Theatres, bars and museums: the state of the (Cork arts) nation

The lockdown has had a huge impact on the culture sector. Des O’Driscoll spoke to some of those running venues, galleries and theatres in Cork about the challenges they’ve faced, and what is going to happen in the future.
Theatres, bars and museums: the state of the (Cork arts) nation

The lockdown has had a huge impact on the culture sector.

Des O’Driscoll spoke to some of those running venues, galleries and theatres in Cork about the challenges they’ve faced, and what is going to happen in the future.

Crawford Art Gallery

Crawford director Mary McCarthy refers to Arundhati Roy’s piece in the Financial Times when the Indian author described the pandemic as a ‘portal’. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew, wrote Roy.

McCarthy believes this will particularly resonate in the world of art. Creative output may take new directions but there’s also a danger that work in progress from even just a few months ago will suddenly feel out of date. There is the fear that their projects post-Covid may not resonate as intended, says McCarthy.

The Crawford, which has rescheduled many of its events, is keeping a close eye on the experiences of galleries in countries such as Germany, and Austria which are now reopening.

"We are fortunate as we can learn much from the experience of others and there is a great sense of collaboration regarding current experiences. We are, after all, in this together," says McCarthy, who also praises the peer support between cultural organisations, both locally and nationally.

Unfortunately, finances have taken a hit in terms of losses in earned revenues from venue income, rentals, cafe rentals, bookshop sales, etc, but state support has remained intact. "The Government - via in our case the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht - have been very supportive and have worked with us to retain funding for staff, operations, online programmes, activities and programmes that are deferred.

As well as providing funds we have regular daily and weekly briefings with senior civil servants which has been very helpful

For now, exhibitions have been made available online. "We are also conscious that Crawford has become a family hub and with that in mind we have created specific activities through video and in downloadable formats to help families whilst at home.

Learn and Explore, the educational arm of the Gallery, have created help and resources for exam students and teachers as well as content for older and more vulnerable members of the public."

McCarthy is still in regular contact with artists, and says many of them are having a tough time at the moment. "Their income streams are always precarious and so many rely on exhibition fees to enable them make new works, or invigilation work to support their practice or workshop fees to support themselves. All of this is gone."

For the future, McCarthy is heartened by the fact that the Crawford is fairly spacious, and that galleries are natural environments for social distancing. Even if galleries do open as scheduled on July 20, there will be fewer collective gatherings, and in the longer term, the operational model may have to change.

"Like everyone in my sector, I am concerned about the public finances and how the arts and culture will feature in any new government department structure," says McCarthy.

"Uncertainty will be the new norm but we also know we are able to weather this. There is such a strong sense of collaboration and connectedness that we will all emerge with a new sense of our interdependence. I believe arts and culture will have a significant part to play if supported to help build a collective space to explore issues and ideas in the future."

Cork Opera House

With a capacity of about 1,000, Cork Opera House is the biggest permanent venue in the county. Planned shows for the likes of Rhod Gilbert, Leo Sayer, and Ian Brown have been rescheduled, but a huge blow to the programme was the cancellation of the summer musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“Our own productions are very much the jewel in our crown, and the postponement of a show like this affects a huge number of artists, crew, production staff and house staff, so that’s a very bitter pill to swallow.” says Ashley Keating, interim CEO.

If a show is cancelled outright the Opera House will be issuing refunds, but they are hoping to have the majority of shows rescheduled.

One of the issues that we’re having at the moment is that our building and box office is closed, which restricts how and who we can actually refund immediately

Keating welcomes the support from official bodies such as the Arts Council, and local councils, and says the recently-announced roadmap has helped with forward planning, even if the August 10 date for reopening is subject to change.

“We have two main concerns right now. Obviously a resurgence of the virus would mean reopening timelines would need to be re-looked at, creating further uncertainty.

“And the other main issue for venues and arts organisations across the board are the effects that social distance guidelines are going to have on audience numbers. If social distancing guidelines exist in their current form (2m distancing) from August on, a huge number of venues will be unable tore-open their doors.

"That’s not scare-mongering or being overly dramatic, but venues will just not be able to cope with the drastic reduction in capacity that the current guidelines bring. On current guidelines, you’re talking about a reduction of capacity in the order of more than 70% for venues, which can’t work.

“So I think we need clarification from the government in terms of what number restrictions and social distancing guidelines actually mean, and how long we’re going to be looking at them going forward. If we’re looking at massive capacity reduction across the board for a significant period of time, I think it’s no secret that a lot of venues will need some sort of subvention if they’re going to survive.”

Bar Venues: Cyprus Avenue, Coughlan’s, DeBarras

In Ireland, there is quite a crossover between gig venues and pubs, but recent proposals by the Vintners Federation of Ireland have been of little comfort for owners of such premises. "No live music or DJs," was one of the proposals from the representatives of a sector desperate to begin reopening. August 10 is the target date for bars to open again, but under strict social distancing guidelines.

Ger Kiely, owner of Cyprus Avenue, a 500-capacity venue that’s part of the Old Oak complex - has reservations about the feasiblity of gigs with social distancing. "Standing gigs would probably be out, and even seated gigs would be very limited. Your capacity would be way down, so individual ticket prices would become much more expensive.

And on the other side, many bands would still be very reluctant to travel. Touring costs for them would be going through the roof, so they’d have to try and recoup some of that through ticket prices. I can’t see how it’d work."

As private enterprises, bar venues don’t receive the type of state supports that other venues get, and Brian Hassett of Coughlan’s believes government would have to put a package in place to get venues like his back on their feet.

"Also, VAT rates will have to be looked at and if they put a restriction on capacity they will have to find a way to subside venues as otherwise it just won't make any sense to reopen," says Hassett.

He also has concerns that the need for social distancing will ruin the ambiance of venues.

Will people want to be in that environment, in a place where they can't be close to other people? So much of what makes a good venue is the atmosphere - can we recreate that atmosphere while social distancing?

Ray Blackwell of DeBarra’s in Clonakilty agrees that reduction in vat rates will be crucial, and praised the support shown by drinks suppliers, as well as the decision by the county council to waive commercial rates during the closure.

He also stressed the importance of helping customers feel safe again when restrictions are lifted. In DeBarras, they are already working on one-way ‘traffic’ plans for movement of customers, spacing tables, installing hand sanitisers, etc.

"Instilling confidence into our customers will be the big thing. The entire landscape will have changed as will social habits," says Blackwell.

Everyman Theatre

The Everyman, which has a capacity of 650, is Cork’s main venue for contemporary theatre. Among the casualties of lockdown was Sea Trilogy, an inhouse show comprised of three one-act operas that involved more than 80 people and was also due to go on a nationwide tour. Other big inhouse shows were productions of The Lonesome West and To The Lighthouse, which the Everyman is rescheduling.

The venue employs a team of about 25 people, a mixture of full and part-time, and so far has been able to retain all of them.

Artistic director Julie Kelleher welcomed the Arts Council decision to pay out about 90% of its annual grants as soon as the lockdown began, but even that still leaves a big shortfall in funding.

“The Everyman is a not for profit charity and 92% of our income comes from ticket sales,” says Kelleher. “This was taken away almost overnight which means we’re relying on the remaining 8% of our income — a mixture of donations and grants — to fund the entire organisation.

"We’ve been very moved by the response of our patrons to the crisis and their donelleher is also mindful that, even in the precarious world of Irish arts employmentations have been a huge support but we’re facing huge challenges at the moment.” Freelancers are especially vulnerable, and she says the Everyman is doing its best to honour their fees or reschedule their events to a later date.

Artists and freelance workers in the creative industries are the original hustlers — they’re used to being flexible, to adapting quickly, bringing creativity and imagination to bear on learning new skills.

“But this is a whole new level of uncertainty, and I know there are days when, for many, it is overwhelming.” Like other venue managers, she welcomes the government’s plans to move towards reopening in August, even if the details of that have to be fully worked out.

“With the government roadmap in place, we’re in a better position to make plans for our re-opening. Since we’ve all moved our offices home, we’re all working to tackle the multitude of questions that need answering.

“Top of mind for us is the safety and comfort of our audiences, staff and visiting companies, so we’re looking at changes to systems across the board. We also have to consider whether it’s feasible for us to operate under whatever those conditions might look like. There’s a lot of work to be done!”

Glucksman Gallery, UCC

Fiona Kearney is director of the Glucksman Gallery at UCC. As well as the cancellation of various exhibitions, and a major project for Cork Midsummer Festival, Kearney is also concerned about the work the gallery has been doing with vulnerable communities such as Travellers and refugees.

Since the Glucksman closed, they’ve been busy with virtual events:

“Our Creativity At Home series of online activities started as soon as we had to close the gallery. We’ve had fantastic engagement from Irish audiences, but also people taking part from all over the world. The video tutorials and activity sheets are now featured on the RTÉ Home School Hub so hopefully, even more people will access these creative ideas.

In early April, we launched Home from Home a new online initiative that invited Irish artists to respond to the COVID 19 restrictions. The project is intended as a way to bring insight into the extraordinary and global situation of being confined to home during the pandemic. The artists vary in their responses from intimate sketches of domestic space to exploratory studies of wildlife and comic insights into parenting at home.” How has revenue been affected?

“The closure of our building meant a complete collapse in income from cafe, retail, gallery hire and education. This is being offset by a reduction in production budgets for now, but it is a huge challenge to plan for next year given the uncertainty about what might be required for safe public access.

“UCC, Arts Council and philanthropic funding continue to support our education and artistic programmes, many of which we have been able to continue online. The arts sector needs investment to enable us to deal with the many issues that arise out of this new normal developing innovative online content, ensuring health and safety in the workplace, enabling research and development of programmes so that there will be new content on the other side!” How are artists faring?

“Some artists are able to continue to practice but for many it is not possible to do this in isolation. Artists work collaboratively and in studios to create their work and so there is a real concern about the lack of production, as well of course, as the lack of fees and income due to events and programmes being cancelled.” Longer-term concerns?

“The impact of social distancing on our ability to produce and present work, the long-term impact on human behaviour and how as a public space we will have to accommodate that and of course, the concern for the health and wellbeing of artists and audiences throughout the ongoing pandemic.”

Part 2 on Monday: Triskel Arts Centre and the man behind Live at St Luke’s

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