Beleaguered Limerick: The Arts Vs. The Bureaucrats

The fiasco that is Limerick City of Culture 2014 has been defined by an incompatibility between the arts community and the bureaucrats, though the source of the controversy surrounding Patricia Ryan’s appointment by Pat Cox is as rampant in the arts community as it is in the political classes

‘L’ for…Limerick?

RICHARD HASS did well to stay north of the border. The US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland is no doubt well- briefed in the history of conflict in Ireland, though the latest chapter in Limerick may have proved a bridge too far for the American diplomat.

Much of the commentary on Limerick City of Culture’s tumultuous week was triggered by the departure of Program Director Karl Wallace and two members of his team from the project. Citing issues in decision- making and being “side- lined” by the board, Wallace received an almost unanimous outpouring of support from the arts community both in Limerick and throughout Ireland.

The focus swiftly turned to Pat Cox, Chairman of the Board of Limerick City of Culture, and Patricia Ryan, the now- former CEO of the Limerick City of Culture project, who had worked for Cox as a political adviser when Cox was president of the European parliament. Ryan would later act as a special adviser to Mary Harney.

Eyebrows were raised regarding the nature of Ryan’s appointment to the €120,000 position, given that the 18- month contract had not been previously advertised and, therefore, Ryan had been appointed without any outside competition for the role.

The Artistes Vs. The Bureaucrats

What has marked the fallout from Limerick City of Culture has been an incompatibility between the artistic community and the bureaucrats. Writing in the Irish Independent, Emer O’Kelly, a former member of the Arts Council, opined that “politicians and business people see the world through a lens of image and public relations. Artists see, or at the very least look for, reality.“, in reference to Ryan’s objection to a single line in a rap song (the line being “the city looks rough”), which was composed by a group of youngsters from Moyross. Ryan claimed that the line portrayed an image of the city that Limerick Capital of Culture did not want to project throughout the festival.

Don Paterson Vs. Creative Scotland

All of which reminds me of a powerful and persuasive critique of Creative Scotland– Scotland’s national arts agency- written by Don Paterson, the leading poet of his generation.  Writing in the Herald Scotland, the multi- award- winning poet launched a stinging attack on the bureaucrats behind Creative Scotland:

“The business advisers and ‘arts brokers’ of Creative Scotland should never, under any circumstances, be in the position of driving what kind of art or literature is produced by offering extravagant incentives for projects that they themselves would like to see, and that would not have spontaneously occurred to the artists themselves. This is medieval patronage, not support.”

The outspoken Scot then recommended the following:

“The first step will be to entirely destroy Creative Scotland’s dysfunctional ant-heap (I could find no polite synonym for ‘cluster***k’), the product of a shocking SNP policy vacuum and a New Labour neo-managerialism incapable of understanding the difference between art and business. (Let me spell it out for those still confused: investing in art has no guaranteed return. If it does, it isn’t art.)

The second will be to take the adult decision of trusting its artists with art, its administrators with administration, its brokers with brokerage – and then make the almost unimaginable leap of simply trusting each other. Until then we will deserve our reputation as nation of amateurs, who invest their precious and shrinking resources not in the creation and distribution of books, art, music, drama, not in the means by which the nation can dream, aspire, inspire – but in third-rate cookery programmes.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Paterson: artists should be trusted with art, administrators with administrations. Ryan’s unfortunate step into an untrained role of  lyric- editor is testament enough to this point.

However, as applicable as Paterson’s wide- ranging critique is to the current situation in Limerick, there are elements to the broader, larger issues within both the arts and within government bureaucracy that the City of Culture fiasco has raised, though these elements have not as of yet been discussed in the media.

Cronyism in the arts politics

On yesterday’s edition of the Marian Finucane show on RTÉ Radio One, Limerick Leader editor Alan English gave what I would consider to be a refreshingly mature and objective contribution to the discussion regarding the ongoing debacle in Limerick.

English observed, quite rightly, that Pat Cox’s apportionment of Patricia Ryan as CEO of the project- without the role being previously advertised- was a “big mistake” from the start; of this there can be absolutely no doubt. However, English goes on to say that if the very nature of the appointment had taken place in the private sector rather than the public sector, “no- one would have batted an eyelid.”

I would extend English’s sentiment to the arts community in Ireland; that if the very nature of Ryan’s appointment had similarly happened in the arts community- that is, that had she been appointed by a longtime friend and former colleague for a role that had not been previously advertised and, therefore, had been appointed without any outside competition- not a single individual would have batted an eyelid.

There is not a year that goes by where I am not stunned by the level of blatant cronyism, favoritism and sycophancy that is, I believe, endemic in the arts in Ireland. True: the amount of money involved and the profile boost have defined Ryan’s appointment, though let’s focus not on salaries and more on the actions that lead to an individual landing such a role.

Like many supporters of the arts in Ireland, I gather and hoard brochures and festival programs of arts festivals from around the country, particularly those of literary arts festivals that I collect in bookshops and cinemas. Such is the incestuous nature of the literary arts in Ireland, I have almost always been able to form a spider- diagram of how the program director of the festival knows at least one of the readers / chairpersons of a panel discussion / workshop tutors / presenters of a reading. Cronyism and favoritism are as rampant in the arts in Ireland as they are in any other strata of Irish life; be it party politics, the media, GAA / Rugger circles, the church, or any other social sphere that exists in Irish life. The “cute hoor nod and wink” is not unique to Irish public life; to pretend otherwise would be utterly ridiculous.

Some years ago, a friend of mine was shortlisted for a writing competition. Having assembled at the venue for the prize- giving ceremony, the other shortlisted writers and members of the general public were waiting for the prize- giving ceremony to start. While having a smoke outside, my friend saw the judge of the competition arriving in his car; in the passenger seat of the judge’s car was the recipient of the competition’s first prize. It has since been established that the judge and the recipient of the competition’s first prize had been friends long before the prize and, to this day, remain friends.

Saving Face

Last August, in the aftermath of Maureen Kennelly’s appointment as Director of Poetry Ireland, I wrote a feature containing five suggestions for the incoming director. I received some support for what was, I hope, my honest, fair and balanced opinion piece. However, I was struck by the fear that some had in being associated with the feature.

I received notification emails from Facebook and Twitter notifying me that certain individuals had, in the case of Facebook, either ‘Liked’ or ‘Shared’ my feature, and, in the case of Twitter, had ‘Re- Tweeted’ or ‘Favored’ my feature.

To my surprise, when I accessed my Facebook and Twitter accounts, no trace of the nature of the notification emails could be found: those who had ‘Liked’, ‘Shared’, ‘Re- Tweeted’ or ‘Favored’ had since deleted their posts. Furthermore, these individuals had ‘unlinked’ my public Facebook page, so as to further distance themselves from my opinion piece. Though I don’t take social media terribly seriously, I found this behavior odd, to say the least.

Of the handful of individuals who rescinded their online endorsement of my opinion piece, one was a former Poetry Ireland intern, the other was a workshop facilitator who has, in the past, received funding from both Poetry Ireland and from the arts council.

It wasn’t the case, I don’t believe, that these people disagreed with me; the individuals involved have, in the past, disagreed with my opinion and have mounted spirited defenses, online. Rather, I believe that they were fearful that their endorsement of my opinion piece on Poetry Ireland might go against them in the future. In short, I believe that they were more interested in saving face than fearlessly expressing an open, honest opinion.

Similarly, I was also taken aback by the reaction from some of my superiors, one of whom took me aside and advised me that I would never, as the saying goes, have lunch in this town again, another of whom advised me that if I wanted to carve out a literary career for myself, I was going about it the wrong way.

I don’t regret for a single, solitary second writing the opinion piece: to have any integrity as a writer, one must write honestly and fearlessly. I have no doubt that my opinions have cost me opportunities and friends, though what has cost me, socially, has- I hope- been balanced out with a gain to my integrity. In fact, I’m reminded of something that the late Dennis O’Driscoll said in a RTÉ radio interview about the incestuous nature of the literary arts in Ireland:

“I think that unless people speak the truth about the books that they get for review and they’re not bearing in mind rows they’ve had with people or that the publisher who published the book [for review] rejected a book of theirs or whatever…I think there’s a tremendous amount of dishonest reviewing and it takes a lot of courage and, I think, a lot of integrity and support on behalf of the editor you’re writing for, as well, to do honest reviews. I think it’s a tremendously important activity, but it does cost you friends and a lot of things, really.”

Where to from here

Dialogue between the arts community and the bureaucrats is the only way forward for Limerick City of Culture. Both have to accept that for any public arts festival or cultural celebration to take place, both sides need each other, whatever the cost.

If the debacle over the last week has shown anything, however, it is that the public do care about arts festivals and culture in Ireland; they care about how their town or city is represented in the national media and to the rest of the island. The very fact that 500 members of the public gathered for an emergency meeting, last week, shows this much. If anything, this is a small victory for the arts in Ireland and, one hopes, a turning point for transparency in Irish life.

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