There’s a TV ad running for the Galway Arts Festival. I don’t recall its wording exactly, but I’d almost swear it was something like “for all your arts and culture needs”. I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again, the Festival has become too commercial.
There have been a number of attempts to get back to its roots, though generally they come from outside the organisation. Project ’06 showed that the community spirit was still there, but it was never intended to compete. More has been achieved perhaps by starting other, more focused festivals at less coveted points on the calendar. Most successful of these would probably be the Galway Theatre Festival, but we are certainly not short of small interesting celebrations.
Some though still go for the big one. The Colours Fringe Festival is attempting the whole shooting match – a festival of theatre and film and music and literature and the visual arts. Yes it’s small and maybe a little disorganised, most of the acts involved are local, some aren’t even professionals. But that’s exactly what the Galway Arts Festival was like, back when it was cute and loveable.
I should have written about this sooner, it’s running right now. In particular I’m going to blatantly plug some friends of mine, the Spontaneous Theatre People, who are doing an hour-long show called “Star Stories – 5” at 3:00 tomorrow afternoon in Kelly’s on Bridge Street, but there’s a full calendar of events over the next two days.
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.
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.
Back in March I told you about a competition to name a new Galway-brewed beer. I didn’t enter myself, there seemed no point. I predicted on the spot that no name except “Galway Hooker” could possibly win.¹
You can now get Galway Hooker beer in a few pubs around town. It’s good. As an ale, it’s a (very distant) relative of Smithwicks. There are some key differences however, chiefly the same as those between a chemical factory and an actual brewery. Hooker has a smoky, hoppy flavour that balances the bitter and the sweet. My Japanese friend Kiyoko thinks it has a slight bouquet of berries, but she’s a girl. I think it makes you drunk. Having tested it extensively though, both by itself and in combination with other drinks, I can attest that it is easy on the head the next morning. Both Neachtain’s and Roisin’s got though their supplies ahead of schedule, so it seems to be going down okay.
Any problems? Well, that name guys… Gag names compel people to make the obvious jokes, and that gets tedious fast. I just hope that doesn’t put too many people off.
Speaking of homebrewed solutions, Project 06 is looking good. We are carefully assured that this is not an alternative, rival, or fringe to the Arts Festival. Nobody wants to tread on toes. But it needs to be said – Project 06 is what the Arts Festival was meant to be.
The official Festival is spectacular and highly professional, but at some point it got out of scale. Once, most of the emphasis was on bringing locally created art to the people of Galway. Now it seems to be more about attracting people from overseas to come and see art that is also from overseas… Part of the tourism industry, in other words. Once too it acted as a bridge between Galway and the world stage, telling people “Yes, we can do it here, you can aim that high”. Now you need to be pretty famous already just to step onto that bridge. Arguably it actually competes with local arts.
Project 06 goes back to the original idea, attempts to create a festival with a more local, community feeling. To this end they have found an amazing number of small but useful venues all over town, in places you’d never expect art to occur. A huge amount of effort and material has been volunteered. Yeah, like the old days. I think this speaks volumes about the level of respect and admiration Galway has for people like Ollie Jennings and Padraic Breathnach.² It may all be a bit dreamy and idealistic, sure. But it was dreamy and idealistic the first time.
It’s the name of a traditional Galway boat design. (See pic.)