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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Renaissance turns into a tragedy for Culture City

The event that was supposed to be the springboard for a regeneration of Limerick's image has become plagued by in-fighting, writes David Raleigh

David Raleigh

Published 05/01/2014 | 02:30

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Patricia Ryan, CEO of Limerick City Of Culture at last Friday’s public meeting. Photo: Brian Arthur/ Press 22
Limerick City of Culture cast of characters

LIKE a Shakespearen play, Limerick, at times, has witnessed tragedy of epic proportions.

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Wounded by years of negative publicity, the city's edge has always cut close to the bone. But just as the city seemingly stripped off the dark cloak of its negative past, the people responsible for harnessing that image change ultimately put the city back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last week.

On December 30, the artistic director of Limerick City of Culture, Karl Wallace, tendered his resignation to his employer, Limerick City Council. Some say it was timed to create maximum damage to the city's reputation, while others suggest that Mr Wallace had no other choice.

His resignation came just 24 hours before the biggest party night in Limerick city's history. A fireworks extravaganza, street pageant and hotly anticipated music concert with a star line-up, all organised to ring in the New Year and, more importantly, to announcing with aplomb that Limerick was Ireland's first national City of Culture.

The prestigious honour now lies in an embarrassing bundle of in-fighting and power struggles played out like a bad theatre act.

On New Year's Eve, the River Shannon was raging. Storm clouds gathered over the city. It was to prove an ironic metaphor for the turbulence inside the City of Culture management structure, where tensions had reached crisis point. In an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Wallace said he was "not consulted at all" about the City of Culture opening night. "I was sidelined," he said.

It later emerged that an outside event-management firm was hired to run the show. Limerick's City of Culture's plans were publicly thrown into disarray.

Mr Wallace -- who was on a reported annual salary of €65,000 -- described a picture of chilling ignorance within the management structure for organising a cultural programme. He hit out at embattled CEO Patricia Ryan, saying she had "a basic lack of understanding" about the way it should be run.

Ms Ryan had previously admitted, following her appointment in November, that she had no background in the arts but was skilled at project management. Mr Wallace said it was clear to him that his requests from the CEO for staff "were not going to be honoured" and his proposals were "not acted upon".

"Because of these factors, as artistic director I felt my position was entirely untenable and I had no alternative other than to resign," he said.

It has left Limerick with a year-long culture programme and with no artistic director to run it. The controversy has also left a sour taste in the mouths of the local artistic community, some of whom called for the resignation of Ms Ryan and the entire 10-person City of Culture board at a heated public meeting attended by around 600 people on Friday night.

It's not the first time that there have been calls for Ms Ryan to step down. Last November the first storm of controversy hit when it emerged that Ms Ryan had been given the CEO's job and salary of about €120,000 without the position being externally advertised.

She has held three distinct positions within the structure, none of which were advertised. Ms Ryan acted as an adviser to the board from January to mid-summer. She was appointed project manager in August and then CEO.

The sole shareholder of the city of culture is Limerick City Council. Its manager, Conn Murray, admitted that he recommended Ms Ryan for the position after she had undergone an internal interview.

Mr Murray said he carried out interviews with five other people but that none were in a position to start. He said because of time constraints placed on him to find a CEO, the board unanimously accepted his recommendation to employ Ms Ryan.

However, there was further controversy waiting in the wings. Ms Ryan had previously been employed as a political aide to chairman of the City of Culture Board, Pat Cox, the former president of the European parliament and Progressive Democrat TD.

Allegations of cronyism were aired when the matter was raised at the council's monthly meeting in November. By this stage it is believed that Mr Wallace was leaking to the press his concerns about how the project would be run.

Labour party councillor Tom Shortt, a brother of leading Irish actor and comedian Pat Shortt, described it as "a political appointment".

Mr Shortt -- a previous member of the former Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick-- said the matter could "do reputation damage to Limerick, way into the future". He added: "We recruited somebody who is essentially -- and it is very evident -- is a political appointee. . . somebody who is being looked after for a cushy number with a salary."

Mr Murray has denied any allegations of cronyism and said that Ms Ryan's appointment did not breach recruitment regulations. He said he understood criticism's of the way it was handled, but: "It must be seen in the context of the availability of the timelines of the programmes and the available budgets."

Last Thursday, Pat Cox went on local radio to try to clean up the mess. However, he seemed to only add fuel to the fire, when he revealed that the board had sanctioned a review of Mr Wallace's work but that Mr Wallace failed to attend any meetings to discuss this because he had taken holiday and sick leave time.

It was clear that Mr Cox was addled by Mr Wallace's public airing of the City of Culture's dirty linen.

"He has made his choice. The matter is closed," Mr Cox said, when asked if he might attend possible mediation talks with Mr Wallace.

Mr Cox also denied that he had any hand, act or part in the appointment of his former political adviser to the CEO position.

As well-known poet Mary Coll said on Friday, when she and around 60 other artists supported Mr Wallace: "You can't do open heart surgery without a cardiologist, you can't deliver a city of culture without an artistic director."

It's clear that Limerick City of Culture has lost its main player. Mr Wallace was appointed artistic director in March 2013 and took up the position in April. The native Londoner had left his job as chief executive of Siamsa Tire, home of the National Folk Theatre of Ireland.

He has worked in an artistic and managerial capacity at theatres in Britain, Belfast and Dublin, and is a former artistic director of the Belltable Arts Centre.

Two key members of Mr Wallace's artistic team, Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath, also walked away from the project. They have yet to make any public comment. All three were answerable to Ms Ryan, who in turn answers to a 10-person board, including her old boss, Pat Cox.

On Friday night at the Clarion Hotel in the city, calls were made for the resignation of the entire board of Limerick City of Culture following claims of no confidence in their stewardship.

Addressing the meeting, Pat Cox said Mr Wallace's resignation was a surprise, a "bump in the road". He later insisted he would not resign.

Mr Cox said the board would move to appoint a new artistic director in the next week. He also confirmed that a member of the artistic community will be brought on to the board. It is surprising that no one with an artistic background was a member already.

There was a large show of hands after calls were made for Ms Ryan to resign.

Ms Ryan insisted that she would not resign: "I am very much on board for this project," she told the meeting to cold applause.

She told a press conference afterwards that it was "tough" to listen to calls for her resignation but felt she still had support from people who want her to remain in the job.

"People that shout the loudest aren't always the majority, can I just say that?" she added.

Mr Cox also insisted that he would not be resigning.

Whilst some might favour further resignations, what Limerick needs more than anything is stability as it prepares to prove itself all over again in the face of its own adversity.

Further public meetings are expected next week.

Irish Independent

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