If you’re like me you probably thought last summer’s Project ’06 was a triumph. The energy and sense of community that the Festival had in its heyday was back in force. This was surely the way forward.
And like me, you would be wrong. Project ’06 was a complete failure.
The point of the Project was not to show that great things can be achieved when people work for free, or even that there is a huge amount of good stuff going on that the Festival doesn’t include. We already knew that. The point was to change the Arts Festival, to make it again the vital force it once was.
What the Festival originally achieved is pretty much taken for granted now, but it changed Galway. Culture really can make a vast difference to a location. You have to remember that in 1978, Galway was on no part of anyone’s cultural map. The John Hinde postcards called us “Gateway to Connemara”, and that faint praise was painfully true. The only reason most visitors even passed through here was because we had the only bridges south of Cong.
That changed, and it was changed by artists. People mostly in third level education, at NUI,G and GMIT (then UCG and the RTC), who decided they could put on the show right here.
Druid pioneered it, proving you could be from Galway and still be famous around the world. But the Arts Festival made Galway famous in itself, changing its image from a dowdy, decaying place forgotten by everyone except Americans searching for the graves of their ancestors into somewhere people wanted to be and to live. Even when conventional industries were folding, Galway had new ideas and opportunities that kept the economy growing.
In recent years though, the Festival’s role has changed fundamentally. It still does an excellent job of bringing global quality performances to Galway, but that was only a part of the original point. It was also expected to help the cultural life of Galway develop. Not only is the more tourism-orientated Festival of today not so good at promoting Galway-based arts, it has reached the point where it’s actually becoming harmful to them. At the one time of year when local performers and artists might be able to make some decent money, venues and equipment are unavailable to them. Of the little money there is available from sponsorship and government funding, a huge wedge goes to international acts that are already better funded in their countries of origin than we dream of.
The main request of Project ’06 was that a small proportion of funding and facilities be ring-fenced for the arts in Galway. The Festival however seems unreceptive to the idea, apparently unwilling to become directly involved. They would prefer if something like Project ’06 continued as a “fringe” festival. But that would do nothing about the current competition for resources, and it ignores the fact that a huge voluntary efforts like ’06 are not possible every year.
Besides, Galway’s artists should not be the fringe event in their own city. That would be to miss the whole point. A Festival that’s all about bringing in great acts to watch is just more television, another thing to be passively consumed. The reason the Arts Festival was once great is that it wasn’t something just happening here. It was something Galway did.