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Plans under way to build Belfast's first art gallery in almost 100 years

By Rebecca Black

Published 16/09/2016

'Museums Northern Ireland has very little space to display their stock of art' (File photo)
'Museums Northern Ireland has very little space to display their stock of art' (File photo)

Northern Ireland could be set for its first dedicated municipal art gallery in almost a century, it can be revealed.

Belfast City Council is planning to open a major new tourist attraction in the next few years.

On Wednesday, the council's Growth and Regeneration Committee heard plans for a "northside hub" that could be located near the new Ulster University campus.

It is proposed that this would include a "Belfast story" piece as the main attraction, along with a cultural cinema and exhibition and commercial space.

While a location has not been finalised, Sinn Fein councillors expressed interest in building it outside the city centre.

However, Ulster Unionist councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon slated the proposal as a "shopping mall-type idea" and instead suggested a municipal art gallery, which found favour amongst other councillors.

"The municipal art gallery was an option which had been narrowed out, but now it is back," Mr Dudgeon said.

"The proposed northside hub is very modernistic - a cultural shopping mall.

"It does not appeal to tourists in a significant way. Tourists want to go to an art gallery for a couple of hours. They don't want to go to a hub that directs them to story boards, which direct them to other places to go.

"Museums Northern Ireland has very little space to display their stock of art.

"There is a section for art in the Ulster Museum, but it is not separate and distinct."

If completed, the building would be Northern Ireland's first major dedicated public art gallery since the late 1920s. Up until that point, there was a municipal gallery in the city centre, but it and the Belfast Natural History Museum were moved into the then newly built Ulster Museum in 1929.

In 2014, urban planning expert Joe Berridge recommended that a new visitor attraction be built in the city.

He praised Titanic Belfast, but said that the area needed a second big draw.

In January this year, council officers were given permission to launch a feasibility study into the building a major cultural and tourist attraction.

On Wednesday evening, the City Growth and Regeneration Committee was told that officers had examined a number of attractions, including London's South Bank area and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in a bid to investigate how cultural attractions can be used to regenerate an area and create a world-class visitor destination.

The experts identified the top of Royal Avenue as an area that could benefit from such a scheme.

The report also called on BBC Northern Ireland to relocate from its present base on Ormeau Avenue to Royal Avenue.

If it goes ahead, it is expected that the new visitor attraction will not open its doors until 2020 at the earliest.

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