The first major contemporary visual art exhibition, The National Fine Art Competition and Exhibition was held in the gym of St. Colman’s College in 1978 as part of that year’s Ham Festival. Having proposed the idea of a major contemporary art exhibition at several festival meetings Johnny Kirrane was asked to form a sub-committee and with his wife Angela, St. Mary Queally, Michael Ronayne and Sean Fitzpatrick founded the Claremorris Arts Committee.   Encouraged by a large prize fund one hundred and twenty five artists submitted works for the first exhibition of which thirty-five were selected. Two of the country’s leading artists, Camille Souter and Vivienne Roche shared the first prize of £500 ensuring widespread national publicity for the exhibition.

In 1978 there was only one art gallery in Connaught and that was in Galway. It was unheard of for professional artists to exhibit outside the cities. The committee invited two professional artists John Behan and Hugh McCormick and an art critic, John Fitzmaurice-Mills to adjudicate the first exhibition and both the artists joined and guided the committee in its early years. One of the first innovations was a change of name and in 1980 when it became The Claremorris Open Exhibition (COE).

Each year a different adjudicator is asked to select the show. He or she is given full responsibility for the exhibition selected. Adjudicators/Curators have been drawn from The British Council, The Arts Councils of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, the British Press (Sunday Times, Observer, Daily Telegraph) and from major British and European Galleries.

As a result of having their works  appraised by international curators a number of artists who have submitted to COE have been invited to exhibit abroad. Many internationally known Irish artists have been exhibited at COE and because it is an open submission exhibition, lesser known artists have an increased chance of having their work shown.  Over the years many local people and businesses have bought art works from the various exhibitions that have increased in value.

The exhibition has brought distinction to the county and the town of Claremorris.  The Arts Council of Northern Ireland brought the exhibition to Belfast in 1986 and in 1992 it went to Sligo and Belfast.  In 1996 the exhibition was brought to Wrexham, a suburb of Newcastle in Northumberland which is twinned with County Mayo.  The exhibition has featured in all the local and national media, on both RTE Radio and TV, BBC, UTV and a special two page feature in McGill Magazine. The author Dermot Healy, who was short-listed for the Booker Prize once said that when he went to live in Belfast in the mid-eighties, he was amazed to hear a group of artists discussing what they were sending to a major exhibition in what he considered to be the back end of Ireland; County Mayo – that was the first time he had heard of Claremorris.

As well as the major show in September, the committee organise a number of solo exhibitions annually. These have highlighted the works of nationally known and local, aspiring artists and have been hugely successful.

Following a professional appraisal funded by The Arts Council in 1997, the exhibition was re-launched and continues in a new format which along with painting, print and sculpture accepts proposals for video, installations and site-specific works.   This brought art on to the streets of the town and introduced it to a new, if sometimes relutant, audience.

The committee is supported by Arts Council of Ireland, The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Mayo Co. Council along with national and local businesses and patrons. There is also huge help in kind from the people of Claremorris who annually provide sites and spaces to host the exhibition.

Summing up Gill Hedley, Director of the Contemporary Arts Society in London, said “It is a remarkable institution which flourishes because of the quality of its artists and its supporters.”

The committee is Johnny Kirrane, Kay Brennan, Jarlath Burke, Maria Creighton, Nuala Dalton, Eileen Gleeson, Edward Sweeney, Anne McLoughlin, Marayade O Brien, Nina Warde, Mary Rennick, and Pat Gleeson.