Cultural expansion, 10 years on


A decade ago, a flurry of building of new theatres and arts centres across the country transformed the cultural landscape. People involved in three of those centres share their experiences

IF THE PHYSICAL landscape of Ireland will never be the same after the building boom of the so-called Celtic Tiger years, with all its modern apartment blocks and endless motorways, then neither will the cultural landscape, which has also been transformed by the country’s now-lamented economic prosperity. Nowhere has this been more evident than in infrastructural developments for the arts; the appearance of theatres, galleries and arts centres in the most surprising sites across the country: in satellite suburbs and small towns, from Coolock to Doolin to Naul.

If the placing of some of the venues seems random, their emergence was in fact the product of deliberate design; an EU-financed initiative, known as the Cultural Developments Incentive Scheme (CIDS), which was spearheaded by Michael D Higgins who served as minister for arts between 1993 and 1997, and was responsible for administering the scheme on an inclusive nationwide level. As Higgins explains: “Being from Galway, and sitting on the board of Galway Mayo Regional Arts Committee, I knew the state of provision for the arts in rural areas. I have always believed that cultural citizenship is as vital a right and a need as economic participation, and the idea behind the Cultural Developments Incentive Scheme was to tackle that. We invited submissions from interested parties nationwide and the evaluation was based on criteria like artistic need, population distribution, and viability, but most importantly local government support, because one of the conditions was that the local government would need to commit to [help fund] it for seven years. In the end some of the money went to renovating existing facilities but many of the proposals were for new purpose-built venues.”

Out of the 42 projects funded as part of the €25,517,444 scheme – “and we could have done three times that if we had the funds” – some 30 arts organisations received substantial grants, and more than 10 of these projects related to the provision of new purpose-built arts venues. “First of all,” Higgins explains, “I thought it was important to create a chain of venues around the Dublin city area – in Blanchardstown, in Bray, in Tallaght – so that people who lived on the outskirts wouldn’t have to go back into the city at night in order to have cultural experiences. Then there was the regional issue and that needed to be tackled by providing venues.”

Higgins says that the reaction from the political arena and the arts community at the time was very mixed. “What we were doing was really going against the grain, and there was this fear that the new venues would be ghost places, white elephants – but that hasn’t been borne out.”

In fact, as Higgins suggests, the new venues were “vital to improving access, because you can’t develop an audience for the arts if those potential audiences have nowhere to go, no cultural space to visit. At the time people said that no one would go to them, but many of them are coming up to 10 years old now and are so well used that they’re in need of refurbishment.”

This year, three of the biggest projects funded by the CDIS celebrate their 10th birthdays: the Dunamaise Arts Centre in Portlaoise, An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny, and the Civic Theatre in Tallaght.

Louise Donlon, Patricia McBride and Bríd Dukes, the venue managers and artistic directors who have seen these arts centres through their first decade, share their experiences.

Louise Donlon,

Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise

CDIS: €1.3m

“The seeds for an arts centre in Portlaoise goes back long before money was available to develop arts centres, to when Laois County Council vacated the building – an old historic prison, with a listed facade – in 1984. It was pinpointed back then as a possible arts centre. They drew up architectural plans and costing, even though they didn’t know where they’d find the money, so by the time CDIS came along we had everything in place. We opened in May 1999, and the active role of the county council – that historic support – has been a huge boon to Dunamaise over the years, and has helped us to make sure the centre remains very strongly rooted in the community.

“Dunamaise has a very strong community remit, and while some of our key fundraising comes from the local community, it’s also an active part of the artistic fabric. Amateur drama companies, such as the Laois Drama Group, for example, put on their shows here, but they also have a member on board. The local musical society, which had died in the 1980s because they had nowhere to perform, reformed when the building reopened, so their first year was also our first year. Bringing these groups into the centre to perform is an important element of the community aspect, especially because it allows performers to work in a professional context, with professional stage crew.

“The success of the centre depends entirely on community involvement. They are our audience, so it’s important that our programme responds to what they want, but it’s also important to push the boundaries and challenge them. One of my own fondest memories is when we had a weekend of Shakespeare, where they did The Merry Wives of Windsorand King John, as matinee and evening shows, with dinner in between. This was a hugely ambitious thing to do in a small rural town, and not exactly the popular Shakespeare plays either. But we had 70 per cent houses, with individual shows as much as 90 per cent, and that was very satisfying – to see that we really could present the very best theatre and the audience would love it.

“I’d like to hope we’re less vulnerable than other arts venues might be in the current economic situation, where incomes are falling on a global scale. Because Dunamaise is a vital part of the town itself, a point of connection for people, and there’s a great sense of vindication in knowing that we made that happen.”

Patricia McBride

An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny

CDIS: €1.5m

“The first movement towards An Grianán was a groundswell of support from the local community. There is a large amateur theatre community in Donegal, and from the beginning the fundraising was driven by the local drama and musical societies, and matched by Donegal County Council. There was never a purpose-built theatre here before An Grianán, so I suppose you could say the congregation built the church.

“Running a regional venue comes with challenges. There are very small funding margins, and it’s a struggle to offer a diverse, quality programme, because in order to get audiences we need to have a high recognition factor. And yet at the same time we want to challenge our audience and support new and emerging artists and art forms. We also have to integrate our programme with amateur work from the local community. This works very well, because often they are doing work on a scale that we can’t offer audiences on a professional basis. Over the last few years Letterkenny Musical Society has been doing Gilbert and Sullivan shows; musicals with casts of hundreds that we could never afford to bring in. More importantly, active participation by the community makes them invested in the place, and gives us a core support to fall back upon. And they form a key part of our audience for professional work.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to being so far away from Dublin. On the one hand, with music acts, for example, many of them won’t play a second venue in the Dublin area, because it might compromise promotion, but they’ll agree to come up to Donegal because we are so far away and it’s a whole new audience base. But in general, venues outside Dublin are very poorly served because of the Dublin-centricity of creative artists. I mean it’s possible for theatre companies to fulfil their touring remits without even leaving the M50 circuit. There is this sense that Dublin is the centre of creative excellence – and yes, it is the capital – but we fulfil many valuable roles on a regional level.

“What I’m most proud of is that we have resolutely produced our own work, as well as offering the venue to touring companies and artists. We have produced at least two professional shows a year, creating opportunities for actors, directors, designers, and that has served a need for good work from our audiences, as well as feeding back into the creative community through employment. Venues are often seen as the poorer brothers of creative artists, but I think it’s important to recognise that some of us are very proactive about creating our own work.”

Bríd Dukes

Civic Theatre Tallaght

CDIS: €1.1 million

“I started at the Civic in October 1998, and at that stage the building was just a shell, so I would sit in my car with my mobile and the Irish Theatre Handbook, and make phone calls, inviting people out to see what we were doing. I think people were surprised when they found out we were building a theatre in Tallaght, but the catchment area is bigger than Limerick, and South Dublin County Council had done a feasibility study with the Arts Office and decided a theatre was needed. This was before the Luas, so I’d drive off and pick people up and then we’d come back, put on our hard hats, and I’d give them a tour.

“The first thing I did was plan our opening calendar of events, and our first show was Howie the Rookie, brought in from the Bush Theatre. Really all I knew when I began was how many seats the theatre would have. There were teething problems, but one of the biggest – and it’s ongoing – is that people didn’t know we were there. I had previously run the Belltable in Limerick for its first few years, but that was on a main street in a thriving city; in Tallaght we were on a greenfield site beside the county council offices and a shopping centre. I mean you can stop someone in the Square and they’ll not know we’re here. I didn’t really think we would have that much of a problem, but I approached it in that Catholic way and made sure at least that the programme had something for everyone, and it still does.

“We offer all kinds of art here, not just theatre, because there are only a certain number of people who will go to see plays. But we have an audience development officer and one of the major projects we’ve run over the last 10 years is the Tenderfoot project [practical and participatory workshops for local transition-year students], which has been going on for two years, and has been important in developing a younger audience. The Luas has helped too, and we also have a restaurant that offers a pre-theatre menu, so people can have a whole night out here.

“Some of the greatest satisfaction would come from the co-productions we’ve been involved in, like Little Gem, which will be going to the Edinburgh Festival this year, or Trousers, which we also co-produced with Gúna Nua, which ended up touring to New York. But the greatest achievement is that we’re still here.”