Will Galway 2020 live up to its ambitious aspirations?

On the eve of its official launch, can Galway 2020 recover from controversy and deliver on its promises?

Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture will launch tomorrow in Eyre Square. This launch should reflect a moment of great joy and satisfaction. The bid to win the Capital of Culture designation was won through the tireless efforts of many volunteer individuals and communities, primarily artists and cultural organisations, with the promise of local business support. Their hopes, plans and ambitions were encapsulated in the bid book, Making Waves, an extraordinarily articulate document that sets out the challenges to progression and transformation in the West, and how the European Capital of Culture designation could become a major opportunity to achieving the fundamental change to cultural and community infrastructure and possibility so urgently required.

Making Waves opens with this powerful statement: "We need to unlock the vast cultural capacity of Galway City and County which, for reasons of economic social and sectoral challenges, is inhibited from finding full expression in citizenship, inclusivity and creativity. Making Waves, with Europe's support, is the key to achieving our ambition."

The bid book presents a vision for change; while civic administrations generally operate according to standard procedures, patterns and politics

Making Waves is a metaphor for a series of actions that will “challenge the status quo and enable a shift in behaviour so that we achieve solidarity in diversity and replace apathy with cultural confidence”. The bid asserts that the current established landscape and context for the creation and support of cultural production in Galway is deeply flawed and not yielding the type of sustainability and opportunity that artists and citizens want to see. This, unfortunately, mirrors the wider landscape of artistic infrastructure in Ireland, which, quite simply, is not fit for purpose.

The bid also agreed strategic partnerships with coastal counties Mayo and Donegal to capture the relationship with the islands, the Irish language and the migration demographics that illuminate how the population of the west has diversified to a significant extent in recent years. It refers to established narratives within Irish history as a place marked by harsh but beautiful landscape, famine devastation, cycles of emigration, Irish language dominance and decline, agricultural communities, and the impact of the most recent recession from which there was not a “recovery”: to query the potential for the future as European. This is presented as a concept of potential, still to be fully realised, and not intended to oppress any sense of Irishness or necessarily challenge the autonomy of Irish nationhood.


Making Waves centres on community, and how the constructs of communities in the west need not only infrastructural investment but also ideological and cultural investment. Ireland was always feminised in colonial and postcolonial discourse, but Making Waves presents Galway as feminist in postmodern times: challenging the problems that have occurred as a result of colonisation, poverty, patriarchy and neoliberalism, initiating a political response that addresses emigration, environmental destruction, integration and economically sustainable careers in culture and the arts. There is an implicit resonance throughout Making Waves that for transformation to occur, collaboration is the key, and no one is waiting around for a prince to arrive on his horse to save the city. That model of leadership and management is just not convincing. This bid book suggests that Galway communities are at a point of transition – post-Celtic Tiger, post-recession, young, hopeful, and energised. This community will not view national borders as the limit for personal and professional development nor cultural identification.

Making Waves then is about another transformation in narrative: a narrative that engages with history and the present, concerns of climate change and sustainability, protecting minority languages and nurturing new voices, and ultimately a drive for further inclusivity that connects island communities with those throughout Europe, not only Ireland. The bid book is embedded with artistic generosity, social responsibility, and a plan for a future in the West which foregrounds “culture integrity, interculturalism and the more enduring currency of culture.”

Is this perhaps why the actualisation of the project has encountered such fundamental problems of communication, understanding and implementation? The bid book presents a vision for change; while civic administrations generally operate according to standard procedures, patterns and politics. These often tend to be more patriarchal than feminist in design, deeply hierarchical and bureaucratic, and out of step with the brave voices that fostered the vision and action plan at the heart of Making Waves. This need for change at the heart of institutional systems is outlined in the bid: “In Ireland and in Galway, old certainties have been replaced by a new reality. Leaders of Church and State are judged to have betrayed the trust of their people. Many of our young people have left and many more from around the world have chosen to make their homes here, which has created sadness and joy in equal measure. The old order has changed and the clock cannot be reversed. We identify in ourselves a microcosm of the current existential challenges to Europe and our core values as Europeans. We bring to our ECOC bid both empathy and optimism and a resolution to develop and strengthen our bonds with the diverse cultures of Europe.”

Much has been reported about the state of Galway 2020 as an overall project, which has not, thus far, met the deep ambition, integrity and hope so passionately advocated for in Making Waves and the wider communities it represents. The creative individuals and groups who contributed their time, talent, and know-how voluntarily were not given the same say in how this landmark and, hopefully, transformative opportunity would materialise. At the same time, efforts have been undertaken by the 2020 team and supporting organisations to ensure the programme is unique, inspirational, and attends to the diversity and hopes of Galway and the West of Ireland.

Making Waves tells of the 300 documented artists in the city and county, and proposes a bid that will create synergies for the 'next wave' of creative artists. And yet, at a recent Galway city council meeting, councillors voted in favour to implement the deeply contested Street Performance and Busking Bye-Laws. Such thinking is telling of a lack of a thinking… Galway's "vibe" comes from the artistic encounter one is joyously immersed in when walking down the street, free of charge. The city council perhaps needs reminding that tourists don't come to Galway for the weather.

As of today, artists in Galway, like many throughout Ireland, survive against the odds. Theatre Forum's recent report into Pay and Conditions in the Performing Arts in 2018 evidences that many working artists earn less than minimum wage. They note that "while the CSO Labour Costs bulletin at the end of 2018 indicate that while economic recovery is benefiting most sectors, both the accommodation & food and arts & entertainment sectors continue to fall further and further behind."

Theatre57, a recently formed collective of over 90 theatre artists in Galway, is advocating for sustainability and infrastructure to support independent theatre in Galway . The deficit in infrastructure for artists in Galway is particularly harsh. In the recent Review of Arts Centres and Venues , the audit examines the 138 full-time arts centres or venues throughout the State. It noted that while Leitrim has 12.5 arts venues per 100,000 people, Co Galway has only 0.6, and Galway city has five per 100,000. This is not an accident. Artists have been allowed to slip through the cracks. Prevailing ideology dictates prevailing infrastructure. The issue is about value and exploitation.

The more pertinent questions we must ask are: how does the Irish State and society value the arts? How would people feel, and what would people do, if one morning they woke up, and all the bookshops, museums, theatres, cinemas, and exhibition centres were closed down? What if all the festivals and cultural activities were cancelled?

Previous city of culture awards, such as those in Derry (UK City of Culture 2013), Limerick (2014 National City of Culture) and Cork (European Capital of Culture 2005) are testament to the tensions that occur between the original creative vision for these projects and their subsequent implementation. Tensions between artists and bureaucratic forms of management are not new. And yet, they persist. Is the concept and practice of cultural change - both practically and ideologically – too difficult to surmount? No. Not if appropriate and fair decision-making is enacted. Huge resources directed to showcasing major international talent might wow a crowd for a week or two, as with previous city of culture programmes, but how does it change a local artist's career pathway to achieve sustainability in the long term? How does it leave behind a stronger artistic infrastructure for local communities to utilise when the programme concludes? How are the voices who contributed so generously to the bid enabled to provide consultation and feedback to those who implement the resources? How are they respected?

The more pertinent questions we must ask are: how does the Irish State and society value the arts? How would people feel, and what would people do, if one morning they woke up, and all the bookshops, museums, theatres, cinemas, and exhibition centres were closed down? What if all the festivals and cultural activities were cancelled? What if art was removed from schools, from after-school programmes, and from people's actual encounters to interact socially? No more theatre trips, or bookclubs, poetry readings or marathon box-set binges. No Electric Picnic. These are the arts – the worlds and spaces that entertain us, educate us, challenge and confront us, and of course, comfort us. They are the worlds that bring us together, whether physically or digitally, to speak back to us about our world. Art captures history, textures communication and can enable empathy, both locally and globally. It finds ways to document the stories of the underprivileged and marginalised as well as the established voices. Art navigates those feelings and sentiments that can't always find a fitting home in language.

Irish art is celebrated in Ireland but also around the world. It is used as personal, artistic, social, and cultural encounter; as educational tool, as tourist strategy, and at times, as problematic propaganda. Making Waves aspires that “the waves that we make, stirring up the essences of our traditional and contemporary culture, must carry our learning and achievement beyond our shores, and into the future. The legacy of Galway 2020 is what will be ultimately transformative.” Let us hope so.

Dr Miriam Haughton is Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway, and Vice-President of the Irish Society for Theatre Research