Galway 2020: Culture wars in the City of the Tribes

It’s “showtime” in Galway all year round, but it won’t need a European capital of culture badge to draw thousands to its film fleadh and arts festival over the next three weeks.

Among those who recognise that is Donegal-born restaurateur and designer Aoibheann McNamara, already looking ahead to next year when the city assumes the coveted European title, along with Rijeka in Croatia.

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In her view, it’s “unbelievable” that a budget of around €30m for Galway’s much-vaunted European cultural capital programme – Galway 2020 in short – will be spent, leaving “no new physical art space afterwards for your child or my child…”

She cites as an example the fact that Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) has to hunt around for a visual arts gallery every few years, borrowing buildings from developers and newspaper owners and suchlike.

This year’s free visual arts exhibition by artists Aideen Barry, Annlin Chao, Sarah Hickson, Sam Jinks and Alice Maher will take place in a disused An Post building, formerly the location of a cinema, then an ice rink and then a petrol station. It is expected to cost the festival the guts of €60,000 to fit it out – for all of two weeks.

“It is fantastically exciting to transform a space that has a different history and memory, and re-imagine it,” arts festival artistic director Paul Fahy says. “It is also a way of enticing people in to see what type of visual art gallery we have created.

“However, I do think it is a shame that given Galway’s great cultural identity that it is so poorly served with a contemporary art space that can serve artists as well as the public,” Fahy adds, noting that Galway 2020 has, in some ways, “taken the spotlight off” the lack of infrastructure.

McNamara’s voice is significant, given that she accommodated the capital of culture selection panel which eventually chose Galway in 2016 over the other shortlisted cities of Limerick and the “three sisters” of Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford. Her confidence in the project was shaken by the limbo created after the resignation of artistic director Chris Baldwin in May last year.

In the following months, there were more resignations and many negative headlines, as city councillors, already stung by cost overruns on infrastructure such as the Eyre Square refurbishment, a bus lane, and the arthouse cinema, demanded answers.

Galway City Council chief executive Brendan McGrath, who has invested his reputation in the project, sought to ease concerns with promises of a boost to bed-nights and tourism. This cut only so much ice in a city already heaving with visitors, where escalating rents have forced artists out into the county, and where homelessness, housing, traffic, lack of adequate public transport and overstretched public health services are all burning issues.

At the same time, Galway is also one of four global medtech hubs, a base for the State’s marine research fleet and institute, and its third-level institutions generate substantial direct and indirect revenue. It also has its own construction boom, with new city centre schemes under way by developer Gerry Barrett, and rich-list magnates such as the Comer brothers having a substantial property footprint.

‘Trumpian adjectives’

When the summer arts and horse racing festivals start, tourism interests will make much hay, rain or shine. It’s all part of a dynamic encapsulated by Rita Ann Higgins in two poems about 2020, the first which was actually commissioned by the project and gives the name to her latest collection, Our Killer City.

“I see all the headlines now with all these Trumpian adjectives about 2020 being “fantastic” and “spectacular”, but I think a lot of people would welcome a meaningful event, one with a legacy such as a public art gallery or music school building, and one which didn’t make such a thunderous noise,” Higgins says.

“These references to 2020 ‘transporting Galway on to a world stage’ are a bit insulting, given that artists here did that years ago. It all seems to be part of a focus, reflected also by government here, in treating art as a product, rather than as people with a craft and a call,” she says.

Galway poet Mary O’Malley, also a member of Aosdána, is likewise not convinced. “Poems and books are written by individuals, paintings, sculpture and installations are conceived and carried out by individuals, so it seems very odd that Galway 2020 seems to be only interested in dealing with organisations, when there are huge amounts of public money being spent on what deems itself to be about ‘culture’ in Galway,” O’Malley says.

“I understand that the whole show is now mainly being run from London, but, still, I’d have thought it only manners to contact the artists and writers from the place you are claiming, at great public expense, to represent.”

London-based theatre company Artichoke took over Galway 2020’s creative lead last January, when theatre and film producer Arthur Lappin became chairman, complementing the project’s second chief executive Patricia Philbin. It changed the mood music. Artichoke co-founder Helen Marriage and development director Sarah Coop present a formidable team, and an impressed McNamara senses “a transition to a different, international Galway where everyone can shine”.

McNamara does believe, however, that a little more “selective leaking” of the Galway 2020 programme in advance of its promised publication in mid-September would be no bad thing. She believes more people would be reassured if they knew some of the elements, including a light up of Connemara, and work such as that relating to the Tuam mother and babies home.

Arts groups, some of whom had to refashion projects which they had invested considerable time on to suit budget cuts, are now said to be “exhausted, relieved and now in a positive space”. One practitioner compared it to “emerging from accident and emergency unscathed”.

However, the groups are constrained from discussing projects in detail. During a Galway 2020 rebranding last November, they were given briefing documents with answers to questions they might be asked by the public. It sparked some outrage, but reflected what some artists still believe to be a lack of transparency and a tendency to “blame the press which is doing its job”.

Responding to this, Galway 2020 says it is committed to “acting at all times with the highest levels of transparency and integrity”, and works closely with and engages regularly with the media and has the “utmost respect for the work” it does.

Galway Film Fleadh managing director Miriam Allen acknowledges the budget cuts, averaging between 30-40pc, took their toll.

“That was my biggest issue with 2020, but after the nastiness of that was out of the way, I have found Galway 2020 to be extremely helpful, and if there is any problem, they are there to help us solve it,” Allen says.

Druid Theatre Company’s artistic director Garry Hynes, who had to pull the company’s major project with 2020 early last October when it became apparent there would not be funding for it, confirmed this week that the company is working on a new project.

“We are actively engaged with 2020 and fully intending to be part of the programme,” Hynes told Review, speaking during a break this week from arts festival production rehearsals.

Helen Marriage, who has a record of developing spectacular outdoor events in Salisbury, Durham, London and more, says the details published in September won’t represent the “entire event”, as programming is still continuing for some international acts.

“We will have lots of headlines to announce through 2020,” she says.

Galway International Arts Festival, which hosted a presentation with artist John Gerrard in the Irish Embassy in London on its plans, has had to trim its budget for Gerrard’s “mirrored pavilion” in the Claddagh, which will then transfer to Connemara later next summer.

High-wire project

Current issues will be addressed, Marriage says, such as the high rate of suicide along the banks of the River Corrib. One project, Wires Crossed, involves Galway Community Circus and a number of international partners training up to 440 people in high-wire walking across the Corrib and Claddagh Basin.

“It’s subtitled ‘A Balancing Act for Europe’,” Marriage says, but it will also focus on physical and mental well-being and social inclusion. She stresses that the programme is not just about large projects, with the ‘Small Towns, Big Ideas’ strand having confirmed 27 new projects this past week.

Some 70 of these community-based initiatives across the city and county will be funded by up to €500,000.

Caught between the big acts, and the community projects, some individual artists have felt excluded, as O’Malley points out. There is little mention – yet – of the significant digital element to the programme which Europe was seeking.

Early this year, a group of independent theatre artists also formed their own collective, Theatre 57, to address the “challenges and benefits” of independent art in Galway, with the aim of lobbying the city council for a cultural hub.

Marriage acknowledges that new and permanent infrastructure has been an ongoing issue, in spite of Galway City Council’s 10-year strategy to address this. It won’t come out of her budget, but she hopes that the 2020 experience may give an impetus to “partnerships which will realise this ambition”.

She also believes the multimillion euro shortfall in private sponsorship will be resolved, as the project will prove “irresistible” to businesses, not just in Galway but beyond. “This designation does not come back to Ireland until 2033 or after,” she points out.

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, meanwhile, has appointed Dr Moling Ryan as a new representative on the 2020 board to replace Declan McGonagle, who stood down recently for personal reasons.

The department says it continues to work with and regularly meets the Galway 2020 company and board, as part of a performance delivery agreement related to the €15m in State funding. It says the minister is seeking an update on progress next week.

Galway city and county councils are also supporters, with €6m from the city – over €2m of which has been spent – and €4m from the county council.

Artichoke’s Sarah Coop, charged with the daunting task of raising €7m in private funds with only months to go, says that some €4.5m worth of pitches have been made to companies, and over 135 meetings have taken place with potential partners and sponsors.

A “business club” which planned to collect sums of €2,020 from over 2,000 businesses and €8,080 from larger companies has been refashioned, with the focus now on the smaller sums. Some 24 sponsors have been confirmed as part of this, she says. Galway 2020 says that a combination of cash and in-kind support is being sought. It also says it is delighted that some of the cultural partners have secured Creative Europe funding.

Coop says there is one big sponsor at “contract stage”, which is currently with legal teams. She hopes this one big fish will pull in more. “We’ll be fundraising right throughout next year,” she adds.

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