Local Arts News: Good and Bad

Welcome to 2015!! After an truly packed arts calendar in Limerick last year, I hope that momentum will carry on and I’m sure the community- whether practitioners or audience members- will guarantee this. Limerick will be one of the cities vying for European Capital of Culture 2020 and after a great City of Culture 2014 year, we’ve shown that ‘Yes We Can/Is Féidir Linn’ spirit that is essential to win the prestigious bid. Now onto some news…

The Good…

The Arts Council has awarded €1.8m in funding to Limerick arts organisations—a 3.5% increase on last year, The Limerick Leader has reported.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra received €860,000; the Association of Irish Choirs received €125,000; Limerick Printmakers, €60,000; Fresh Film Festival, €53,000; Dance Limerick, €125,000; EVA International, €222,000; Limerick City Gallery of Art, €112,500; Limerick Arts and Culture Centre (69 O’Connell Street, former Belltable) and the Lime Tree Theatre, €125,000 and Friars’ Gate Theatre, €20,000. The Limerick City and County Arts Service received €102,000.

The results of the funding means that there will be some great theatre, dance, music, film, visual art and more in local venues this year. Huzzah!!

On the Wire (7)On The Wire—a Made in Limerick project for City of Culture 2014—has been nominated for a prestigious Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Production. The piece, about World War I as seen through a local lens, was really excellent and a true highlight of the year. The atmospheric venue in the Sailor’s Home was complemented by amazing set/production design and the performances were superb. On the Wire was written and performed by Marie Boylan, Mike Finn, Conor Madden, Amanda Minihan and Shane Whisker as was directed by Terry O’Donovan  for Wildebeest Theatre Company.

Limerick City of Culture was also nominated for the Judges’ Special Award. Congrats to every involved with both nominees. The awards ceremony take place on February 22, at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

The Bad…

It is with heavy heart that I say that one of my favourite regular theatre fixtures in Limerick, Theatre at the Savoy, is taking a break for the next while. The good news is that the venue, the Savoy Hotel, was purchased last year and will undergo some refurbishment—including the areas near the lobby where the monthly event has taken place since 2012.

A statement released said that “regrettably, Theatre at the Savoy will…go dark for the next few months”.

“Theatre at the Savoy opened its doors at The Savoy Hotel in Limerick in 2012 and since then has brought almost 70 different quality national and international productions to Limerick. In three short years, Theatre at the Savoy became a renowned fixture on the theatre touring circuit.”2dbbda33-04c7-4c82-ba5c-b866bd033f7c

Colm O’Brien, Maeve McGrath and Pius McGrath of Payday Productions (which ran Theatre at the Savoy) acknowledged “the management and staff of The Savoy Hotel along with the management of The Lime Tree Theatre for invaluable support over the past three years. Most importantly we would like to thank our loyal audience and members of the local press without whom Theatre at the Savoy would simply have been a good idea, instead of the cultural success it became. Thank you all”

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing lots of the productions over the last few years and greatly enjoyed most of them. Personal highlights for me included I Do, Bandit, My Life in Dresses, The Sweet Shop, The Wheelchair on my Face, Dorset Street Toys, A Chip in the Sugar and Songs of Joyce to name but a few. The event showed that there is a hunger for lunchtime/café style theatre in the city. We can only hope that Theatre at the Savoy returns with gusto later in 2015.

Giant video projection, LANDLOCKED, to open tomorrow (Dec 12) until Jan 3

A002_C004_0609K1A large-scale outdoor projection of a series of documentary video portraits, LANDLOCKED, is being launched tomorrow (Friday December 12) at 5.30pm in the Thomas Street Community Gardens.

The work by video artist Christina Gangos will run until January 3 and will feature 10 people “who form the fabric of Limerick” projected on a large city wall on Thomas Street in Limerick City centre.

It was shot by the artist when she was living in Limerick and all the participants stand in silence. Participants were asked “to contemplate life-changing events for 10 minutes while they were filmed. Their thoughts are kept private, yet the camera documents the physical process, the slight movements and gentle motions of a body in thought”.

The people who took part in the recording range in age from eight years old to 50 (at the time of filming).

The project aims to create “a space for silence and stillness above the busy Christmas city streets”.

The giant video projections will be 20m x 11.25m and will be visible on the wall above the Thomas Street Community Gardens during the hours of darkness. The optimum time to view this work is from 5.30pm-7am.

Commenting on the installation of this work, the artist Christina Gangos, said she was “very excited to have the opportunity to project this work in a large-scale outdoor location”.

“So often people and their thoughts are invisible to us, in LANDLOCKED I wanted to create a space for us to commune with others, without shame, social coding or language,” she added.

Ms Gangos is an independent documentary filmmaker, who lived in Limerick city for six years and is currently based in Athens, Greece. She studied journalism and history at the American College of Greece and then went on to do a Masters in Documentary by Practice at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her films have been shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Center Pompidou in Paris, Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Gate Theater London, IFI Dublin and various major festivals.

“Her films aim to capture everyday moments and processes, inundated with the ability to disclose reality to the patient viewer. Stripping layer by layer of social representation and décor by elongating time to its normal length, her works in film are documents of bare living.”

Originally created with support and funding from the Arts Council, the exhibition and installation of LANDLOCKED in this prominent outdoor city location is is made possible by the support of Limerick City of Culture 2014. The support of Tony Clarke from City Centre Car Park was also much appreciated.

For more information, see www.landlocked-ireland.com.

Missing the Belltable

170711121655--IMG_1013Well, it’s the end of January (good riddance!) and 2013 is off to a bittersweet start for the local arts scene. There is a Belltable Arts Centre sized hole in my theatre schedule. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Long rant ahoy!

After 32 years, Ireland’s first regional arts centre closed early in the month for a temporary “seasonal closure” with the loss of five/six staff. The board proposed “a re-structuring plan” that would give the venue a “sustainable path for the future” and allow it to “plan for its role during Limerick’s year as national City of Culture in 2014”.

This review of the artistic policy will involve “wide consultation” to form a “new vision” and the closure would allow the venue “breathing space”. It’s admirable how many management-speak buzzwords are crammed into such a short statement. The gallery space and Chimes café downstairs are still open.

It’s a long story…

So just over two years after it reopened after a €1.26 million refurbishment, the Belltable is closed. A Government grant and Limerick City Council funded the project. The Belltable also received €550,000 for enabling and wiring works in 2006. The Limerick Leader reported that the Belltable is in debt up to six figures and it could be mid-summer 2012 before it reopens. Seemingly, the redevelopment “cost more than anticipated”. The cost of everything is a lot more than in 1981, when it was converted into a theatre venue for £20,000. Then again, audiences were more enthusiastic then too.

BL-CultureBut the fact is that an independent auditor questioned whether the Belltable Arts Centre could continue to operate when net liabilities were over €100,000 by the close of 2008. It lost nearly €45,000 in 2008 and much the same the year before. A report by Deloitte & Touche stated the Belltable’s financial position at that time signaled a “material uncertainty, which may cast doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”. It warned that national funding was vital to its existence and “if at any time in the future, it were to lose funding provided by the Arts Council of Ireland or suffer a dramatic drop in box office sales, it would not be able to continue”. Although the financial situation improved from 2009 upwards, it was obviously not enough.

Unfortunately, the dangers of an over-reliance on Arts Council funding have been seen in Limerick before. Island Theatre Company and Daghdha Dance Company had their sizeable funding withdrawn and both are now defunct. The annual AC funding for the Belltable has been substantially reduced over the last few years. Cuts have affected many arts organisations and venues because of the knock on effect of the Government reducing the funding to the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism and the Arts Council. I think the AC should be one of the outlets to help the Belltable to become more sustainable going forward. Surely, there is a model elsewhere in Ireland or the UK that can be drawn upon?

For better, for worse…

In mid 2008, the Belltable closed for a refurbishment and relocated off-site to the former Red Cross Hall. The audience capacity was reduced from 275 to 100 and that had an understandable impact on box office takings. I don’t think anyone anticipated the revamp to take two years but issues with planning/construction hampered the project. I actually really liked watching performances up close and personal in that draughty old hall! The facilities were very basic and it was hard on performers and staff but it had a certain charm that seems to have gotten buried in the rubble torn out of its original home on 69 O’Connell Street.

The Belltable re-opened to much fanfare…and noise pollution in November 2010. The auditorium, exhibition space and audience facilities got a proper makeover. A new, specially commissioned show made its debut to a packed house. I was sitting in the very back and still I could hear the loud noise created by engine revving and metal clanging on metal. It seemed to be coming from behind the stage and went on for the first half hour of the play.

belltableIt turned out that the noise disturbance was from a garage in the alley behind the theatre. The self-employed owner, Mick Daly, was exercising his right to work at unusual hours. He had previously expressed his dissatisfaction at the works going on at the Belltable because they were disrupting his business. Define irony: By pure coincidence his business was now disrupting the theatre’s work.

I’ve been to see a lot of performances at the Belltable since November 2010 and the vast majority of them have had extra sound effects like revving, grinding, hammering and loud music. It’s a regular toolbox symphony orchestra back there! Define irony: The one thing the Belltable didn’t get in its €1.8m worth of works is suitable soundproofing.

There is a serious problem when an issue like this can’t be resolved. In June last year, the Leader revealed that the Belltable was paying a massive €3,000 a month for sound recording equipment to monitor the levels and pattern of noise behind the venue and round the clock CCTV.

This brings us nearly up to speed…

In April 2012, the Limerick Leader reported that the Belltable’s takings had risen by a whopping 82% and had nearly doubled to around €147,000 in 2011. However, the then artistic director Gerry Barnes, warned that due to a 15% cut in Arts Council funding, theatrical activity might “pause” over the summer. The Belltable’s AC funding was previously reduced by a quarter in 2010. It’s worrying when a theatre warns of a possible pause in theatrical activity.

Theatrical activity isn’t a DVD that you can pause, rewind and fast forward at will…or unlike the films in the Cine-Club, which the Belltable was increasingly relying on to fill up its programme. I love films but when a venue is not doing enough of what it became best known for, people aren’t so inclined to go. When there is a high chance of noise disruption, both audiences and performers get put off. It gets harder to attract productions and harder to draw people, and so on.

Also, I feel that pricing according to what row you sit in doesn’t work that well in a 220 seat venue with 25/26 rows. A bigger venue has levels or tiers and there is a significant difference with the view. Maybe the nosebleed seats i.e. the back five rows should be cheaper but I reckon everything else should be the same price. It’s better to fill the place with cheaper tickets than quarter fill it with more expensive seats.

Earlier in 2012, there was the unexplained non-appearance of the Unfringed Festival in its regular spot in January. I was told that it was rescheduled to summer. So when it didn’t appear that summer, I emailed Mr Barnes and I rang twice, leaving messages. No response. Thankfully it resurfaced, though rather abruptly, in October 2012. The programme—curated by Duncan Molloy—was very impressive and attendances (albeit in a variety of smaller venues as well as the Belltable) were healthy. What drew people out for the Unfringed?

Last year, I found that the houses in the Belltable generally were unpredictable. Sometimes it was full and other times it wasn’t. That is the case for most venues. I don’t have exact figures but I’d guess that the takings of the sell-outs weren’t making up for the rest. In the autumn, I got notices for LivingSocial deals on film and theatre tickets in the venue offering significant discounts. 159 of the ‘€10 for €20 to spend on theatre performances’ vouchers were purchased. I hope those people used them because although the promotional value expires on March 12, 2013, they’re about as useful as the HMV voucher your auntie got you for Christmas. Why not offer discounts directly via ticket bundles, social media or a loyalty scheme?

What now?

Although my patience had been wearing thin with the Belltable, I still miss it. Even the bad points weren’t enough to put me off going there. But I imagine all the things I’ve outlined (and more) annoyed the other patrons. During the refurbishment, audiences drifted away. After the move back home, audiences were driven away. People only have so much goodwill. I’m not blaming any one or any one factor. Maybe the Belltable just didn’t do enough to keep them coming through the doors. Maybe it lost sight of its remit and duty to artists, audiences and the community at large.

The climate has a lot to answer for too. People have less disposable income and going to see a play or a band is a luxury. There are more venues, all vying for business in a crowded market. The consumption and media of art have changed exponentially. Apathy is rampant. BUT although theatre, visual art and the written word have been around for thousands of years; music has lingered for many hundreds of years and even film has been reeling for over a century, there’s still a hunger for them locally and beyond.

The Belltable has a role. Now, the board et al needs to think very hard and not shy away from the issues here. Everyone gets very caught up in political correctness and not so much with doing the right thing. We can’t lose a prime city centre venue like this, particularly one which has had a large financial and artistic investment. It’s embarrassing ahead of Limerick’s campaign for City of Culture 2014. Define irony: The people involved in this drama need to act.

All about EV+A

You may have noticed that something is missing around Limerick. I’ll give you some clues. It’s an international cultural event that is on in a variety of venues and always on around this time of year. It has been running annually since 1977 (in fact, it once had two outings in one year). No? It’s a highly visible contemporary art exhibition. No-one can agree on how its name is pronounced…is it ee-va? Or ev-a? Or ee-vee and ay? Whatever way you put it, EV+A (Exhibition of Visual Art) isn’t on this year. It’s a shame because aside from confounding the occasional local politician, random art in public spaces adds a splash of colour to local life.

EV+A presents “the evidence that the best of contemporary art offers for the assessment, understanding and celebration of the contemporary culture that surrounds us” and accepts open submissions from artists working in any medium from around Ireland and the world. It also generally has a curator(s) who invites artists to submit work. There are several other strands to it like Young EV+A, which does workshops and tours etc.

The good news though, is that the Arts Council has made an allocation for EV+A 2012. Although the AC didn’t make an allocation for 2011, it didn’t want it to disappear but wanted to change the way the exhibition was run.

Limerick City Council arts officer, Sheila Deegan, said that the local authority negotiated with the AC to make it a reality for next year. The AC’s new three year strategy outlines plans to work with local authorities so organisations/artforms are not just considered as separate entities but as part of coherent strategies for an area.

“It’s a compliment in a way because they realise we have gotten bigger and they acknowledge that. EV+A is an autonomous committee with input from the arts office in the city council and Limerick City Gallery of Art. Initially, the tripod approach worked. They [the Arts Council] want to strengthen the EV+A element of it. It is an important brand,” she said.

Sheila mentioned Dublin Contemporary 2011, which has numerous similarities with EV+A i.e. a theme, multiple venues, internationally acclaimed curator(s) etc. The irony is that EV+A was initially set up because local artists wanted to do an exhibition of scale and quality outside the capital…and this year for the first time, if you want to see something like EV+A you have to go to Dublin.

Sheila added: “It’s interesting because the process that they [Dublin Contemporary] went through is they actually tried to get the strength of the organisation right to put on an exhibition whereas we [EV+A] have the opposite—the quality and reputation of the exhibition but we don’t have the strength of the organisation yet. That was their [the AC’s] main observation. We wrote a new plan that we submitted to them, which they accepted. Based on that, we got funding for 2012.”

Hopefully, all these efforts will make EV+A bigger and better for next year and its 35th anniversary. It’ll show those Dublin jackeens how to put on an art exhibition because as a Rubberbandit once said, “That’s Limerick City”.

EV+A website

The future of Daghdha Dance Company…

People are reacting with general puzzlement as to the future of Daghdha Dance Company, based in St John’s Church, in Limerick. I contacted the chairman of the board of directors last week, Karl Wallace, in the last 10 days and he told me that there would be an official statement issued soon but in case you (like me) are losing track of what has happened so far, here’s a recap.

On February 28, it was announced that the Arts Council had cut Daghdha’s funding by 100%. A statement was issued: “Daghdha Dance Company has been dancing differently for 23 years under the direction of founder member and original Artistic Director Mary Nunan, her successor Yoshiko Chuma and since 2003, the company’s latest Artistic Director, Michael Klien…Daghdha in the last eight years has carved out a niche for being daring, controversial, cutting edge, fantastically creative; and whilst moving from “favourite child to misfit” (Irish Times) always inspiring others to dance differently….We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our funders for their investment and commitment.”

Immediately, an online petition was launched—gathering 1,200 signatures so far—and Daghdha’s board sought to negotiate with the AC.

Daghdha held a farewell event, The Ponderous Counter-Spectacle Of Things Ceasing To Be, on March 26. The blurb for it stated that “Daghdha may have to close its doors, but not without celebrating the contribution of this special organisation to our lives as resident artists. The final grassroots event hosts many artists…”

A statement on March 28, said that the discussions with the AC did not “bear fruit” and all staff, including students on the Daghdha Mentoring Programme, had to made redundant. It also said that the directors “have taken the position that if it is not possible to have Michael Klien as Artistic Director then it is no longer possible to continue as a dance company”. It outlined plans to consult with a wide range of people on its future and “new vision”. The website currently says that another statement is “coming soon”.

Decline in funding
Daghdha was formed in 1988 by Mary Nunan and Teresa Leahy. It grew into a leading contemporary dance company nationally and internationally. The AC annual funding had been decreasing for several years; it was €160,000 in 2010 and €250,000 in 2009. The 2008 funding would have been around €340,000.

In 2009, the cut meant that Daghdha put on a reduced programme of activities. Klien was vocal on the issue, quoted in a local paper at the time saying: “We would like to express our distress and entrust that there will be a time when Daghdha will be officially acknowledged for what is has accomplished during this period…We will now restructure Daghdha according to our new economic reality.” In 2010, he said the AC was eroding their “artistic sovereignty” after the company’s funding was reduced to €160,000—a 70% decrease since 2007. “For three years the Arts Council has been actively manoeuvring to dictate Daghdha’s direction with a view to eventually avail of its assets to pursue their own vision, which, to our understanding, present unsustainable and locally irrelevant plans,” he was quoted as stating. Klien described the subsequent 2011 100% cut as “unjust”.

What now?
So, what will become of Daghdha’s base in St John’s Church? And what is the future for dance in Limerick?

The former church in St John’s Square became Daghdha’s home (after being based in UL) in 2004. A Government grant and independent fundraising covered the cost of the €1m refurbishment, which included a special sprung floor for dance. It’s a beautiful and atmospheric space, which has also hosted events such as the Cuisle Poetry Festival and the Eightball Productions ‘autumn:winter collection’ of gigs.

I spoke to city arts officer, Sheila Deegan, a few weeks after the initial announcement. She said that the city council holds the building in trust but Daghdha has a long-term lease on it. She added that although Daghdha’s artistic programme won’t be funded, the AC is committed to funding dance in Limerick. The council’s arts officials are waiting to see what form this will take but they still see St John’s Church as “a key cultural space” for dance.

My two cents
The company did excellent work giving classes to people with learning difficulties at the Garvey Enterprise Centre. Arising from this collaboration, The Love Spotters Dance Collective was formed by visiting Israeli choreographer, Daniel Vais, in 2005. It has performed all around Ireland and Europe. Daghdha established the innovative Mamuska Nights, which facilitated a “unique occasion to present and view evolving works, raw ideas, unrehearsed visions, trials and errors, short masterpieces, playful nonsense, first steps”. Daghdha eventually stopped holding them but the format has been used elsewhere. It also held some local events like family days and brunches.

Daghdha undoubtedly pushed boundaries with publications on choreography like Framemakers—Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change. It attracted “over 70 dance-artists to stay and make their living” locally. It ran the Daghdha Mentoring Programme (DMP) to allow dancers to do self-directed study into choreography and in early 2011 launched the very first MA in Choreographic Arts in partnership with LSAD (I’m not sure what will happen to that now). The company has a stellar international reputation and garnered a lot of critical praise. Daghdha’s achievements are many.

However, there are those that would question its high funding allocations, particularly in comparison to what other venues/organisations/artforms would get. According to a report by the AC on national arts audiences last year, 115,000 attended a contemporary dance performance once a year, or more often—out of 1.54m people who attended arts events once a year, or more often. To put this in context, 865,000 people went to a play once a year, or more often.

In my opinion, Daghdha had a tendency towards the esoteric. I wouldn’t go to contemporary dance often but I appreciate it most when it’s accessible to plebs like me. The last show I saw by Daghdha was Rolling, its contribution to the 2010 Belltable Unfringed Festival, and it didn’t impress (raw reaction here). I also went to a DMP performance once, which was possibly the zaniest event I’ve ever attended… and maybe the best €3 I ever spent. I could never be sure!

We are living in straitened times and no organisation is immune to cutbacks. I don’t think the AC makes decisions to cut like this lightly but it is sending a strong message that something needs to change. It would be a shame to see Daghdha go after 23 years. It is part of the cultural tapestry of Limerick and beyond. How it deals with this crisis will define its future. The AC is no longer the only funding outlet. With the set-up of the Fund It website, the public can make financial pledges towards projects and produce them. That’s a welcome addition, and something Daghdha could use for projects. The Dublin Dance Festival is currently using it for one element of the festival. The AC has also launched a promising, new funding scheme for dance graduates called Step Up.

If there is a dedicated audience for contemporary dance, they’ll put their money where their mouths are.

I’ll post on the upcoming statement when it is available and if you want to check out Daghdha’s past events, there are videos etc on the website.