Galway 2020: The implosion of the capital of culture project

Key people have left, only half its budget is in place, and its vision is unclear. What went wrong?

Mirrored pavilions designed by artist John Gerrard that merge the land, sky and riverscapes of Connemara, Galway's Corrib and Spain's Santander ... A tightrope traverse of the city's fast-flowing waterway by nine circus communities from as far east as Afghanistan ... Music from wind farms and "rain playgrounds as part of a cultural shift in our relationship with wet weather".

These creations are what an internet search for “Galway 2020” should throw up. They are among the more ambitious elements of “Making Waves”, the city’s European capital of culture programme. But Google also finds a series of worrying headlines: “Galway 2020 boss steps down just a few months after creative director resigned”; “Galway 2020 cultural capital hires in British consultant to advise it”; and “Galway 2020 project in turmoil ”.

With just 15 months to go until Galway becomes the official European capital of culture 2020, the only waves the project has been generating are those that occur in choppy waters.

Three months after the departure of its creative director, Chris Baldwin, its chief executive, Hannah Kiely, has also stepped down. The Galway 2020 project announced her departure on a day city and county councillors were busy with presidential candidate nominations.


The September 10th press statement, billed as “personnel changes”, confirmed two new appointments – that of senior Galway City Council official Mark O’Donnell as chief operations officer, and events manager Pearse Doherty as head of production. It also confirmed the first round of significant funding, €12.7 million for 27 projects, which would offer “clarity and certainty” to its “programme partners”.

The clarity and certainty reference has, so far, backfired. A number of the 27 projects have since been informed that budgets agreed during the bid preparation are being cut – significantly in some cases.

Galway International Arts Festival, which has commissioned the series of mirrored pavilions fuelled by wind, solar and hydro energy from Gerrard, is still awaiting its budget meeting. “GIAF and John Gerrard have a lot of planning work well advanced on the project, as you can imagine,” its artistic director, Paul Fahy, says, acknowledging that he cannot disclose the cost at this stage.

Arts producer Mary Nally, founder of the highly successful crowd-funded Drop Everything biennial festival on Inis Oírr, says she is not losing sleep. Her digital music festival, entitled From Here On, was accepted for the Galway 2020 bid book, but recent emails to find out more have elicited no response.

‘We need transparency’

Nally, who is from Galway, says she would love to be a part of the programme, but also recognises that artists have to be valued and "this is not the gig where we don't get paid – yet again". She firmly believes the capital of culture designation should allow Galway to stage world-class projects, such as the Gerrard installation, a Macnas/Marina Carr/Artichoke, London outdoor spectacle, entitled Gilgamesh, and more.

“However, we need transparency, including a breakdown of percentage spent by Galway 2020 on arts, on administration and on unnecessary marketing,” she says.

A group of 21 other projects, involving major players Macnas, Music for Galway, Galway Community Circus, Galway Film Fleadh, Fibín, Blue Teapot and Branar theatre companies are so concerned that they have sought an urgent meeting with the chief executives of Galway city and county councils.

They are worried about what they see as a loss of creative vision, funding shortfalls, poor communication, and other issues such as a decision to require VAT registration for projects over a certain size. This may require up to 23 per cent of funding allocations to be returned to State coffers.

The group has the wind behind it. A recent EU monitoring group report warned that Galway was in “danger of losing track with the project and incurring further delays”, and identified the need to appoint a new cultural leader to replace Baldwin as soon as possible. Unusually, the EU monitoring panel sought an update from Galway 2020 in November, ahead of the next scheduled monitoring meeting in 2019.

Word has it that the capital of culture selection panel was won over by a belief in the city's capacity to raise sufficient funds

Next to the Government, which has committed €15 million, the two local authorities are principal funders. Each promised €6 million, although the county council has now said it can only pay €2 million of that. A botched attempt to appoint a business-engagement director to raise up to €7 million in corporate sponsorship, and a general lack of confidence by the business community, means that only €23 million of a quoted €46 million budget is currently guaranteed. The EU element is valued at just €1.5 million.

Ironically, word has it that the capital of culture selection panel was won over by a belief in the city’s capacity to raise sufficient funds. There was also a steely determination by the city’s arts community to secure the designation – which had narrowly eluded it back in 2005, mainly due to lack of sufficient infrastructure.

Controversial bypass

Not having an opera house – as the successful 2005 winner Cork did – was not considered to be an impediment this time around. As a form of insurance, however, Galway City Council drew up a 10-year cultural strategy, which promises more creative and performance space at a time when the city is on the cusp of change, with a controversial bypass planned, and substantial new city centre developments, some on State-owned land but led by commercial interests.

The Connacht Tribune print works, which the arts festival transformed into a gallery for several years, is due to be developed as yet another hotel. Ironically, the city's one new piece of infrastructure is the Picture Palace cinema, which cost €2 million extra to build.

A number of artists who spoke to The Irish Times have expressed great faith in Galway 2020's team of three creative producers – Craig Flaherty, formerly of Druid Theatre, who will be responsible for audience development; visual arts curator Kate Howard; and Liz Kelly, who will work with the "Small Towns, Big Ideas" programme involving communities in the city and county.

However, Galway 2020 is run by a limited company named Galway Cultural Development and Activity Company, and the 15 directors, including the city chief executive and mayor, state they are bound by confidentiality rules.

Galway Arts Centre director Paraic Breathnach believes the limited company is a classic structure used by State bodies to abdicate responsibility. Through the Cúirt literary festival, which he runs, he knows how European partnerships require an attention to detail. He is also sceptical of the tendency to seek outside expertise to advise on problems – Martin Green, formerly of Hull British capital of culture being one such hired consultant – when Galway is replete with decades of artistic expertise.

Exodus of artists

Writer Kevin Barry tapped into something more fundamental when interviewed on the Second Captains programme on RTÉ Radio earlier this month. In a discussion with presenter Eoin McDevitt on the exodus of artists from cities with soaring rents, Barry observed that though he adored Galway, Shop Street in high summer felt like "Temple Bar West" .

“I think [Galway] is in a tentative condition,’’ he said. “It has to make really important decisions for what it’s going to be in the future... Is it all going to be about just getting in that festival buck?’.

Identity is an issue that concerns Galway-based restaurateur Aoibheann Mac Namara, who accommodated the capital of culture selection panel in her guest house when they visited the city. She also took them to Salthill on her daily sea swim, and imbued them with a passion for the city she loves but also now fears for.

Galway is not Disneyland but it is beginning to feel like that

“I am extremely grateful and lucky to have a very busy restaurant in Ard Bia, but I also know what it is like to struggle,” she says, recalling her first venture in her home county of Donegal. “Five miles from where I come from in Ardara there are seven epic beaches – all empty much of the time – and yet you come down to Clare and there seems to be no limit to the numbers,” she says.

“Galway is not Disneyland but it is beginning to feel like that, and Fáílte Ireland has to realise that this two-pronged tourism, where there are vast numbers on the Wild Atlantic Way route and no one in Leitrim, is counterproductive,” she says.

Mac Namara now feels that if a large sum of money is being spent on culture in the city, it should be on permanent arts infrastructure.

A ‘blindness’

Connacht Tribune arts editor Judy Murphy says there has been a "blindness" and an "unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation" in relation to Galway 2020, which has delayed the project unnecessarily.

“Artists who are being told their budgets are being cut, and who have been sidelined, are the very people who gave Galway its edge,” she points out.

“Artists accepted for the bid book have put much work into linking up with European partners, but the lack of a creative director and uncertainty over funding remain critical,’’ she says.

“There will be sufficient energy among the arts groups to make it happen, but there is now no time for standing back, taking a strategic view and creating a legacy for Galway.”

Murphy is particularly worried by the reluctance and fear among many people within the arts community to “speak on the record about the issues that are bothering them’’. This, she says, is the very antithesis of what art should be about.

Asked to comment on budget cuts, Galway 2020 said that as announced in its media statement of September 10th, it is meeting with cultural partners to discuss their projects and agree budgets and move to signing contracts. It also said that it plans to “recruit a creative leadership role and work is on going on this”.

Former Galway 2020 creative director Chris Baldwin has declined to respond to press queries, and former chief executive Hannah Kiely declined requests for an on the record interview with The Irish Times.

Galway County Council chief executive Kevin Kelly is on record as stating that the local authority never agreed to €6 million, but that it will discuss further “additional funding” once the “programme is more fully developed”.