Thoughts on the Galway Arts Festival

Around this time every year, my friends all seem to have the same conversation:

“Did you see the (Galway Arts Festival) program?  What do you think?”

“I don’t know, nothing’s jumping out at me.”

“It looks pretty lame, if you ask me.”

“That’s a little harsh. There’s always something there that surprises us.”

“Yea I guess. But its just not the same this year.”

Every year the people of Galway eagerly anticipate the Galway Arts Festival. Held annually since 1977, the much-loved Galway Arts Festival has engendered a legion of fans over its 33 year history.  And with good reason. The wide-ranging program features performances  in music, dance, theatre, literature, street theatre, and visual arts. Over the years there have been many epic performances. At its best it has been a magnificent celebration of the arts in this cultural enclave that is Galway.

Yet Browsing through the program for the Galway Arts Festival 2010, you can’t help but feel the once-mighty festival has lost some of its luster. Given how vitally important the festival has been to Galway, in defining itself and generating income for the city, any such downward trend should trigger serious concern.  Is this the necessary by-product of these recessionary times, or the result of poor strategic choices made by the managing organization?

Doing the boom years, the Galway Arts Festival was something to marvel. Organizers aspired to build a world-class festival, and reached far and wide to cultivate a seriously impressive ensemble of artists.  The festival was widely promoted, with a cadre of paid PR staff tirelessly building the brand’s identity across Ireland and the world.  It was an organization built on corporate sponsorships and government grants, and the coffers were flush.  Anyone living in Galway at the time no doubt holds onto many fond memories from this era.

I have been one of the Galway Arts Festival’s most passionate supporters. Having first traveled to Galway during the arts festival back in 1997, I was blown away by the creative vibe the city gave off, culminating in the Macnas festival, even moved here largely because of it. Now a veteran of eight festivals now, I eagerly await the program launch, snatched up a clutch of tickets, soldiered on through a fortnight of festival events and late night celebrations. And when it was through, I framed the promotional posters and proudly displayed the growing gallery throughout the house.

But the  Galway Arts Festival of that era no longer exists. The recession has taken a serious toll on festival program. The organization has been heavily dependent on grant money, from the Arts Council and Galway County Council, along with various corporate sponsors. Each of these sectors have experienced serious cutbacks.  Further cuts are inevitable, as the government is forced to find at least another €3 billion in savings in the 2011 budget, to say nothing about the three successive years, to reach its required targets of 3 percent deficits in 2014.

Galway County Council is experiencing a similar shortfalls, and must now confront the specter of serious cuts to popular amenities like the Town Hall Theatre and Leisureland. Its sad that the arts must suffer in times of recession, but they’re too often the first to hit the chopping block, especially when considering the alternatives (e.g. cutting care for people with disabilities, closing hospital rooms) are even less palatable.

I do not envy the board of directors as they mull over the difficult budgetary choices ahead.  I’m afraid that tweaking this and trimming that isn’t going to restore the Galway Arts Festival to its once former glory.  As a brand, the Galway Arts Festival is alive and well, but its offerings, much like the Irish economy, are in serious recession. Its time for a radical rethink of how the Galway Arts Festival is operated.

While there’s much to despair, there’s also great room for hope.  Galway is a highly creative city, and arguably lays claim to more artists and creative types per capita than anywhere in Ireland. Its time to harness some of this immense local talent.

Much can be learned from revisiting the Project ’06 experience. At the time, this protest festival was easily dismissible as a silly class of egos, the result of some simmering feud between factions of Galway’s fractionalized arts community. Project ’06 stepped up to deliver an impressive if haphazard fringe festival on a shoestring budget. Yet Arts Festival managers, riding a wave of success, seemed largely impervious to their pleadings, opting instead to continue their costly, aspirational, and exclusive course.  With grant money having dried up, its high time they embrace the grass-roots ideals as put forward by the Project ’06 organizers

Its time to seriously consider any and all possibilities. For instance, why not commission locally sourced street theatre,  drawing upon the immense talents of Macnas artists, past and present, to fill the streets with visual spectacles throughout the Festival?

Why not take a more inclusive attitude toward local businesses and artists, encouraging them to develop and produce their own contributions. Organizers could also reconsider its approach to the festival club, operating it as revenue generating enterprise, providing greater access to all the public, while generating ticket sales at the door. Surely this is much more inclusive than the current allotment of passes to the chosen few.  Stories abound how businesses wishing to develop and host events have been rebuked. This policy of exclusivity must cease immediately if the arts are to once again thrive on the streets of Galway.

These are a few examples of an inclusive and expansive approach to the arts that should lie at the center of the Galway Arts Festival organization.

Galway Arts Festival 2010 was not a complete wash, to be sure. There were many inspired performances.  Organizers did there best with its limited resources and volunteers are to be commended for all their hard work. Macnas has proved itself remarkably adept at delivering captivating, memorable performances with little more than a duck tape and scrap metal.

Just that the coming years the festival will continue its contraction unless a more expansive and inclusive approach is adopted. The Galway Arts Festival needn’t be so bound up by the whims of the economy and the scarcity of grant money.  It can and must evolve with the times. Imagine Galway in five years time. Visualize the festival as a dazzling explosion of creativity and the arts, oozing from every door, spilling forth onto the streets, surpassing even your happiest memories of festivals past.   Now that’s a vision that will keep me coming back to Galway year after year.

6 Responses to “Thoughts on the Galway Arts Festival”

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