Politicians love the City of Culture concept. It allows them to divert money towards their own constituency in the name of urban renewal and economic improvement gussied up in the guise of cultural patronage. On the other hand, after events of the past week every politician linked with Ireland’s inaugural City of Culture project must now regret the association.
In July 2012 Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan announced the government would sponsor a biennial City of Culture, beginning with Limerick in 2014. It is telling that no other cities were invited to tender for the honour. So is the fact that the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, whose department was to provide the necessary funds in an era when established bodies like the Arts Council are experiencing consistent budgetary cuts, is a Limerick native. Yet only last October, two and a half months before the year-long celebrations were due to start, did Mr Noonan deign to inform the City of Culture board how much largesse he was bestowing: €6 million.
The chairman of aforementioned board, former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox, is also a Limerick man. Despite his position as head of the organisation responsible for overseeing the City of Culture programme, he claims to have played no part in last autumn’s appointment to the post of the organisation’s chief executive, again without open tender, of yet another Limerick native, Patricia Ryan; it just happens that Ms Ryan formerly worked as an aide to Mr Cox.
The storm that followed this revelation eventually blew over and all seemed set for a competent, if not especially imaginative 12 months of events in Limerick. It is hard to grow too excited about a programme in which a trumpeted ‘highlight’ are 20th anniversary performances of Riverdance, a show which rightly belongs in Las Vegas rather than a City of Culture. But given the shortage of time and belated declaration of funds, one can understand the necessity of playing safe.
In any case if Riverdance lacks drama, plenty of that has been supplied of late by some of the project’s main players. On New Year’s Day it emerged artistic director Karl Wallace had resigned, along with two of his programmers. Subsequent revelations included the news that Mr Wallace had had no part in scheduling the year’s opening celebrations – these had been farmed out to an events management company – and that he and his co-workers had effectively been sidelined from the jobs they were hired to do.
Instead Ms Ryan, despite her acknowledged lack of any arts management experience, appears to have taken a more hands-on approach than was sensible. She had, for example, written to one local rap group requesting the lyrics of a pretty innocuous song be changed because they were ‘not really the image we want to portray.’
Since Mr Wallace’s departure much umbrage has been taken, much spleen vented and high horses found in great demand, especially among the self-declared ‘arts community’ of Limerick which last Friday was out in force at a public meeting to discuss the rapidly disintegrating City of Culture. Calls were made for the resignations of both Ms Ryan and Mr Cox: by Sunday evening she had duly obliged, to date he has refused to do so. Meanwhile there have been incidental delights, such as an admission by the Arts Minister that his information on what had taken place had come through reading newspaper reports, and Mr Cox’s catty comment that Karl Wallace’s resignation, which precipitated the whole crisis, might prove ‘a blessing in disguise.’
On Tuesday afternoon it was announced that yet another local, Mike Fitzpatrick, currently head of Limerick School of Art & Design, had been granted temporary leave of absence to act as interim chief executive and artistic director of the City of Culture, thereby making one wonder why the two jobs had ever been separated. In addition a commitment was given that the project’s board, which already featured such worthies as a retired rugby player and the chief executive of Shannon Airport, would be supplemented by a couple of people with actual, first-hand knowledge of cultural activity.
One could grow indignant about the whole shabby mess, but that would be to overlook its deliciously absurdist character. Limerick City of Culture: An Improvised Comedy.