The first ladies of Cork arts

From running venues to managing festivals, numerous women are front and centre in the cultural life of the Rebel county. Ellie O’Byrne spoke to some them about progress and challenges

The first ladies of Cork arts

Mary McCarthy

Director of the Crawford Art Gallery since 2018

“When I worked in Cork in the Nineties, there were very few women in senior positions in cultural institutions and festivals. There’s been a massive change in a short period of time. The number of women in leadership positions now is a fantastic opportunity; I think it’s really important to have gender diversity in the workplace. Women and men approach things slightly differently and I think a balance in organisations, and in teams, is really important.

“I think a necessary rebalancing across all professions is happening for women who didn’t have the opportunity before, be that because of training opportunities, the marriage ban, or the issue of experience. But I think it’s really important that we stay open to it all being about who’s the best person for the job.”

Mary McCarthy grew up in Skibbereen, studied arts administration and worked in galleries in New York. She served as deputy director of Cork Capital of Culture 2005, cultural manager of Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and as board member of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). Prior to her appointment with the Crawford, she was director of the National Sculpture Factory.

Julie Kelleher

Artistic Director of The Everyman Theatre since 2014

“When the crash happened in 2008, the Arts Council stopped funding the company structure in theatre.

“Over 20 companies have evaporated from our collective consciousness and the theatre landscape has been irrevocably changed, and I would say damaged, as a result. In the 15 years I’ve been working, that’s the biggest change I’ve lived through. After that, Waking The Feminists has been the biggest shift, for me included.

“Earlier in my career, my focus was on figuring out how to make more parts for women, specifically thinking about actors and representations of female lives on the stage and not thinking as much about female writers and directors.

“It was a real moment, to discover that actually, you weren’t quite woken up.”

Julie Kelleher has an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies from UCC. Having worked with theatre companies including Meridian and Playgroup, as well as for festivals including Dublin Theatre Festival, she was the Everyman’s youngest ever artistic director at her appointment. She was Cork spokesperson for the National Campaign For the Arts in the lead-up to the recent general election.

Fiona Clark

CEO of Cork InternationalFilm Festival since 2016

“Eight festivals signed up to the ‘50:50 By 2020’ pledge in Cannes last year and we were one of the first; we pledged to achieve 50:50 gender parity by the end of 2020.

“We’re not commissioning or making work, so we can only take what’s available to us at the end of the food chain. That said, we can take a pro-active approach to looking for work by emerging filmmakers and to setting out our stall with production companies that we’re looking for those voices.

“My grandmother, Joy Clark, travelled across the Sahara on the back of a camel in the 1920s, travelled around India and Europe, and did all sorts of things that women of that time often didn’t do. I think she’s probably my role model: she was adventurous, not afraid to be different, and very knowledgeable.”

Fiona Clark was born in Ecuador and lived in various countries as a child with a father working in the energy sector. She studied English and Drama at Bristol University before founding her own theatre company and working as CEO of London’s Bush Theatre. She moved to Ireland with her Cork-born husband and worked at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin before her Cork International Film Festival appointment.

Ann Davoren. File photo
Ann Davoren. File photo

Ann Davoren

Director of Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre since 2001

“To go from a national cultural institution to a regional arts centre was a big change but my work at IMMA was focused on community engagement and so is my work here: it’s about access to the arts for the people of West Cork. I think it’s harder for women in rural areas in general to have access to a range of experiences, but West Cork is full of artists, filmmakers, contemporary dancers, craftspeople of all kind, both male and female, and is quite different to other rural areas.

“It’s important for girls to have role models so they can see what’s possible. For me, it would have been Mary Robinson: she was elected while I was in UCD and it just felt like something extremely important had happened, at a pivotal time in my own formation.”

Ann Davoren is a graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design. She taught art at secondary level before completing an arts administration diploma in UCD. She was curator in education and community at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) for ten years before moving to West Cork to take up her post with Uillinn West Cork Arts.

Eibhlín Gleeson

CEO of Cork Opera House since 2015

“The ripples of the Waking The Feminists movement that started five years ago penetrated the entire arts industry and made us all look inwards. It was a wake-up call for me too: the work that was done at the time was extremely important and I really believe there’s still a huge amount to do.

“I’m 32 weeks pregnant now, and I have a 15-month-old too. Motherhood is a hugely personal journey for any woman, and a massive juggling act. It’s very challenging to combine with holding down this job, but I think it makes me more determined to do it well, and much more direct and focused in my approach.”

Eibhlín Gleeson did an MA in arts administration in NUIG and worked at festivals and in venues in Edinburgh before becoming chief executive of Chamber Choir Ireland at 26. She completed a year-long fellowship in arts management at the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts and programmed St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House while in the US. She was General Manager at the Opera House and moved into the CEO role when her predecessor, Mary Hickson, left.

Left row, from back: Mary McCarthy, Mary Hickson, Fiona Clark, Eibhlín Gleeson; centre, Julie Kelleher, Fin Flynn, Lorraine Maye; right, Mary McGrath. Picture: Clare Keogh
Left row, from back: Mary McCarthy, Mary Hickson, Fiona Clark, Eibhlín Gleeson; centre, Julie Kelleher, Fin Flynn, Lorraine Maye; right, Mary McGrath. Picture: Clare Keogh

Lorraine Maye

Director of Cork Midsummer Festival since 2018

“I think every arts organisation is thinking about gender balance, but being a woman, you definitely feel a responsibility to make sure things are balanced so people are represented equally. The only way I can ensure I’m giving people an equal platform is to count, so I do. We’ve committed to gender balance over five years; some years the programme may skew one way or another but over a five-year period it should work out 50:50.”

“I’ve heard it from people coming in behind me in arts administration that it’s helpful to see so many women at the head of these organisations. When I was starting out, that wasn’t the case. You have to see it to be it, as the saying goes: I wouldn’t have felt at any particular disadvantage, but it wasn’t as accessible in terms of seeing a path as it is now.”

Lorraine Maye is originally from Galway and did a postgraduate diploma in arts administration in NUIG, before working at festivals including Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Culture Night in Dublin. She was festival manager at Midsummer Festival from 2013.

Mary Hickson

Curator of Sounds From A Safe Harbour Festival since 2015

“Most of my work is in the US and continental Europe. I can’t say I’ve found anywhere in particular to be more progressive than Cork when it comes to women’srepresentation in the arts. Having said that, as the woman leading these projects, I can’t say I ever feel like I’m treated differently because of my gender.

“I’m in the fortunate position that my children live in a house where my career is equally prioritised; my husband supports my unpredictable work demands. Our children see the equality between us, and we hope that this instils a sense of empowerment and possibility in them.

By the time our children are working professionals I’d like to seecomplete gender blindness. Ultimately, I’d love to see the topic off the table.”

Mary Hickson, from Fermoy, studied music at UCC and completed a Masters at the University of Limerick before becoming the manager of contemporary music group Crash Ensemble. Five years as CEO of Cork Opera House coincided with her founding Sounds From a Safe Harbour (SFSH) festival. She also produces a global series of music events inspired by SFSH’s ethos called The PEOPLE Project.

Fiona Kearney

Director of the Glucksman gallery at UCC since 2003

“When I started at the National Sculpture Factory on a CE placement in 1996, I started at the same time as Valerie Byrne, now director of the National Sculpture Factory and Nathalie Weadick, now director of the Irish Architecture Foundation. I was incredibly lucky to get that placement: that peer female support was really important. It had been just one job and the director, Nora Norton, created three jobs to support us. It was really visionary of her to help us find this pathway where there was none.

“At that time, major monographic shows around the world were mostly about male art. Yet we had his extraordinary group of female artists all coming through Cork: Vivienne Roche, Maud Cotter, Alice Maher. I don’t know what was going on in this city, but there always people ahead of me to look at and inspire me.”

Following an undergraduate degree in philosophy and French in UCC, Fiona Kearney completed an MPhil in Text and Image at Trinity College Dublin. She became programme co-ordinator for the National Sculpture Factory. Then she was involved in the design of the award-winning Lewis Glucksman museum in the grounds of UCC, where she is director to this day. She was a member of the Arts Council from 2009-2014, and sits on the boards of organisations including the Irish Architecture Foundation and Cork Midsummer Festival.

Fin Flynn

Company Manager with Corcadorca Theatre Company since 2003

“I think there’s much more balance now that theatre companies have looked at their gender policy when it comes to working with artists and designers and creative people and I think that’s all really positive.

“If I look back, I’m not sure there ever was an imbalance in Corcadorca, to be honest. A lot of the designers we’ve worked with as a company down through the years have been female; I don’t know if we had to make any radical shift. It’s good to be conscious of it, but in reality, there’s so much quality out there at the moment that it’s not like you struggle to stick to a gender quota.

“I never had any specific female role model myself, because we were always just kind of forging our own path inCorcadorca, but in theatre, Anne Clarke from Landmark Productions hasachieved a huge amount independently and I think that’s completely admirable.”

Fin Flynn is from Cork. She worked in financial services and PR before joining Corcadorca on a community employment scheme in 1994. She fulfilledvarious roles within the company before becoming company manager in 2003.

Mary McGrath

Artistic Director of FirstCut Youth Film Festival in Youghal since 2009

“I worked in business for a long time, back when all the managers were male. You might be two women amongst eight men, and your voice wasn’t paid attention to. I still come across it, to be honest. I’ve even been at meetings for the film festival where I’ve been asked to take notes. So is it there? By God, it’s still there.

“When we started with an open call to young people to learn about filmmaking, there was heavy male dominance in terms of applications: about three quarters were guys. I was very aware of the issue. Now, it’s tilted the other way and we’re trying to keep the balance in the other direction. This year we have great films made by female directors. It’s not an effort to balance the programme because of the quality of films coming in.”

Mary McGrath is from Cloyne. With a background in teaching and community development, she founded Youghal’s youth film festival after compiling a report for SECAD local partnership called Where Do You Go When You Go Out? that highlighted the need for youth arts resources in East Cork.

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