis MacNeice's father, John Frederick MacNeice, lived in the Malone Road house as Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.

The cream stuccoed, double-front Italianate-style villa seemed a natural home for arts. The prestigious building, with its grand portico and wide cantilevered staircase, was known as Dunarnon when it was home to the playwright Denis Johnston's grandfather, and later Aquinas Hall, which was a Dominican convent school.

Architecturally, the villa is typical of the Victorian architecture of 1889 and was designed by Belfast man Samuel Stevenson for tea merchant James Johnston.

It boasts Corinthian polished granite columns and an interior of sensitively restored decorative panelling, coves, cornices and ceilings of mahogany, walnut, teak and pine.

And with pedimented doorframes and inlaid floors, its rooms are "notable for richness and variety of motifs", according to the Council's literature.

By contrast, The Sidings has "suspended ceilings, Category Two lighting, plastered, painted walls, Economy Seven heating and carpeting" according to commercial property agents Colliers.

Belfast Telegraph

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