Catalyst Arts began life in 1993 in Belfast, with no fixed abode, and is now nearly 20 years old. It was formed as a not-for-profit, artist-led initiative in response to a perceived lack of exhibition opportunities for emerging artists living and working in Belfast and the surrounding area. By 1994 Catalyst had secured its first dedicated gallery space at Exchange Place, and has moved five times since. Now based at 5 College Court, Belfast, the organisation consists of eight voluntary directors who work together to deliver a dynamic contemporary art programme.
Catalyst Art’s constitution was initially modelled on Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery, an artist led space set up in 1983. Since Catalyst’s founding its model has in turn been adopted by 126 Gallery in Galway.
Catalyst is managed at all times by a committee of up to 10 unpaid directors who meet on a weekly basis to plan the gallery’s schedule for the week ahead. Each director volunteers at Catalyst on a two-year rolling basis. This ensures that the organisation continues to support new directors and produce a perpetually changing, ambitious programme.
This non-hierarchical system means that, as directors, we each have an equal say over, and responsibility for, the day-to-day running of the organisation. In nearly two decades Catalyst has had more than 60 directors who have served their term on the committee, and to this day many of them continue to support the organisation.
As directors, we aim to provide people of all ages with an opportunity to get involved with the organisation by becoming a member, submitting work for exhibitions, volunteering with the installation of shows, assisting artists with their work and, of course, by becoming a director themselves. As a members-based organisation – whose membership is made up of past directors as well as annually registered members – we strive to provide opportunities and support to hundreds of members every year.
All members have the opportunity to exhibit in the annual members show, submit for curated members-based exhibitions and can have their say in how the gallery should move forward in the future at the annual AGM.
We endeavour to create new opportunities for members and emerging artists to show their work, and aim to secure the organisation’s future by training new directors to continue to carry the Catalyst torch.
The gallery’s annual exhibition programme usually consists of over 20 exhibitions showing hundreds of artists at all stages of their careers. Catalyst also holds the oldest biennial live art festival in Europe, ‘FIX’. Since its inception in 1994 the festival has played an important part in the organisation’s development and has helped to define contemporary performance art in Belfast.
Admittedly this is quite an intense two-year experience for a part-time group of volunteers. However, this large workload gives directors the chance to obtain a broad skill set and to act in a range of supportive roles such as project manager, technician, administrator and curator. Often this type of hands-on experience is hard to gain in a more traditional gallery setting and Catalyst therefore functions as an important training ground for emerging arts administrative staff.
Catalyst is approaching its twentieth anniversary, and we have begun to focus on exploring our legacy, with an emphasis on evaluating the organisation’s considerable archive and promoting the sustainability of the Catalyst model (demonstrated by recent archive-based exhibitions at NCAD, Dublin and the MAC, Belfast).
With a newly elected archive committee, we are working on cataloguing and digitising Catalyst’s archive. In recent months, the organisation has also expanded its online presence, providing exhibiting artists and members with an opportunity to have their work viewed by an ever-increasing global audience. With thousands of new viewers to the website, we have achieved a marked increase in the number of visitors to the gallery and the amount of artists submitting to open calls for. The website also functions as an accessible archive of past exhibitions, projects and events as well as acting as a promotional tool for members’ websites.
Catalyst Arts remains an important part of Belfast’s visual arts culture; we continue to promote young and emerging artists and curators and to extol art as a viable career option for new and existing practitioners.
Written by Ruaidhri Lennon