Galway Capital of Culture: first the euphoria, now the questions

First Galway 2020’s creative director quit; now funding questions are being asked

When a group of artists in this year's European Capital of Culture, the Dutch city of Leeuwarden, wanted to make a point about lack of community engagement they did so with a splash. They objected to the fact that international rather than local sculptors had been commissioned to create fountains for 11 cities in the province of Friesland, so they crowdfunded their own version: a public toilet crowned with more than 200 wooden penises that squirt water when a user flushes the lavatory.

Any seasoned observer of the European Capitals of Culture programme will tell you that such spats are perfectly normal. If it isn't artists protesting it's key staff resigning, they'll say. In other words, Ireland, with its own experience of controversy during two previous European Capital of Culture designations, and a bit of bother when Limerick was the national city of culture, is no different from anywhere else.

The shock that Chris Baldwin's resignation caused, and the warm tributes to him, suggest not everyone believes his departure should be accepted as normal

This is a point that the team at Galway 2020, who are organising the city's €46 million upcoming reign as European culture capital, have been keen to stress since they lost their creative director, Chris Baldwin, last month. The city council's chief executive, Brendan McGrath, who is on the 2020 board, recalled at a lengthy special meeting of Galway City Council, on June 19th, that he had been warned about such "growing pains" when he was working on the bid with the consultant and former cultural capital director Robert Palmer.

Palmer has made similar observations in his many evaluations of the capitals of culture for the European Commission and other bodies. A 2011 report noted that only one director in seven cultural capitals between 2008 and 2010 stayed for the duration.


But the shock that Baldwin’s resignation caused, and the warm tributes to him on social media, suggest that not everyone believes his departure should be accepted as normal. After all, Galway is well used to rows and robust debate after decades as an unofficial cultural capital.

Baldwin, a British theatre director who had been involved in the Polish city of Wroclaw’s time as European Capital of Culture, in 2014, and in the 2012 London Olympics, came with no baggage.

"Many thanks . . . for bringing your energy, guidance and creative vision to Galway for 2020. For taking time to meet. Your words of encouragement, support and warmth resonate and have created waves within many here," Frank Monahan, director of the city's Architecture at the Edge festival, wrote on Baldwin's Facebook page.

There were further tributes from Emily Cullen of the Cúirt literary festival, Andrew Flynn of Decadent Theatre Company, Marc Mac Lochlainn of Branar Theatre, Jane O'Leary of the Galway Music Residency, the Galway International Arts Festival founder Ollie Jennings, and the former Baboró director Lali Morris.

Steve Trow, a British arts consultant, said it reminded him of working on Birmingham’s bid to be European Capital of Culture – “the battles against the delusions and hubris that elevated ‘world class culture’ above the extraordinary creativity and authenticity of genuine community involvement”.

The nothing-to-see-here narrative has not washed with Catherine Connolly, the Independent TD for Galway West and former mayor of the city, who is seeking further clarification, and a number of her former colleagues on the city council. Significant energy – and funding of more than €1.8 million – went into securing the 2020 title against competition from Dublin, Limerick and the Three Sisters cities of Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford.

The Galway 2020 team had been confident enough to commission a poem from Rita Ann Higgins before the bid was secured. Our Killer City revisited some of Galway's woes, from health to housing to planning and gender discrimination, and questioned attitudes to local artists.

"Raise the rents is the best way to keep the ripped jeans gang out, like it's always been," she wrote. And with some prescience, given current proposals to curtail street performances, she wrote: "As for the buskers, wanting to fit in with the odours of outrage, move them on, hide them in GMIT or the Picture Palace."

Baldwin was regarded as a catch when he was appointed, last July. Neither he nor Galway 2020's chief executive, Hannah Kiely, has responded to press queries about his departure, and Kiely declined to be interviewed by The Irish Times.

At the special city council meeting she paid tribute to Baldwin for “stress-testing the programme”. She also tried to put to bed fears about funding shortfalls. But she and her chairwoman, Dr Aideen McGinley, still faced a barrage of questions about a failure to provide detailed accounts, possible litigation over a business-engagement directorship offered to a “Mr X” and then withdrawn, potential conflict-of-interest and communication issues, and a perceived failure to connect with local communities.

Pádraig Conneely, the Fine Gael councillor who led the charge, pressed McGinley on her role as head of Ilex, the company responsible for the regeneration of Derry and securing the British city of culture title for it in 2013. In 2012 she had appeared before a Stormont committee that was analysing expenditure of more than £400,000 without proper government approval.

McGinley pointed out she had taken responsibility for mistakes “made before me” in Derry. But she later drew alarmed responses from some in the chamber when, in acknowledging a “communication shortfall”, she said that two members of the Galway 2020 board were “doing a lot of work to calm down fears” on the European judging panel.

Chaired by Galway's incoming mayor, the Labour Party councillor Niall McNelis, the special meeting at times produced more heat than light.Most of the focus was on the use of public funding in a city that went €10 million over budget in "refurbishing" Eyre Square between 2001 and 2006, a €6 million overspend on a bus lane, and a €2 million budget overrun at the Pálás arthouse cinema, which McNelis was due to open the next day. There are still unpleasant memories of unpaid bills during the second Volvo Ocean Race festival, for the sailing event's stop in the city in 2012, which Fáilte Ireland and the city council sponsored.

Councillors were told that targets and “milestones” were being met, that “challenges” were only to be expected, and that the European Capital of Culture designation is underpinned by the city’s 10-year cultural strategy, which aims to further develop the “cultural quarter” in the city centre and provide for a new children’s creativity hub, among other projects.

Kiely stressed that good governance and structures were in place, that there had been a clean audit in 2017, and that the project was working off the bid book. While some councillors spoke of their full confidence in her team, and criticised "whispering" and negative media coverage, others were far from satisfied. "People have to step up or step off," the Fianna Fáil councillor Michael Crowe said.

In a combative closing address, Brendan McGrath, the city manager, urged a united approach to a project that would encourage "the next generation" of artists, to follow in the steps of Garry Hynes of Druid theatre company and the Macnas founder Páraic Breathnach, and that could increase the number of tourists who visit Galway from 2.1 million a year to 2.6 million. He pledged to leave "no stone unturned" to ensure it was the "best capital of culture ever".

Two votes of confidence were passed, but a sense of unease prevails among sections of the business community, which signed up to a 3 per cent rate increase to support the project. There is a similar unease among artists and arts administrators.

Why are we having a legacy conference when we don't even have a finished programme, and when we already have a cultural strategy for the city?

That same third week of June, the three-day, invitation-only Galway 2020: Creating the Legacy conference was held at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The event was hosted by Future Search, a planning-facilitation organisation of which McGinley is an associate director; Future Search's director, the psychologist Sandra Janoff, chaired the event. (McGinley says she wasn't paid for her involvement in the Galway conference.)

Although it invigorated a number of those who attended, it appeared to reinforce a sense of exclusion and uncertainty among those not on the guest list.

“Why are we having a legacy conference when we don’t even have a finished programme, and when we already have a cultural strategy for the city?” several members of the artistic community commented.

Late this week, Galway Arts Centre managing director Paraic Breathnach articulated the feeling of many in that community who feel too constrained to talk publicly, when he warned that the city’s reputation for arts and culture could be jeopardised by the 2020 project which he described as a “fiasco in the making”.

Breathnach’s remit includes hosting the annual Cúirt international literary festival, which is not in the 2020 bid book – in spite of its 14 years track record in running the Create Europe partnership.

“There appears to be a lack of confidence in what Galway itself can offer, and almost a policy of exclusion, which is disrespectful to the arts community,” Breathnach, who was co-founder of Macnas, points out.

“When money is involved, as with ECOC, it becomes a feeding frenzy of the corporate sector, both here and in Europe.  And being afraid to speak out, to question, to think differently about the approach – that’s not art.”

Breathnach said that the project could still be turned around if voices of experience were invited in, but “first the 2020 team has to admit it got it wrong…”

“If you are bringing in a ship to Galway and you run up on rocks, you make sure you have the local pilot with you next time,” he observed.

The Galway 2020 team are due to meet European judges at the second monitoring meeting in Croatia. A report from the first monitoring meeting, last year, expressed concern about "financial and procedural delays" and urged the team to look for "bridge builders" who can "ensure the right connections are made between all relevant stakeholders".

There is a view that Baldwin’s replacement – who may have a different title as co-ordinator of a number of new creative producers – faces similar challenges if lessons are not learned. A good relationship with the chief executive will still be key, along with some flexibility on the bid-book programme. The European Commission says that the bid book is not cast in stone and that some projects can be abandoned, modified or merged, with allowance for calls “open to the local and international cultural scene”.

Frank Monahan of Architecture at the Edge remains optimistic, and believes that Galway 2020 could make a meaningful contribution to the long-term development of the city and the entire western region.

“Galway is a city in transformation, which faces many evolving challenges which directly impact the wellbeing and quality of life of its people,” he says. “We must work strategically and ensure that the right conditions and framework are in place – to deliver a masterplan, which I believe Galway 2020 wants to facilitate, which creates the right kind of infrastructure to meet cultural and societal needs, which offers a sense of belonging for its diverse communities, builds a more optimistic and resilient society, and leaves a legacy that really connects with and makes a real difference to people’s lives.”

The cultural strategist Ciarán MacGonigal, a former Arts Council board member, is more dubious. He senses that Galway 2020 is adopting a strategy of "attack, denial and complicity of acceptance", which will not save it unless a "strong hand" is brought in that can draw on Galway's extensive reserve of artistic talent.

"With sunset projects like this, the structure has to be right, and there's something not right about this particular structure," he says. "The problem now is that everyone has the golden spectacles; money may be spent on ephemera, and there will be reports on economic benefits and 'tourist bednights'. A city of culture is not meant to be about 'bednights'. By its very nature, benefits cannot be measured. It is for the residents first, Europe second and only then the visitors."

Galway 2020: culture capital facts

  • Language, landscape and migration are three themes of Galway's European Capital of Culture 2020 title, secured against competition from Limerick and the Three Sisters cities of Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford.
  • Fifty-two projects have been confirmed for "Small Towns, Big Ideas", one of Galway 2020's "flagship" initiatives in its programme, entitled "Making Waves".
  • Galway is Ireland's third European Capital of Culture. Dublin held the title in 1991, and Cork in 2005, when Galway lost out principally because of its lack of infrastructure. Galway 2020's budget, of almost €46 million, includes €15 million committed to by the Government, and €6 million each from two local authorities – although Galway County Council says it can commit to only €2 million.
  • Ironically, only a small percentage of the funding comes from Europe, and there is no firm guarantee that the city will receive the €1.5 million Melina Mercouri Prize that the European Commission normally awards the cultural capital.