Project ’06 Revisited

Fish on Parade
Typical Day in Galway's Pretend Fish Market

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.

Project ’06 – Galway Rennaissance

Giant Boy
Image by Barnacles Hostels via Flickr

It was a hell of an achievement. I’d been saying for years that the Arts Festival had lost its magic, yet in a trice it was restored. And when I say a trice, I mean a huge amount of work by the volunteers and organisers of Project ’06. In that lay the secret ingredient the official festival had been running out of: Community involvement. I had come to think that Galway had got too big, rich and cynical for that to work anymore, but apparently the goodwill is still there to be found.

So how did the official festival lose it? Not because it was actually bad. On the contrary, it’s admirably professional and quite famous. But I think that as it grew successful it came to more clearly benefit the tourism industry, less clearly the arts themselves. Galway stubbornly remained a place where very few could actually make a living from art. People who had contributed for art’s sake began to feel that their effort had gone to profit someone running a hotel or a bar, who might be quietly laughing.

The Festival grew to have very little to do with the city, to the point of becoming a stop on some international circuit, the kind where the singer has to glance at something taped to the mike stand before saying “Hello Galway”. Less like something we do in other words, more something done to us. And all because the crappy had been forgotten.

Yeah, the crappy. The un-glossy. The not thoroughly polished. The slightly shambolic. I’m not singing in praise of unprofessionalism, but there needs to be a place for people to try, to learn, to take the risks. Only there can the real magic happen. The thing that turns out to be important is almost never the one that comes pre-approved and ready-reviewed. That might be entertainment, but it’s unlikely to be art.

Project ’06 was that sort of place, but it’s a one-off. How can that spirit be kept alive? Paul Fahy suggests that Galway is big enough for a fringe festival now. Paul did his time as a volunteer and he knows what he’s talking about in community arts, but I’m not so sure about this idea; it seems to put the onus on the powerless. There is an enormous gulf between the influence that the Arts Festival has and what grassroots volunteers can muster. The opportunity to bridge it lies almost entirely in the hands of the Festival. And it is what the Festival needs to do if it is to remain a dynamic part of the cultural life of Galway, and not become just some uppity version of Race Week.

The official Festival needs to get back to its roots again, and become… less glossy. More about encouraging and facilitating local potential. And if that means spending less on international greats and more on stuff that’s not quite ready for primetime, then so be it. An atmosphere of goodwill and fun on the streets is worth any number of globally famous acts.