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.