It really will be a case of "all changed, changed utterly" when Belfast's biggest multi-purpose arts centre re-opens its doors on 2 September.

For MAC director Anne McReynolds says it can't be as-you-were for arts centres in the era of Covid.

"We can't do anything the way we used to," she said. "For a start, we can't bring theatre back at all because it just can't work with social distancing rules. However, we are going to fully utilise our lovely spacious galleries and the fantastic open-plan space we have on the ground floor. We now realise what great assets they are."

PERMANENT PRESENT: The atrium of the MAC with Mark Garry's artwork dedicated to Thomas Devlin
PERMANENT PRESENT: The atrium of the MAC with Mark Garry's artwork dedicated to Thomas Devlin

Additionally, the MAC plans to expand out into St Anne's Square, creating a partial covering to shield patrons from unpredictable Irish climes. "Our entire programme was thrown up in the air when the lockdown came in March," says Anne, "but we are returning with hope and optimism. Our message to those who love the arts is, 'come back to support us, we will ensure your safety is always our priority'."

110 staff, part-time and full-time across a range of fields, were employed at the arts powerhouse when it closed and most have availed of the government furlough payments. But not all will be guaranteed employment when the centre re-opens. "Our intention is to save as many jobs as possible," says Anne. 

The centre is accessing capital funds from the Department of Communities to redesign spaces and enable social distancing. "Being shut has been a nightmare for all of us so we don't want to be closed a second longer than is absolutely necessary," adds Anne. "We have built a great brand and customer base here and we will not give that away lightly so we know we have to get the doors open again."

When the MAC closed, its galleries were showing a mammoth exhibition 'Songs and the Soil' by Mark Garry, the Dublin artist who created the permanent artwork 'Permanent Present' in the Mac in memory of murdered teenager Thomas Devlin. The exhibition, which also includes a major film work 'An Lucht Siúil' on the Travelling community, will be the key attraction when the MAC reopens. 

"Come back, support us, trust us," adds Anne. "The arts have always been central to the recovery journey here and will be again." 

That connection to the wider Covid fightback will be evident when a gallery at the re-opening is given over to rainbow posters honouring healthcare workers.