Thursday 27 November 2014

Flying high, at last

It had a shaky start but Limerick's festival is a great success

Sophie Gorman

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

It's been a long six months for Limerick's tenure as City of Culture. Rather than open with a bang and a dazzle on New Year's Eve with lavish fireworks as planned, all eyes were instead on dramatic fireworks of a different kind as the fanfare seemed to be about to disintegrate almost before it began.

In the first week of January, the artistic director Karl Wallace and two other senior members of the team resigned, and then the chief executive Patricia Ryan followed suit after a few weeks of public turmoil and dispute. Cultural celebration was not on the agenda. The main issues were communication breakdowns, funding and the timescale – the festival having only been greenlit months before it was due to start.

But a clever stopgap was quickly put in place in the form of acting director, CEO and board member Mike Fitzpatrick. He was there on short-term secondment from his job as the director of the Limerick School of Art and Design and then, in April, he was appointed, in a transparentmanner, to this triumvirate position.

However, by then, everyone was a little exhausted by talk of Limerick City of Culture. Truth was, few people expected it would amount to much after all that kerfuffle. Mike would be curating somebody else's programme, after all, so how would he put his own stamp on anything?

Against the odds, Limerick has somehow managed to continue and quietly prosper. And it looks set to get a whole lot louder in the next few months with major productions by the UK's leading large-scale contemporary circus NoFit State (who are bringing their internationally acclaimed show Bianco to the Culture Factory for a week from tonight – see limerickcityofculture.ie) and a street spectacular by the world famous Royal deLuxe in September.

But surely it must have seemed like a poisoned chalice when Mike took the position in January? "I remember being asked at the start was I going to get the different sides together to talk," he says. "But I was quick to point out that I'm not a healer. I was concerned only with getting away from that fraught area and not finding out who was to blame but instead finding out how to make it work. I thought I could honour my predecessors best by taking their programme and making it as good as I could.

"I had been involved in the conceptualisation process of this last year. I knew this was a very important idea for the city as a whole – crucial to help us psychologically look up rather than always down.

"We needed it to take control of our vision of the city, which has been so negative for many years, and actually celebrate what we have. I thought it was just so vital that it didn't implode before it had a chance to begin and knew that I had to act regardless of the consequences.

"I called the people I work with and then raised my hand. And once you raise a hand in a situation like this, it is grabbed pretty quickly. I did take counsel before going for it, and my counsel told me to stay away from it, but it just felt that there was so much at stake and it seemed to be hanging by a thread, so I chose to ignore it.

"It has been overwhelming. In the last three months up to the end of June alone, there were over 100 events. Coming in when I did meant I had to go from nought to 90 in a flash. You can speak of a lot of things that weren't done before we began, but what has been phenomenal is all that has been done. And how the people feel, there is such positivity there now.

"There was such a strong national perception that Limerick city was messed up that it somehow denied locals the right to have pride in their place and I think that has now been restored. If we achieve that then everything is worth it."

What is interesting is how the city is being reclaimed by this festival. Fuerza Bruta, an acclaimed Argentinian circus theatre, took over the old Dell building and made it into The Culture Factory, which will now play host to NoFit State Circus, and Mike hopes will remain a large-scale cultural venue. EVA International arts biennial claimed the Golden Vale Kerrygold site of over six acres. He adds: "And we had culture and chips when the Spiegeltent was raised this month in Arthur's Quay Park."

Whatever happened to those two rappers from Moycross who were threatened with censor? "The rappers are still here and that line (about Limerick looking rough) stayed in. But I can see how that came about, how someone would question that not because of what they thought themselves but because they were thinking what the board might think of it."

Mike is a natural communicator. He has a very affable, easygoing manner. "People keep asking me how's it going and for the first couple of months, I don't think I slept at all, I was so entirely wound up just keeping it on course. But I am having a ball.

"There is less panic and I can sleep at night, which seems progress to me, yes. Last year, when people were worrying about whether or not we should do this, I didn't actually care if Limerick City of Culture was a failure. Failure is still okay. Before Limerick was only being spoken about in the context of social ills.

''Having Limerick and 'culture' in the same sentence is good, regardless of what the rest of the sentence says. It informs how Limerick now thinks about itself."

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