It’s only just 2014 and Limerick City of Culture is high on the news agenda, locally, nationally and internationally and sadly, it’s mostly for the wrong reasons! I attended a public meeting on the subject last evening (January 3) and I’ll talk about that after a short synopsis of the issues.
After kicking off the year-long designation with an official launch and other events on New Year’s Eve, a short while later the news broke that Artistic Director, Karl Wallace, and programmers, Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath, had resigned.
To summarise, Mr Wallace said he could “no longer stand over a project that I have concerns about, concerns that have been repeatedly aired but not addressed” and he had made recommendations about staffing that were ignored. He also indicated that there had been a breakdown in communication with the CEO.
Chairman of the board, Pat Cox, thanked all three for their contribution; indicated Mr Wallace’s resignation followed a performance review and more or less said that the show must go on.
This chain of events followed previous controversy in November when it was revealed that the recently appointed City of Culture CEO, Patricia Ryan, had previously worked for Pat Cox and the post wasn’t advertised. Limerick local authorities manager, Conn Murray, explained why the appointment was “fast tracked” i.e. time constraints, Ms Ryan was chosen from five potential candidates who were headhunted. Minister Michael Noonan and others also defended the decision.
Fast forward to this evening where 500+ people crammed into a conference room at a public meeting to talk about City of Culture. These included Pat Cox; Patricia Ryan; available board members, Tim O’Connor, Brian McEnery and Dave O’Hora; City Mayor, Kathleen Leddin and other councillors. This was in addition to many people from the local arts/cultural scene including members of the Professional Limerick Artists’ Network (PLAN), plain ole concerned citizens and of course, members of the press (who were nearly kicked out but the audience objected).
There was a full spectrum of human emotion on display in the Pegasus Suite—regret, sadness, anger, contempt, disdain, hope, zeal to name but a few. A lot of people got the chance to air their views and sometimes the things said were heated but most of it was very valid and productive. Reactions spanned from applause to heckles! BTW the two Alans in the Limerick Leader @AlanEnglish9 and @alanowens_limk did excellent coverage of the event/press conference on Twitter. Definitely check that out on the Tweet Machine. Also, apologies for the length of this post in advance…it was a long meeting and the issues are varied and many.
The meeting began with three cheers for Karl Wallace. One thing that was in abundance was respect for him, his vision and hard work. That appreciation was expressed many times throughout. One of the overriding themes of the meeting was trust. The bond of trust has been badly damaged with his departure and the resignation of two other staff. Several representatives from funded projects asked who would be their contact person now—a real and practical concern.
The board will begin the search for a new artistic director immediately but as a few people pointed out, whatever issues that Karl encountered have to be addressed. Otherwise, personnel changes are futile. Some people felt that Mr Cox’s comments to the local media that Karl Wallace did not show up for meetings following a performance review and then subsequently resigned was intended to discredit Mr Wallace. There was a shout from the crowd that Mr Wallace was at a funeral in the UK [at the time that meetings were sought].
People called for the artistic director to be reinstated and someone even implored the CEO to ask him to come back. Of course, only Mr Wallace can change his decision but the consensus from the arts community seemed to be that he should be the one to implement his vision. That may not come to pass but another consistent point was that the City of Culture must go on.
All the passion in the room amounted to the fact that everyone wants to make this year a success. It’s bigger than any person or job, bigger than politics or egos. Limerick is the inaugural National City of Culture. One place had to be first and we can’t hand it back now! The pressure is enormous and the potential for failure vast but the rewards could be just as immense, not just for people and the projects being produced, but for the audience.
Pat Cox made a short statement at the start and said the resignations were unexpected and not a happy event. He acknowledged the work done to date. He said this was “a bump in the road” but we shouldn’t lose sight of the long road ahead. The unanimous decision of the board was to accept Karl’s resignation and to advertise for a new AD. There is a full commitment to deliver the programme already set out and furthermore, representatives from the arts community were to be appointed to the board. He emphasised that people who wanted to be involved could be and encouraged them to take ownership. He added that other cities of culture had encountered problems too but the focus to succeed is important.
Councillor Tom Shortt then spoke. He expressed his respect for those making a living as artists and that they had been let down. He wasn’t happy at the time gap between the announcement of the designation and the budget allocation or the fact that there were no public representatives on the CoC board. He said Mr Murray had failed to put a “cohesive team” which could work together in place and the fact that three people had resigned was a “big statement” that spoke volumes.
Cllr Shortt said a “political appointment” was the problem and that while he wasn’t making a personal attack on Ms Ryan or anyone else, people are demanding (and deserve) transparency and accountability.
John Greenwood of PLAN indicated that a very large cross section of the public had “no confidence” in the board, the chairman or the CEO and mediation was needed to resolve the issues.
Conn Murray spoke next said he had explained Ms Ryan’s appointment at length. He refuted that it was “political” and a process was engaged in. He said in 30+ years as a public servant he had never had his integrity questioned…several audience members pointed out that this was now happening.
Questions and statements followed from the audience through chair, Richie Ryan, and I’ll list the most relevant that I heard (paraphrased, sometimes combined in one point. Sorry if I missed anything).
- If the board can advertise for a new AD at short notice, why couldn’t it advertise for a CEO in the same way? Perhaps a more qualified candidate could have been found.
- Mr Wallace had unified the artistic community and there was no “bitching” since his appointment.
- Many relevant parties had been in voluntary committees as part of the CoC process under Mr Wallace and those hundreds of hours had been very productive and inclusive, as had public consultation.
- There were numerous calls for the CEO and/or board to step down.
- There is a lot of enthusiasm for the City of Culture on the ground.
- Not every decision made by a board is acceptable to everyone.
- A producer of New Year’s Eve events claimed that programmers refused to work with him.
- The ‘Made in Limerick’ strand of the CoC involved communities with little or no experience and they need professional support to achieve their potential.
- One lady said she “didn’t come to this meeting for a public hanging” and the best thing would to heal and move on.
- Why had Karl Wallace been “executed” when the problem people had was with the CEO’s appointment?
- Why didn’t Mr Cox anticipate a conflict of interest in the appointment of his former staff member?
- A lot of work has been done and it is vital to rebuild trust. Perhaps another board member could be a go between with the arts community?
- The structure of the CoC board should be overhauled.
- The board has failed in its purpose.
- The CEO is being paid high wages when the money could be spent on projects.
- Karl Wallace should be asked to come back by the “big people”. It’s not about ‘Them Vs Us’
- Trust and openness is very important. The board should take criticism on board and “regenerate”. They deserve a chance. “Let’s not tear ourselves apart”.
- People should join in and enjoy the City of Culture “for Limerick’s sake”.
- There is a hunger for specific answers as to why Karl stepped down.
Outcome: Mr Cox said he had taken note of all questions and time was required for him and the board to respond. It was agreed that there would be another meeting shortly where answers would be issued. I’ll try to let people know the deets if I can.
Low blows? It got personal…
There was a lot of personal criticism levelled at board members. One gent said: “The only culture the board members would know is yoghurt”. That’s not only harsh but also wildly presumptuous. Another statement was that the board members “couldn’t be from Limerick”. This is just incorrect. The vast majority are from Limerick or have lived here for a long time.
Mr Cox seemed upset that it was being implied that he has abused privilege and his character and integrity was in question. He said he was asked to be on the board by Mr Murray as were the two other Freemen of the City, Bill Whelan and Paul O’Connell. The membership of the board was voluntary and there was no remuneration. He travelled up and down from his home in Dublin at his own expense and was happy to do so.
He said integrity and values mattered to him. He said he “did not solicit employment for anyone” and although Ms Ryan had worked for him in Brussels when he was an MEP, he had finished his job there more than 10 years ago. He added that he had taken on the CoC role with the best of intentions.
I imagine it was difficult for Patricia Ryan to speak given the controversy over her appointment and the repeated calls for her resignation, but she did. She said she was from Limerick and had studied in UL. She said her role was project management and were not the duties of an artistic director. But then, it did emerge earlier yesterday that she suggested that a rap about Limerick written by two local lads be adjusted for political correctness. ‘Stick to project management and don’t venture into artistic censorship’ would be my advice there! Addressing the audience at the meeting, she said she wanted to work with them.
I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the board members are actual people and not faceless automatons who set out to hijack this designation for their own interests and disrupt the work of artists etc. As we are all apt to do, I’m sure they make mistakes/poor decisions; act hastily; have regrets and vow to do better. In fact, I know one board member personally and would vouch for his dedication to making the City of Culture a success. I can’t read minds or speak for anyone but I don’t think anyone is out to sabotage this event or waste this opportunity.
Does the board need to answer questions? Yes. Do they need to apologise if they made errors? Yes. Do they need to take positive action? Yes. Do people need to engage in mud-slinging while asking those questions/listening to the answers? No. People are angry at what is perceived as a character assassination of Karl Wallace but should bear in mind what they are firing back.
Us Vs Them. It’s a narrative as old as time itself and there are no winners. Everyone at the table for an event like this has a right to be there. Maybe the board members and the relevant stakeholders all need to try harder to work together. City of Culture is supposed to be a celebration after all!
While I have sympathy for Patricia Ryan, I think her position is untenable because of the issues with the selection process (which I presume she had no power over). In my opinion, she should think about stepping down because this controversy is detracting from the event. The position should be advertised and though the process may be slowed down, at least it will be seen to be fair and open. She could apply for the job again and be interviewed by a new panel.
Conn Murray has an explanation as to why she was hired in this way. Great. But if this issue is going to hamper the greater good, he needs to accept that it was a mistake and rectify it. Then he can get on with the very important business of amalgamating the two local authorities by mid 2014.
I don’t think there is case for the entire City of Culture board to resign. Wiping the slate clean is all well and good but the members were chosen for a reason—expertise and experience. Perhaps the decision making process should be more democratic and transparent going forward? I suppose the board members need to decide whether they want to continue and if so, take on the relevant feedback and put measures in place to make things better.
I agree that the addition of more representatives from the cultural/artistic community is necessary and maybe a plain ole audience member or two. They should’ve been there from the start but I can’t find a flux capacitor for my time machine so I guess we’ll all just have to live with it! Better late than never. Cllr Shortt should maybe join the board because he can see things from both the political and artistic sides.
The Bible preaches a lot about forgiveness, “To err is human, to forgive divine” and all that. Everyone wants Limerick to have a fantastic year as City of Culture and that legacy to continue well into the future. This goal should be unifying, not divisive. I only hope that, with the full support of citizens here, the board members, staff and local authorities can be brave enough to turn things around.
To quote Hugh Murray at the meeting yesterday “Let’s not tear ourselves apart”. Plenty of others can do that, and the detractors will, but we all owe it to Limerick to make this happen.