IN your columnist’s previous life, he worked in Leinster House: Admitting same in social circles often got a response along the lines of, “That crowd (ungrammatical cursing, a few physical impossibilities, various calumnies)... So I do. That’s why I never vote.”
I never felt the urge to defend the democratic process, as the speaker had usually articulated in their outburst exactly why he or she didn’t deserve to participate in it.
But as a general rule your right to complain about any system runs on a parallel track with your engagement with that system. All of which functions as a warm-up to an initiative being run by Cork City Council.
On the local authority’s website a notice reads: “The Arts Office of Cork City Council encourages and supports arts and cultural activity within the city... To help us with our thinking and planning, we would like to understand more about what people think and feel about arts and culture in Cork City now and to gather their hopes and ideas for the future.”
A survey follows, and I would encourage all citizens to engage with that survey, as arts and culture surround you everywhere you turn in Cork. From the public statuary to the vibrant murals, buskers to museums, the city often marks its routes and meeting places according to those public manifestations.
'I’ll see you at the Statue.' 'They went down by the Opera House.' 'He disgraced himself over by the Fountain.' (Feel free to chip in yourself.)
Arts and culture can help to define a city’s image to the outside world also. Bilbao in the Basque Country was once a city struggling with its identity following the loss of heavy industry, prone to flooding, and unsure of how to use the riverfront along the Nervión, which runs through it.
Now it’s a thriving metropolis with a powerful image that’s instantly recognisable to the entire world — the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum on the river bank, complete with 60ft flower statue outside. Say ‘Bilbao’ and people think ‘Guggenheim’.
Arts and culture, folks.
Here are a few of those arts survey questions, just to get you warmed up.
This is a classic opener and one which repays very little thought. By that, I mean a spontaneous, visceral reaction to the question should tell us everything. Your immediate reaction to the words ‘arts and culture in Cork’ is a key element in understanding that sector in the city.
As an example, my three ‘immediate’ words are music, books, and remote. If I gave it more thought I’m sure I’d come up with a different set of words, but the first words to mind are probably telling. Music and books can be enjoyed at a remove even by a misanthrope ("You? A misanthrope? Surely not!" — chanted weakly by a throng of acquaintances).
My use of ‘remote’ is more of a value judgement, but I’m open to challenge on that: Every week I see notifications of events that I have an interest in but can’t get to, for all sorts of reasons (not all of them Covid-related). That’s my responsibility, though — it’s not incumbent on an organising body to co-ordinate all its activities according to my availability.
And perhaps that’s one of the lessons to be taken from a survey like this — while it’s important to give information to those organising an arts and culture policy or programme, shouldn’t it also give pause to those taking the survey and get them to examine their own habits?
What’s interesting about these questions is the sense in which they follow on from the point above — about changing your habits to access arts and culture in Cork city.
A case in point: One of the best facilities to be found in the city centre is the Crawford Art Gallery. A terrific building, great art that’s immediately accessible, one of the best breakfasts in town. What’s not to love about that?
My two cents: As a model of accessibility and openness, the Crawford takes beating, but that doesn’t mean throwing up one’s hands and absolving every other institution in the city of its responsibilities.
The welcome to be found in the Crawford is one that could be replicated pretty easily everywhere else at little cost in terms of staff or expenditure.
These are another couple of linked questions because, aptly enough for arts and culture, they allow your imagination to run free.
If cost wasn’t an issue, what would you like to see in the city?
For this observer, access would be a priority — ensuring that people from all parts of the city, particularly children, have equality of access to artistic and cultural programmes and events.
You may think differently — and if you do, register your views in the survey, because there are no right and wrong answers when we brainstorm, as any overpaid management consultant can tell you.
This is probably the most challenging part of the survey — and of the arts office’s work. Why? Because its strategy won’t please everybody. By definition, it’ll make some cohort of the citizenry unhappy.
However, by making itself available for feedback, the arts office has at least anticipated that unhappiness before it even manifests itself.
Don’t think I was advocating another Guggenheim Museum-type building in Cork, by the way.
Bilbao’s success as a city wasn’t just about a building. It was the result of dogged hard work by administrators and elected officials in securing funding — in relocating universities to the city centre, in new rail links, in removing physical barriers between neighbourhoods.
“The biggest misconception about Bilbao is that this was just about the Guggenheim,” said mayor Juan Mari Aburto a few years back.
“We have to continue the work... in the story of Bilbao’s transformation, economic development and social cohesion have always been two sides of the same coin.”
First things first: Try that survey at this link.