Lorna Siggins: Galway learns that being Capital of Culture is an art form

The resignation of the creative director, funding shortfalls, rebranding, and extra public relations costs have added to the drama, writes Lorna Siggins

A fireworks display in Tuam as part of Galway 2020’s Fire Tour that will culminate in the official Galway 2020 opening ceremony in South Park, Galway tomorrow. Picture: Ray Ryan
A fireworks display in Tuam as part of Galway 2020’s Fire Tour that will culminate in the official Galway 2020 opening ceremony in South Park, Galway tomorrow. Picture: Ray Ryan

Galway 2020 creative director, Helen Marriage, has described herself as a “weather witch,” so this weekend’s forecast may not cost her any sleep. Hail, rain, or whatever Storm Ciara has to offer, the city will mark the formal opening of its European Capital of Culture programme with light, fire, drums and music, and one enormous sigh of relief.

There’s an open invitation for thousands of people to swarm into the Claddagh’s South Park (known locally as ‘the Swamp’), for the big party. Wellington boots are advised and President Michael D Higgins will be guest of honour. Should conditions prove too challenging on Saturday evening, the event license extends to Sunday.

Live music, pyrotechnics, and seven giant, glowing orbs, representing county and city communities, will light up the coastal rim during the hour-long ceremony, between 6pm and 7pm. A new work by celebrated Irish language poet Louis de Paor will be premiéred, voiced by Olwen Fouére, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Stephen Rea, Naisrín Elsafty, and Caitlín Ní Chualáin.

Event hosts, Wonder Works, veterans of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games, in London and Rio de Janeiro, respectively, have billed it as a “large-scale, dramatic explosion of sound and vision.”

Finnish artist Kari Kola hopes to be among the throng, sporting what he describes as “the longest beard you will ever have seen.”

Kola roars laughing at Irish obsessions with weather: his home is within the Arctic Circle. He is planning one of the programme’s first major events, an illumination of Lough na Fooey, in Connemara, during St Patrick’s Day festivities, from March 14 to 17.

Kola, whose project is called Savage Beauty, developed his obsession with light in a land where winter sun is fleeting, has illuminated the UNESCO Stonehenge site and Finland’s sacred Saana mountain, among some 2,500 such projects. He and his team have scoped out Lough na Fooey, the glacial lake central to the Joyce Country and Western Lakes geopark, for some 1,000 LED light fixtures and seven high-powered blue beams.

“It will be a big, panoramic picture, contrasting blue and green on the landscape, with nature providing the sound,” he told he Irish Examiner. “And the lack of light pollution in this area makes it all the more special.” Galway 2020 chief executive, Patricia Philbin, who was seconded from Galway City Council to head up the project, in October 2018, has been delighted with the turnout for this week’s build-up in the county, starting in Clifden last Sunday night.

“It’s lovely to see how proud people are to represent their communities,” she says. This week, National Geographic Traveller was the latest international publication to put Galway on the tourism map for this year.

The superlatives from foreign publications have been in contrast to the national and local headlines generated by Galway 2020 since the resignation of its first creative director, Chris Baldwin, in late May 2018.

Soothing noises from Europe that this is the “norm” in cultural capital projects have cut no ice in a city already brimming with expertise, developed over decades by groups like Druid, Macnas, Branar, Blue Teapot, Music for Galway, and the international arts festival.

At the time of Philbin’s appointment, 21 leading arts groups were so concerned that they sought an urgent meeting with the chief executives of both Galway city and county councils. The artists were seriously worried about a loss of creative vision, funding shortfalls, poor communication, and other issues.

Over the past 18 months, Philbin and her team, including Helen Marriage, from British company Artichoke, have sought to generate a more positive image. Notwithstanding, the project has continued to generate its own, long-running drama.

Funding earmarked for bid-book projects was cut, and the project has failed to generate an anticipated €7m in private sponsorship; €0.5m is in the bank, with the balance of around €2m promised “in kind.”

Money has been spent on rebranding, additional public relations, audience monitoring (a €200,000 contract), and other ancillaries, and Galway 2020 employs 40 staff, including several seconded from the city council. It is anticipated that media partnerships will help to create stunning images on camera.

Full details of the financial breakdown have not been made public, as the vehicle established to run Galway 2020 is registered as a private company, limited by guarantee. Yet, as Connacht Tribune arts editor Judy Murphy has pointed out, there is a requirement for more transparency and accountability when the bulk of the funding committed, as in €25m, is coming from the State.

Late last month, a bid by Galway city manager, Brendan McGrath, to secure city councillors’ sanction for an extra €2.5m, on top of €6m already committed, backfired, due to lack of financial detail.

The list of “additional” projects for the city that was circulated to councillors appeared to duplicate projects already listed in last September’s programme. A second attempt to secure the councillors’ agreement will be made at the next council meeting, on Monday.

Had it been handled differently, one of the promised extra events could be generating far more positive news. Chinese dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Law of the Journey’ involves a 70-metre inflatable lifeboat, bearing 250 sculptures of men, women, and children.

Galway’s dearth of arts infrastructure had been a key reason it lost to Cork the 2005 European capital of culture designation. One of the commitments made by Galway 2020 to the Department of Culture is to create a “legacy,” but there is a sense it will be more ephemeral.

The current “legacy” for the slightly war-weary artistic community is a sense that its own local authority could not trust it to handle the capital of culture.

As Murphy says, there is no shortage of experience and professionalism, and “if artists in Galway had been given €25m of the €39m budget for the European Capital of Culture, the spend could have included both a much-needed permanent piece of arts infrastructure and an impressive programme.”

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