Belltable Arts Hub Reopens!

outside BT

The building decked out for its re-launch.

I was never more pleased to be at launch than last Thursday (7 April) for the official reopening of the Belltable Arts Hub!

It’s been quite a turbulent few years for the venue at 69 O’Connell Street with resignations, refurbishments, noise disturbances, liquidation and the uncertainty that followed all of that. The last time I wrote about the Belltable I did a very long post recounting the whole saga BUT now the second age of the Belltable has finally arrived.

The reopening was a jubilant affair, complete with a street party and flash mobs. Speakers on the night included outgoing board chairman, Brendan Lane and Louise Donlon, Manager of the Lime Tree, who with her team has made a big contribution to keeping the Belltable alive. In a very fitting way Bríd Dukes, the founding artistic director, cut the ribbon—almost exactly 35 years after the centre first opened in 1981. At the time, regional arts centres were non-existent and as one of the first, the Belltable put Limerick on the cultural map.

BT logo

The new logo

The Belltable is now under the auspices of the Lime Tree Theatre at Mary Immaculate College, which has a five-year lease with Limerick City & County Council to run it. Another welcome return is the name, which can be used after “a lengthy litigation process”. Yikes! There was always a question over whether the brand had been damaged but I think that with all the positive memories associated with it, it was worth fighting for.

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Incoming Chairman of the Board, Colm O’Brien, at the new look bar

It has a new Programme Director in Marketa Dowling. As a former general manager of Fishamble: The New Play Company, she will bring vast experience to the role. Additions to the board include Riverdance composer, Bill Whelan and Colm O’Brien—CEO of Carambola Kidz and founder of Limerick’s Theatre at the Savoy. All these appointments will greatly enhance the rejuvenated venue.

The Credit Union building next door has been refurbished too to become offices and rehearsal space for use by local organisations.

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Some of the revamped rooms in the building next door to the Belltable, which is now part of the complex.

Although there have been events on at the Belltable in the past few years. The Lime Tree’s Arts Encounter programming has kept it ticking over splendidly but it will be a step forward to have someone dedicated to developing the venue itself as well as its events schedule. It is also welcome news that the Belltable will be an active participant in the local arts infrastructure again, especially in the context of Limerick’s bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2020.

After the mistakes of the past, I have a feeling that the Belltable Arts Hub has a secure future. I think I speak for many when I say I’m looking forward to attending lots of great events there in the coming years!

Long-awaited plans for former Belltable are revealed

There is finally some (official) light at the end of the tunnel for the arts venue formerly known as the Belltable Arts Centre. The Limerick Leader has reported that “Limerick City and County Council has agreed to adopt a new model for 69 O’Connell Street –formerly the Belltable Arts Centre – in order to make it an ‘artistic hub’ in the city centre”.

It is welcome news but there is already a little bit of discord. Why can’t we all just get along? Answers on a postcard.

The New Plans

European Capital of Culture 2020 bid director, Mike Fitzpatrick, announced the hub plans last week and said that a new creative director will be sought to run the venue.

LL shot Limk 2020The reintroduction of the venue is to provide “high quality cultural activity” . A ‘special six-person committee’ will be appointed to independently oversee programming activity for the venue, which will consist of two nominations from the council, two nominations from the Lime Tree Theatre and two nominations from the performing and visual arts sector in the city. Mr. Fitzpatrick said at the meeting that “it’s all about getting lots of people involved” under a “good solid mechanism”.

It is hoped that the café on-site will be developed. The former Sarsfield Credit Union side of the building will be used for rehearsal space and offices for local arts organisations.

Mr. Fitzpatrick said that “under the Limerick Arts and Culture Exchange [LACE], the entire arts and culture community has been included in the new model”. This has been disputed by Monica Spencer of LACE who has said that “the statement about ‘the entire arts community’ being involved through LACE was made without the knowledge of or consultation with the latter organisation”.

Council Director of Services, Pat Dowling, said a Service Level Agreement (SLA) will be drawn up by the authority to enact the new model.

“The collaborative approach to operating the facility into the future is based on a model of shared resources and a shared commitment to ensuring that the venue is developed for the city leveraging off the strong artistic heritage that has existed over the past four decades. While the key focus is to operate the venue with financial prudence with the objective of reestablishing the site as the central arts hub for Limerick, this new method of governance will also be ensuring the input of the artistic community into future programming and venue development,” he said. It has all the right buzzwords/phrases anyway but action is the thing people want to see at this stage.

A Long Road

While I welcome the announcement, I think it’s unfortunate that another important cultural initiative in Limerick has been marred by resignations by experienced personnel at the outset, after what happened at the start of 2014 with Limerick City of Culture.

The Leader reported on 3 July that Mary Coll, Dr Michael Finneran and Karen O’Donnell O’Connor stepped down as directors of Limerick Arts & Culture Centre Ltd, an independent company incorporated nine months ago by the council to oversee 69 O’Connell Street. Also “a number of others – who were approached and accepted a call to form a ‘board-elect’ several months ago – have also resigned, believing the project to be in a state of ‘inertia’.”

It’s a terrible shame because eight months before, in October 2014, there seemed to a lot of optimism at the prospect of a new board and progress in the plans for the venue (reported here).

Mary Coll was quoted, stating: “It is going to be a very smart, interesting group of people with genuine commitments to the arts and making things happen and are not coming in for any other reason other than to support work being done, and I am very excited about it…I think it is very positive. It holds a special place in people’s hearts. The Belltable was a big gap. What it will be next, and how it will fit into the space, will be interesting.”

I have to agree with them about the inertia. The Belltable closed over two and half years ago in January 2013. In March 2013, the company running it was liquidated—owing €2.3 million to 74 creditors. It was a sad end for one of Ireland’s first dedicated arts centres. Aside from being a huge part of Limerick’s arts infrastructure, it had recently undergone a €1.25 million development, largely paid for by taxpayers money. I previously posted about my personal feelings on it here.

In December 2013, at the conference ‘Imagining the Future for the Arts in Limerick; Dialogue and performance’, it was announced that there would be a public consultation on the Belltable’s future in February 2014 and an outcome would follow. The idea that the credit union side would incorporate rehearsal space and offices got a mention then too. The consultations took place in March-April 2014.

Now it’s July 2015 when the plans for the place are moving forward. Why did it take so long? I know the authorities were busy with Limerick City of Culture 2014 but many people feel that the flagship city centre arts venue should have played a bigger part in this event. How long it will take before the new hub is up and running? I think the council needs to publish a solid timeline going forward and stick to it.

Thankfully, 69 O’Connell Street was not left completely idle. It was used for a variety of events such as Limerick Arts Encounter, the Richard Harris Film Festival and more. The Lime Tree Theatre and its manager, Louise Donlon, deserve a mention for the work in helping to maintain activity here. Although it’s a shame that this new management plan didn’t come into action sooner, it’s a case of ‘better late than never’.

Inclusion & Collaboration

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 17.13.42Now to the plans for running the venue; it goes without saying that an artistic director is needed to formulate a creative vision and direction. Recruitment needs to happen swiftly because time’s a wastin’ and it will have to re-establish itself among touring companies and audiences alike.

I think an independent board is vital and those people need to be qualified and accountable. A board of directors, by its very definition, “jointly oversee the activities of a company or organisation”. It’s a serious business. The former board of the Belltable came under heavy criticism when the company was liquidated. Several members of the first new board of Limerick Arts & Culture Centre Ltd have resigned. There is no mention of a new board of directors/management etc in the announced plans.

Will there be an open call for new board members or will they just be appointed behind closed doors? I presume the six person committee is completely separate from the board but will there be an overlap between the two?

Will members of the artistic community will be on the board as well? If so, it would mean ownership and investment beyond bricks and mortar and funding. Business and financial expertise is one thing but having an insight into the local arts scene is important too.

As for programming, in the new structure, there will be two nominations from the performing and visual arts sector in the city. I think this might be a bit low. Perhaps there should be at least one representative from organisations like LACE, the Professional Limerick Artists’ Network (PLAN) and Creative Communities, on the committee as well?

There is a lot of talk about input and inclusion of the local artistic community but that all remains to be seen. It is troubling that LACE says it wasn’t adequately consulted. A lack of good communication at the start will hamper meaningful collaboration.

Models for running the show are all well and good but there won’t be an actual show without the local artistic community. Alienating them at the outset is not a good idea.

Learning from Mistakes

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 09.20.50I obtained some Arts Council correspondence from a Freedom of Information request some time ago relating to the Belltable between the years 2007-2012. Those funding letters indicate issues with organisational/management structure at the former venue going back several years. AC Letter Belltable

In the funding offer letter for 2011-2012 it says: “You should note that further drawdowns from the 15 month funding offered are conditional on the following: 1 In the light of concerns expressed previously regarding the management structure of the Belltable, that a plan acceptable to the Arts Council is put in place to resolve this issue. 2 Procedures laid down in the Articles of Association regarding the rotation of board members should be implemented and proposals in this respect to be notified to the Arts Council. I am available to discuss these matters which need to be attended to as a matter of urgency…”

There was a reference in a funding offer letter relating 2012-2013 to “a lack of clarity in the relationship between the two senior members of staff and the board. This lack of clarity has been referred to on a number of occasions over the past few years and is seen by the Arts Council as contributing to the continuing underperformance of the Belltable”.

So it’s fair to say that the Belltable had its share of internal strife and since the redevelopment, the only ‘good solid mechanism’ at the Belltable was probably the loud machinery from the garage out the back lane, disrupting the performances. It’s important that the new venue develops a structure that works but reviewing and monitoring this structure is equally relevant.

The Belltable’s gradual decline culminated in the venue shutting down with the loss of several jobs and a long list of people left out of pocket. The timing couldn’t have been worse and it was an undignified end for a 32 year old venue of national esteem. I’m not saying this to be negative; it’s a fact! It can’t be brushed under the carpet completely. To use a term often used in theatre; there needs to be catharsis—“The purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art”—and then everyone can move forward.

A Fresh Start

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 08.51.31The new plans are never going to please everyone all the time but at least, at last, there is a plan and with it, a great chance to start again.

Limerick city has been without this municipal arts centre too long and it is needed to contribute towards the development of a lively city centre and the legacy of Limerick City of Culture.

Another welcome addition would be a new name! 69 O’Connell Street- formerly known as the Belltable has a whiff of the ‘Prince/The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’ about it and the potential for confusing visitors is huge. In a previous post, I quoted playwright, Mike Finn, who felt that the Belltable as a brand had been damaged beyond repair. That may be so. Maybe the authorities could do a competition for name suggestions so local people can get involved?

I love the idea of a vibrant café there and I think it should be (A) open later than 5.30pm several days a week and (B) a venue in itself for smaller/informal events such as poetry readings, open mic nights, café theatre etc. I love the idea of the venue being very involved with the community so it draws people in. I love the idea of it running an exciting cultural programme with a passionate team of people behind it again—much like when it was founded with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm in the early 80s. I don’t think I’m alone in holding that affection for the place. It means a great deal to the people of Limerick.

I really want this new venue to grow and thrive so if Limerick secures the designation of European Capital of Culture 2020, this new venue (whatever it’s called) will be one of the best regional arts centres in the country again.

I hope the council can do something special here. I implore everyone involved to grasp the opportunity, harness the potential, return for a rousing second act and there may even be a happy ending.