City of Culture initiative continues to attract controversy

Karl Wallace’s resignation comes after row over chief executive job

The Government’s inaugural city of culture initiative is no stranger to controversy and confirmation yesterday that three key organisers have jumped ship did not come as too much of a surprise.

As recriminations continue, a question mark hangs over the Limerick programme and whether it can recover its original spirit. The aim of the €6 million project is to "permanently increase the engagement of citizens with arts and culture", Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan told the Dáil last month.

It is a national version of the much larger European Capital of Culture, an event Ireland has hosted twice.

Despite a high-profile launch this week, the focus has been mainly on tensions surrounding its management structure. Last November, a public row centred on the appointment of chief executive Patricia Ryan, a former political adviser to board chairman and former MEP Pat Cox.


Defending this decision, Limerick manager Conn Murray said he had chosen the most appropriate person for the job, a position that pays just under €6,600 a month.

Addressing the issue in the same Dáil address, Deenihan said it was a matter for the local authorities. Just as that controversy was dying down, artistic director Karl Wallace announced his departure. His decision was confirmed by the board, as were those of "non-staff programmers" Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath who "indicated their intention to terminate their contracts".

In a statement yesterday, Cox avoided addressing the reasons they left but used the opportunity to further promote the festival.

“We will be taking stock of resourcing requirements in light of these decisions and will strengthen our team accordingly,” he said, in a brief reference to the staffing controversy.

It is understood the board will discuss the situation in the coming days and announce how it intends to manage the fallout.

"It's a real pity and obviously people must feel strongly if they feel their positions are untenable," said Willie White, artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival who knows both Wallace and Mangan but insists he is unaware of what occurred.

“It’s not difficult at all [to organise such a festival] if you have competent people and both Jo Mangan and Karl Wallace are. I know [Karl] professionally and socially and I am not aware of him being a bad organiser.”

Mangan “can bring people on board and deliver ambitious projects on low budgets”, he said.

“Limerick is a place that has a lot of bad-news stories and so a good-news story around the city of culture is a very desirable thing. It’s a pity that it hasn’t gone to plan so far.”

Riverdance composer and city of culture board member Bill Whelan remains positive. "It is undoubtedly a disappointment when anyone decides to step down from the team, but I am confident on behalf of the board that there will be appropriate artistic direction for the project at a senior level for 2014," he said.

Maria Kelly, chief executive of the Limerick Chamber of Commerce, said there had not yet been any obvious impact locally.

“I would say if it continues and we are still talking about this in two weeks time the frustration will set in,” she said.

“But the programme out there is brilliant. We will judge it on how the entire year went and not on a news story at the very beginning.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times