Rebels with a cause


Cork’s arts scene is buzzing with energy and purpose, driven in no small part by a glut of new venues and by some new faces at the helm of the city’s favourite arts institutions, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL

When financial difficulties forced Cork Opera House to close its doors for the summer last June, much debate followed about how the powers that be could allow one of the premier performing arts venues in Munster go dark. At the time, local politicians and arts professionals called for immediate financial intervention from the Arts Council.

But Cork Opera House didn’t reopen immediately: a reassessment of its financial and artistic position took place, culminating in a new financial package from Cork City Council and, crucially, a new artistic director in the form of Mary Hickson. Rather than look for outside assistance, there was a sense that Cork’s arts community looked to itself for solutions to governance and financial issues at the city’s flagship arts venue.

Hickson’s appointment was just one of a number of high-profile administrative changes at the top level of the Cork arts scene, where a new energy and sense of purpose is driving something of an artistic reawakening.

The changing artistic landscape also includes the Triskel’s new Christchurch venue, the Camden Palace Hotel multidisciplinary arts space, new festivals from younger practitioners such as the four-day Solstice arts symposium in June, and a creative theatre development space from the theatre company Corcadorca. Add to the mix changes at the helm of Cork Opera House, Cork Midsummer Festival and a new artistic director, Michael Barker-Caven, was recently appointed at the 650-seater Everyman Palace Theatre, and there is a sense that Cork is a city in artistic transformation.

But the city has been here before. In the lead up to Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2005, there was a feeling that something was about to happen in the city creatively, and yet it failed to materialise in a sustainable way. Lessons were learned, and ground-up artistic collaborations rather than imported cultural showpieces now help to cement a new artistic identity for Cork.

Tom Creed is one those members of Cork’s arts community who moved away when opportunities were thin on the ground but is now returning, having gained invaluable experience in the intervening years. In June, the theatre director and programmer took up a new position as director of the Cork Midsummer Festival. Creed came up through the ranks of student drama in the city and tried over several years to sustain himself in Cork, before opportunities arose elsewhere with the likes of Rough Magic and the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

“I think part of it was that a lot of us had stayed around for 2005 to see what would happen,” he says, “When that was finished I felt it was time to move on. Cork has always done things in waves, in a way, and there has always been periods where very exciting things are happening. It regenerates itself.”

Since his last time living in Cork, members of the artistic community have become more willing to talk to one another, Creed says. “It feels like there is a new energy around at the moment. I am able to have discussions with people about work and long-term planning, and nothing is a problem any more. That is important, because one of the things is that there has never been ongoing audience development for new work in the city. If we presented a piece of contemporary performance at the Everyman Palace or the Cork Opera House before, say, it felt like it came down from outer space.”

Creed has a point. While the Everyman Palace Theatre attempted to fund and develop a studio space some years ago, it never quite found a way to sustain itself long term, while Cork Opera House’s smaller space, the Half Moon Theatre, has also struggled to forge its identity and function. Programming in both venues has been inconsistent, with too many semi-professional, local amateur drama groups or conveyer-belt tribute shows appearing on both stages, as well as a lack of sustained engagement with newer writers and artists in the city.

As its new artistic director, Hickson’s first fully programmed season at Cork Opera House forges its own distinct identity, while also opening up the lines of communication with other venues. “There is a lot more co-operation and forward planning and pooling of resources now,” Hickson says. “Partly, that is down to the recession. Also, we were putting too much pressure on audiences. It is better that I talk to other venues and say, ‘I’m going to do drama at this time so let’s try not to clash.’ I think we owe it to the people to plan together. When I came in here last year I inherited the first programme in the spring. Even though I had to stand over it, I didn’t agree with a lot of it. There were too many tribute bands and it felt like a cut-and-paste of programmes over the last few years. My motivation is the people of Cork: whether or not we are hitting all the demographics and how can we merge audiences and mix it up a bit.”

It’s this vision that has, for example, paired Duke Special with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra or UCC’s Gamelan Orchestra, or allowed Cork Opera House curate a series of concerts in Mitchelstown Caves this summer. It is also the driving force behind Corcadorca’s return to the main stage this October with A Winter’s Taleand the return of headline acts to the Guinness Jazz Festival that same month after a three-year absence.

When Hickson moved back to Cork, in 2009, she says the city had become stagnant and time was ripe for a renewal. “I thought it had gotten very dead in itself. There was stuff happening in little bubbles around the place, but companies and venues were not communicating very well. Hopefully that is changing.”

The visual arts, too, are undergoing changes. At the Glucksman Gallery, for example, attendance is up 15 per cent in the past year, with close to 60,000 people coming through the doors annually.

Under the directorship of Fiona Kearney, who is also a member of the Arts Council, this mostly privately funded gallery, on the grounds of University College Cork, has opened up the visual arts to a wider, non-artistic audience and provides longer opening hours and family-tailored programming at weekends.

Kearney, too, believes Cork is undergoing an artistic rejuvenation. “I was conducting a public interview with actor Cillian Murphy recently,” says Kearney, “and we were reminiscing a bit about the early to mid-1990s in Cork. There was a sense then that people were coming together from different creative arts, and that is happening again now.

“What I love about Cork is that it is not big enough to have any one area of the arts dominate. In Dublin, the visual-arts scene is strong enough to sustain itself, but I often think it is a more isolated visual-arts scene than in Cork. Here it is very connected to musical performance and theatre and other disciplines.”

Kearney points to other developments in the past five years in the city, from the resurgence of the National Sculpture Factory under Mary McCarthy to the availability of new studio and arts spaces at the Camden Palace and the Guesthouse. That said, there remain challenges, not just for the visual arts but also in other disciplines across the city. Some galleries have closed, the Kino Arts Cinema is a distant memory and long-established theatre companies such as Meridian had their funding cut substantially.

“I’d hate to over-romanticise the present,” says Kearney. “It remains an incredibly tough time, especially for artists. The two main commercial galleries in the city have closed. Writers can keep writing, but it is very hard for someone who wants to be a painter if people are not buying the work. The important thing though is to keep the artistic conversation going in the city.”

According to Stephen Grainger, a Cork DJ and the co-owner of the Pavilion Bar and live-music venue, there is now a large choice of dedicated venues in the city, when only a few years ago it seemed like the city had none, especially following the closing of the iconic Lobby Bar.

Grainger has teamed up with the former owner of Lobby Bar, Pat Conway, and a local club supremo, Joe Kelly, to run a venue recently voted best in Munster by Imro. Grainger says he never felt the urge to leave Cork, and has been able to help foster a new generation of hip-hop acts now coming through the ranks; the city’s first hip-hop festival took place over the June bank-holiday weekend. Musically, he points to the opening of independent the record shop Plugd Records, in the new Triskel complex, as a strong statement about the new Cork.

“To have Plugd as part of the building, basically against all odds of record shops closing nationally, is significant. It has been reopened with support in Cork, whereas even in big cities these stores are closing. That says something about the energy and focus in the city.”

Ironically, this resurgence in the arts locally has meant greater competition for existing venues in Cork. Grainger doesn’t see this as an issue, though, and welcomes the expanding artistic landscape. “The whole focus with the arts in recent years became about money. We all have to pay bills, but when the arts start thinking about what you can get personally and begrudging others what they get, then that’s not healthy.

“I think we have a lot of the right people in the right jobs now, though,” he says. “These are tough times, but there is a chink at the end of the tunnel. People realise they have to get creative, or else.”

Cork's artistic resurgence: Key players

Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culturein 2005 helped focused debate on what the city wanted from its arts community. Was it all about firework displays or local cultural events? While the event itself failed to fulfil its potential, its legacy helped get the arts community talking.

A changing of the old guardat several of Cork’s high-profile venues and festivals, from Cork Opera House to Cork Midsummer Festival, has meant the appointment of a new generation of arts administrators.

Economic necessityhas forced companies to begin focusing less on artistic competition and more on cultural collaboration. The economic climate also means spaces that were once off limits to arts communities now come up for rent. Arts collectives have taken on premises in the financial district of the South Mall, for example, while a large space that once housed a temporary courthouse now contains a multidisciplinary venue in the guise of the Camden Palace Hotel.

The Triskelwas a pioneering arts venue in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Cork. It seemed to lose its relevancy in the past decade, but, under the stewardship of Tony Sheehan, the venue is leading the city’s artistic resurgence. Having recently acquired and developed the adjacent Christchurch space, it has also allowed for the return of Corcadorca and the opening of Plugd Records on its premises.