Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The Limerick City of Culture shambles

Want to put on a great year of events, generate loads of good feeling, and create a cultural legacy for a city? A cautionary tale.

Mon, Jan 6, 2014, 10:59


An artistic director resigning, two programmers following suit, a CEO is eventually badgered into resigning, a chairman making snide remarks, people calling for the resignation of the board. Suffice to say that so far, the Limerick City of Culture has been an absolute disaster. You’d imagine right now, there’s a civil servant filing this inaugural National City of Culture plan under ‘rethink’.

Here’s the Irish Times report on seeking a replacement CEO, arts editor Laurence Mackin writes that the Limerick debacle will be used as a stick to beat the culture sector with, and here’s a good plain-speaking editorial on the debacle.

The best online reporting for my money has been from Alan English, and for comedy value Rubberbandits Twitter feed is classic, but here are my thoughts on the issue.

What Went Wrong
The process of hiring Patricia Ryan
Ryan has since resigned as CEO, and there are plenty of questions still to be answered about her recruitment. Ryan’s 18-month contract wasn’t advertised even though the salary is huge for a position in the arts (or anywhere) at €120,000. Ryan was also an advisor to Pat Cox, the chair of the City of Culture board, fueling accusations of cronyism. Cox says he had nothing to do with her recruitment, and you have to take him on his word, but neither Cox nor Ryan can complain that people will rightly or wrongly assume he did have a say. It doesn’t matter if he had nothing to do with it, because anyone could have foreseen that the perception would be that he did, especially since the post wasn’t advertised. Surely someone somewhere along the line said “won’t this look a little off?”

Ryan had said herself that she had no specific experience working in the arts. Now, that could be ok because not having professional experience in a sector doesn’t equal ignorance of it. I don’t think there’s any issue with hiring CEOs outside of a sector because often they bring expertise of management, operations, fundraising, governance, project management, etc. as opposed to expertise of topic. Sometimes it’s extremely valuable for someone from a different industry to encounter a new project, because it brings perspective and different tools of expertise. However, this time, that doesn’t seem to have worked out. Ryan attempted to have the lyrics of a rap by the Moyross Youth Crew members altered, which is a stupid move that indicates an ignorance of artistic expression. If there’s one thing that will get fellow artists’ backs up, it’s unwanted interventions and attempted censorship.

What looks like colossal breakdown in communication
Artistic director Karl Wallace, and programmers Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath seemingly coordinating their resignations is a big deal. As anyone who works for an arts organisation or serves on a board would assume, that probably came after a long and fractured process. It’s also a bold, dramatic statement to all go pretty much at once, as it’s basically saying ‘this is screwed, our positions are untenable, and we’re out of here.’ It would be great if any of the three explained their actions to clarify what the hell went on, although I understand why they haven’t. I don’t know McGrath or Wallace, but Jo Mangan is a very well-respected programmer (you can read her PopLives Q&A here), passionate, smart, good at pulling programmes together. I would imagine it would take a lot for someone as professional as Mangan to throw in the towel. Lord only knows what was going on behind the scenes before Wallace and his programming team walked, but it must have been pretty bad. Could they have handled it better? Who knows?

Pat Cox’s bitchy remark
Chairman Pat Cox saying that Wallace’s departure could be “a blessing in disguise” was an ungracious and sour thing to say. It also firmly closed the door on any kind of reconciliation. It’s unprofessional to talk about a former member of a team in such a public manner. And the media loves nasty drama, so those kind of remarks just blow things up even more.

A lack of understanding what a City of Culture actually is
There was lots of talk about ‘rebranding’ Limerick as the goal of this enterprise. Rebranding occurs as a consequence of a City of Culture programme being a success. It’s not meant to be articulated as a rebranding exercise from the outset. Such an esoteric approach that worked well for Derry. Neither Ryan nor Cox seem to have an advanced understanding of that whole idea from what they’ve said so far. In fact, all of the language used around ‘brand’ in general from public meetings to board members to Cox and Ryan has been rudimentary and often meaningless. That’s quite worrying. But still, if you’re talking guff about ‘branding’ and hoping to sound clever in the process and can’t pull it off, at least get the programme right. But that’s kind of hard when three of the people on your team who actually understand the landscape of the arts in Ireland bailed. Oops.


The Damage
To the event itself
First of all, the City of Culture is toast in PR terms. We’ve gone beyond damage control at this stage, and beyond crisis management. Sure, this might all be forgotten in a few months, but if you start out badly, it’s already over. The public perception is that it’s a shambles. Various high profile members of the arts are weighing in on Twitter and Facebook offering their criticisms. The newspapers are having a field day with all the high drama. There’s uncertainty over who will get the gig of CEO and artistic director (can you imagine taking that on now?!) Unfortunately for the artists who are participating, and all of those who have put lots of hard work in so far, the Limerick City of Culture will be remembered as the one that was botched. What a shame.

‘The Arts’ being perceived as a mess again
Here’s the real rub. Over the past few years, people and organisations in the arts have been rightly wringing their hands about cuts to the sector. Some organisations have stepped in to try and support projects with non-State funding processes, such as Business To Arts and their Fund It website, and others in the corporate sector, with mixed results (with all the drama surrounding the Arthur Guinness Projects, here’s who actually won funding). It’s hard out there. So the last thing the sector needs is the public thinking that there are a load of drama queens down in Limerick throwing tax payer’s money around and having hissy fits. It’s hugely damaging. €6 million is a massive amount of money, especially in a sector that is so squeezed. As Laurence Mackin points out in his piece, “The current farrago will be used as a stick to beat the culture sector with by those who see arts spending as a waste of State resources,” and it will also enforce the belief that some have that the arts sector is bad at administration and organisation, which is generally untrue, but once again, perception is everything. The City of Culture screw up comes in the wake of some eyebrow raising incidents in the arts, such as the Music Network’s recording scheme, and even this weekend, Rosita Boland’s excellent report from the Dublin Writers Museum. State-funded arts has a bit of an image problem at the moment in terms of efficiency, professionalism, purpose and quality, and Limerick is one of the most damaging things to happen to the entire sector in a while.

Government might think twice before throwing a chunk of change at an event like this again
As I’ve said, €6 million is a lot. You’d imagine that if this is going to be a longterm initiative, the next City of Culture has already been chosen and people are already working on it (I’m “imagining” that as best practice, but let’s face it, that probably hasn’t happened.) There will be many dissenting voices in terms of this project becoming an ongoing thing for other cities in Ireland, or I assume any equivalent event with an equivalent budget.


What Next?
Get on with it
So far the programme is decent. It must be difficult for Wallace, Mangan and McGrath to put work into this project and then have to drop out. That’s something no one ever wants to do. All Limerick can do now is put the head down, and try to get good people on board to implement and manage the programme. The only way Limerick can move on from firefighting is by producing good events from here on in and hope that people will forget about the drama and focus on the culture. The damage has been done, but unfortunately a time machine is not one of the commissions this year.

Hire someone who understands the arts and has experience in the sector
They made their mistake. Fool me once, and all that. All eyes will now be on who fills those four pairs of boots.

A member of the board, Tim O’Connor, was on Morning Ireland this morning saying that they were hoping to get the recruitment process right this time. Didn’t they think to do that from the outset? That would have been a good idea, right?

Reassess top down thinking
This might be a little cruel, but there is a bang of ‘organised fun’ off City of Culture enterprises. They’re top down initiatives that can sometimes soar – like Derry, even though that too had its issues – and sometimes seem out of touch. What happened in Limerick seems to epitomise negative issues associated with building something from the top down; hiring someone outside the arts as CEO, the CEO trying to editorialise artistic output (isn’t wanting the lyrics to a completely benign rap song changed so stupid?), having what seems like an impossibly short lead-in time for a full year of programming and all the high profile (good!) publicity that needs to be generated along with reaching a massive audience, and having a board chair and CEO alienate those in the arts – not ideal when you’re running a cultural project. As Brian O’Connell said on Sean O’Rourke’s programme on RTE Radio One this morning, the consultation with the local artistic community didn’t seem to be thorough from the outset, and ultimately, how much did Limerick actually want this designation?

Jimmy Deenihan needs to wise up a little
The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht saying that what he knew about what was going on in Limerick was what he was reading in the paper is just not good enough when there’s €6 million of tax payer’s money in funding at stake and a scandal of national importance is unfolding. One would have expected that he would be slightly more on top of things.


What some in the arts community said
“There’s always tension between art & budgets. However, resignations in Limerick suggest issues around control & what actually gets programmed… Tensions always exist between supporting local & international work in a context of City of Culture. Building on legacy is crucial… Impressed and emboldened by the solidarity of Limerick-based artists… The €6 million set aside for Limerick City of Culture would have better value if there was a longer lead-in time. Deadlines were too tight… With time that €6 million could’ve leveraged other private and corporate revenue. Lead-in time way too tight.” – Fiach Mac Conghail (on Twitter)

“Cut established arts relentlessly but throw 6million into city “branding”exercise without structure or preparation and this is arts policy?… Worry general public will think this debacle has anything to do with culture. It’s hasn’t… How can a Chairman and Board who appointed four people who have now resigned continue in their positions?… Is no one prepared to consider basic governance issues here?” – Garry Hynes (on Twitter)

““It’s not difficult at all [to organise such a festival] if you have competent people and both Jo Mangan and Karl Wallace are. I know [Karl] professionally and socially and I am not aware of him being a bad organiser.” – Willie White in the Irish Times

“What power do the artists have in #limerickcityofculture? Is it too much of a sacrifice for them to boycott too? Say no to cronyism. Tough call.” – Philly McMahon (on Twitter)

“#CityofCulture come back now Karl the coast is clear (ish)” – Grace Dyas (on Twitter)