Karl Wallace: ‘A very delicate balance’

The artistic director whose resignation sparked the Limerick City of Culture controversy explains his reasons for leaving the troubled festival

There's a telling feature in the preview catalogue for this year's Limerick City of Culture celebrations. The glossy brochure opens with a message from the chairman, Pat Cox, and photographs of the board. On the facing page are notes by Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan, the mayor of Limerick, Kathleen Leddin, and the cathaoirleach of Limerick City Council, John Sheahan.

Leaf through the pages and there's plenty to look forward to in this year's events. Richard Mosse's The Enclave, a hit at last year's Venice Biennale, is coming home. Romania's national theatre is bringing a grand version of Faust. And The Táin will be reimagined in a hip-hop, urban-music and dance setting.

But nowhere in its 36 pages is there mention of Karl Wallace, the man largely responsible for devising the programme that fills the catalogue. Nor of Jo Mangan, the international programmer, nor Maeve McGrath, the legacy programmer.

All three resigned in controversial circumstances over Christmas and the New Year, but they were still in their jobs when the catalogue was proofed and printed.


“A City of Culture project is ostensibly a marriage between culture/arts providers and the local authority and its systems,” says Wallace. “With such a number of specific projects requiring licensing and permissions, it’s essential that a collaborative relationship is established with the local authority, and indeed this might result in good future working practices. However, this takes time, planning and research.”

Wallace took up the role of artistic director in April 2013 – he is a former director of Belltable Arts Centre in the city – and worked with one member of staff who was seconded from a department within the council. A programme team of Claudia Woolgar (who is still working with the festival), McGrath and Mangan was recruited and, "after much discussion", began work in late July last year.

It was a punishing schedule within which to create a City of Culture programme, even for arts professionals with the pedigree of Wallace and his team.

“In normal circumstances, when programming a venue, for example, managers tend to plan at least six to eight months ahead as a minimum requirement, and that would tend to be selecting work [that is] ready and available for touring.

“In the case of City of Culture we were searching for international work, which naturally has a much longer lead-in time . . . and also grant-aiding local projects – a significant administrative task.”

Programming, says Wallace, “is not simply about selecting work but [about asking] what audience it caters for, is there anything else in the year competing against the work you want to programme, what is the cost of the work and can audiences afford it, will it appeal to the people of Limerick, and, most importantly, will everyone have the capacity to go to all of these events and spend significant amounts of money throughout the year on arts and culture?”

He maintains that “despite the short lead-in time, I believe we delivered what was asked of me and my team: a significant visionary programme for Limerick with intrinsic local involvement and legacy projects that will extend beyond 2014.”

The three members of the programming team have largely stayed silent since handing in their notice. Wallace is reluctant to be drawn into a tit-for-tat argument with the current board, and says this will be the last time he will talk about the Limerick City of Culture project before moving on. But he disputes certain versions of the events leading up to his resignation.

In a radio interview at the time, Cox claimed the board had undertaken a performance review of Wallace’s work in early December, then attempted to schedule a meeting with Wallace. The board said Wallace could not meet them, owing to a combination of sick leave and holidays, and “he subsequently decided on his own part to submit a resignation”.

Wallace says he himself requested the initial performance review, in September 2013, and that it was undertaken in October. “I was never informed or advised that the board of Limerick City of Culture had requested a second review,” he says.

City of Culture was allocated €6 million by the Government in October, and the board had pointed to the Government's late commitment to this figure as one of the problems that led to conflict between the board and the programming team, and the subsequent resignations of Wallace and the former chief executive, Patricia Ryan.

Wallace says “the announcement of the funding in October did impact on planning”, but his team were equal to the task. “You can only advance discussions without confirmation of funding,” he says. “You can certainly work up planning to a point, but you don’t want to advance the conversation so much that there is an expectation that it will go ahead.”

Wallace says most arts managers are accustomed to this “because they are used to advance planning and then waiting for funding to arrive at the beginning of their financial year. Again, this goes back to industry knowledge and expertise.”

Sources close to the programming team say they had devised several ready-to-roll programmes based on budgets of between €3 million and €10 million so that when the Government officially finalised the figure they could spring into action. “I prepared a number of financial scenarios, but the complete programme that we believed was appropriate was €8.1 million net,” says Wallace. “This was put together on the basis that the board had expected the receipt of €6 million in State funding and anticipated raising €4 million in private funds.”

According to Wallace: “Fundraising was the remit of the city and county manager, the board and the CEO. The board set a target in June of raising €4 million as part of an €11 million project spend.” Yesterday, a spokesman for the City of Culture declined to say how much had been raised to date, as it is still in discussions with various organisations, but said it was “confident” of meeting its target of €4 million.

One of the key features of Wallace’s programme was the French street-theatre company Royal de Luxe, but what started as an artistic coup has become something of a bete noire. It is another area in which Wallace’s version of events differs from that of the board. Royal de Luxe is a world leader in staging large-scale outdoor events. The programmers had proposed bringing the French company to Limerick for a weekend event that would have cost a reported €1.8 million in total.

Brian McEnery, a member of the board, said on radio that the board baulked at spending so much on one part of the programme. “That was one-third of our grant from Government. We were not in a position, and certainly, as a board member, I would not have been comfortable to say we were going to spend €1.8 million over the course of one weekend,” he said.

But Wallace says he was never going to spend State money on that event. On September 6th Wallace presented the complete programme to the board. “Royal de Luxe were in the international programme and were considered by the board to be one of the flagship events that they wanted to see take place throughout the year,” says Wallace. “When the €6 million State funding was announced, I did not include RDL in this, and any assertion that this took place is quite false.

“Any assertion that this project would take away from local projects is false. At no stage did the board express this reservation and ask for me to redistribute these monies into local projects. Instead, there was debate on the value-for-money aspect of the project, which we clarified.”

Wallace says the French company’s performance fees were €330,000, with the remainder going on “local services of which Limerick people would benefit”, such as security, temporary infrastructure works and on-site construction costs.

Can Limerick City of Culture still work? It's a challenge for the interim chief executive and artistic director, Mike Fitzpatrick. Wallace, Mangan and McGrath have welcomed and complimented Fitzpatrick's appointment, saying it "ensures arts and culture are once more front and centre in the inaugural year of the National City of Culture".

The final paragraph of their statement is perhaps the clearest evidence of why they felt they had to resign their positions. They welcomed comments by Cox that “issues around resources and structures are to be addressed. If our resignations have ensured that appropriate organisational and governance structures, as well as experienced professional cultural personnel, as called for by us and subsequently by the arts and cultural community of Limerick, are put in place, then this is indeed very welcome news for Limerick City of Culture.”

For the project to be successful, Wallace says now, it needs an “engine-room [that is] fit for purpose, with a festival team ready to take on the challenge of placing performances in site-specific locations, facilitating large international work into the city, programming and commissioning work for the whole year, preparing all locations for health-and-safety and technical issues, organising a centralised box office, specific targeted arts marketing, [and putting] administration and financial systems in place for each production.

"What I believe deserves further debate and critical analysis is the expectation of what a city of culture campaign should bring: some believe [it is] investment in local arts-and-culture infrastructure, some in ensuring a city becomes the next tourist destination, some in international blockblusters coming to the city. It is a very delicate balance."

Timeline of a crisis
January 2013: Patricia Ryan starts work as adviser to the board of Limerick City of Culture.

April: Karl Wallace is appointed artistic director of the project.

July: Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan officially announces the introduction of the City of Culture initiative and names Limerick as its first instalment.

July: Programme team of Claudia Woolgar, Maeve McGrath and Jo Mangan are recruited and begin work on the programme.

August: Patricia Ryan is appointed project manager.

September: Wallace requests a performance review. It takes place in October.

November: Patricia Ryan is appointed chief executive of Limerick City of Culture.

December: City of Culture launches with a big New Year’s Eve event .

January 1st, 2014: Karl Wallace announces his resignation, along with Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath. Among the issues cited are the fact that Wallace was not consulted on the New Year’s Eve event.

January 2nd: Wallace attends a meeting with 60 artists and stakeholders, and tells them his position is untenable.

January 3rd: A fractious meeting between members of the artistic community, Ryan, Pat Cox and the board takes place. Calls are made for Ryan to resign. The organisation's Facebook page is subsequently hacked.

January 5th: Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan says on radio that his knowledge of what is happening is essentially limited to what he “read in the paper” and that he plans to meet the board, the local authority and members of the local community in the coming days.

January 5th: Patricia Ryan resigns as chief executive.

January 7th: Board names Mike Fitzpatrick as interim head of City of Culture and announces changes to its membership.