Solas Nua is a multi-disciplinary arts organisation that presents Irish arts in Washington, DC. Founded in 2005 by Linda Murray, originally as a theater company, its first production, Disco Pigs, introduced Enda Walsh to Washington, and was later remounted Off-Broadway at 59E59. Solas Nua is not bound by four walls, but rather works in a multitude of site-specific spaces, each carefully chosen to suit the content of the work. This nomadic style allows the organisation to be versatile and flexible, and, while at times challenging, bringing work to unlikely locations lends a certain fluidity.
Work has been presented in partner theatres, galleries, bookshops, bars, churches, car parks, a floating pier, the great outdoors, a swimming pool and of course the boundless virtual space of the digital realm. Not being burdened with the weight and responsibilities of a venue certainly had its advantages during the countless lockdowns of the pandemic.
While mostly known for its site-specific theatre programming – led by Artistic Director of Theatre, Rex Daugherty – in recent years Solas Nua has expanded into more multidisciplinary work, becoming known locally for commissioning, producing and presenting work in all disciplines throughout the year. The Capital Irish Film Festival (CIFF), produced by Solas Nua, has been running almost as long as the organisation. CIFF is an annual event that brings together viewers and filmmakers to celebrate new Irish film.
The visual arts programme, run for many years by Irish visual artist and curator Jackie Hoysted, has had major exhibitions at many galleries, including recently at the Katzen Museum at American University. Recent work includes exhibitions with Alice Maher and Aideen Barry, curated by Tina Kinsella in 2019, and Brian Maguire in 2020. Visual artists in residence have included Nevan Lahart and Sean Lynch. The literature programme has brought writers and poets such as Jan Carson, Kevin Barry, Lucy Caldwell, Sally Rooney and Anne Clarke to DC, and collaborations have been undertaken with the Stinging Fly, Tramp Press, Poetry Ireland, Holy Show, and Fallow Media.
I joined Solas Nua in 2020 as Executive Director. I’ve been pleased to lead the team through a big moment of change, which was of course made more challenging by the pandemic. The organisation had been voluntarily led by a hard-working board who did everything from fundraising to programming. I was asked to restructure the organisation and since 2020, the board has focused mostly on governance; we have doubled our budgets and have rebranded; we now have 2.5 staff and are just about to hire a contractor to run the film festival; and we now have a longer-term programming vision and strategy.
On the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s great modernist novel, Ulysses, our programme considers the profound influence that great early-twentieth-century works continue to have on contemporary Ireland, and the many artists that call Ireland home. This year’s programme touches on themes of movement and place throughout. In a newly commissioned work, Yes and Yes (2022), choreographer Liz Roche explores themes in Ulysses through dance and the body; issues of immigration arise in a modern-day retelling of The Playboy of the Western World; and the exhibition ‘The Space We Occupy’ considers our place and tenuous relationship with Earth.
I’ve heard more than once from Irish visual artists living and working in the US that they feel increasingly disconnected from the Irish arts sector and have few formal connections with their Irish peers in seeking opportunities to show their work at home. Shipping costs are exorbitant and not many funding streams are available to bring work in the opposite direction – from the US to Ireland. Knowledge and understanding of the Irish visual arts sector in the US are still developing; the perception remains that the performing arts and literature are the dominant art forms in Ireland. As a curator and director of an organisation, I’m interested in finding ways to keep lines of communication open for artists in Ireland and Irish artists living in the US, through residencies, partnerships, exchanges and of course, funding opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic.
From 2020-22 I was visual arts curator-in-residence at the Irish Arts Center in New York, bringing two new shows to the US. ‘The Space We Occupy’ (featuring artworks by Neil Carroll, Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Colin Crotty, Katie Holten, Fiona Kelly and George Bolster) was the inaugural exhibition in the new Irish Arts Center building, representing the depth and breadth of contemporary visual art being made in Ireland today and by the many Irish artists who call the US home. At the time of writing, Maud Cotter’s solo exhibition, ‘a consequence of ~’ has just opened. It presents a body of work developed from 2015, through exhibitions in Limerick City Gallery of Art, The Dock, and the Hugh Lane Gallery.
While there is no dedicated gallery space at the new Irish Arts Centre, most of Maud’s work is installed in their stunning new flexible theatre space. If this large black box space can be offered annually to the visual arts, it promises to be a really valuable opportunity for artists to present their work in New York, outside of the white cube and with support from a long-established arts organisation and the Irish government. While Maud’s show is opening in New York, ‘The Space We Occupy’ is on its way with Solas Nua to Washington, DC, to occupy the spectacular Whittle School and Studios (9 – 31 July 2022). Formerly used as the US headquarters of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat), the building is known for its futuristic, high-tech, environmentally conscious and energy saving architecture.
It’s important that not only does Solas Nua present work in diverse and interesting spaces, but that we also offer opportunities to make new work, through residencies and commissions. Earlier this year we launched the Norman Houston Project in memory of Northern Ireland Bureau’s former Director, Norman Houston, who died last year. This two-pronged project offers an award to a short film from Northern Ireland at CIFF, plus a residency and commission of new work to an artist selected from an open call. As recipient of the 2022 commission, visual artist Niamh McCann, is currently spending six weeks in DC, and we eagerly look forward to her return next year to present the commissioned work.
Miranda Driscoll is Executive Director of Solas Nua.