The State of It
The Top 5 Best and Worst of Galway’s Visual Arts 2009
By Jim Ricks
As 2009 draws to a close this evening it’s a perfect time to review the city’s successes and failures in the last 12 months. The year was mainly characterized by the shadow of recession and more specifically Arts Council cuts. Unfortunately, the generally marginalised role of the visual arts in the Galway arts scene was the first to be challenged and see support diminish. The limitations of the Irish system for supporting the arts comes to light, but so does the inefficiency of the previous years prosperity. That is, throwing money at projects, festivals, museums, etc. doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy art scene, nor a well-thought out regional funding strategy.
In any case, here are my picks for the peaks and the troughs for the last year of the noughties.
1. 126’s new Queen Street location in the city centre. The gallery struggled along in the industrial outskirts of Galway for the last few Tiger years but, after long appeals, a nationally significant programme, the Arts Council and new found backing from the Galway City Arts Office, the artist-run initiative relocated to the heart of Galway. This was long overdue and hopefully demonstrates a change in the City’s strategy for supporting dynamic new initiatives. The new location allows greater access for this voluntarily run and cutting-edge exhibition space. This is a win-win scenario.
2. Sarah Searson as the outside consultant for the City. Artists and groups active in the Community Forum pushed for an outside consultant to draft the Galway Arts Strategy 2010-2013 and got it. Sarah Searson, a visual arts curator, arts officer and tutor from Dublin was chosen. This in itself is a coup for the visual arts, which lags behind other art forms in organisational and institutional representation. It is also key that someone from outside of the region was chosen. After a series of public meetings, lets see where Searson takes this and what the long-term impact will be.
3. The Galway Arts Centre programme continues to exhibit interesting and significant shows. The Arts Officer Maeve Mulrennan knows contemporary art well enough to put together an engaging year round programme.
Showing the work of established artists like Guy Ben-Ner, Aideen Barry, Clare Langan, Lars Laumann, Connolly and Cleary, Cao Fei, Louise Manifold, Dorothy Cross, etc. keep the bar raised for Galway visual arts. The danger here is that the Arts Centre becomes a conveyor belt for artists touring their work around and not a place for new or experimental works and emerging artists. Additionally, as a city venue it has its hands tied for several months of the year and shows a good deal of community based projects or commercial-ish shows that are not of a high standard. What exactly is the Arts Centre’s remit?
4. Tulca Season of Visual Art remains an ambitious and interesting festival. Its continued existence is a huge contribution to the visual arts in Galway. There is something fantastic about making the rounds to different venues on short and wet November days and discovering an assortment of new artists.
Personal gripes aside, there is also a lot of room for structural improvement in this nebulous organisation. If Tulca wants to continue spending a good chunk of public money, they will have to find ways to become more transparent, frugal, accountable and representative of Galway’s unique environment. Significantly, the strength of the programme has been offset by a shift in the last two years away from diverse media and regional artists. Is Tulca just another biennial or can it capitalise on its and the regions strengths?
5. The GMIT Degree Show always proves to be interesting. This year the annual exhibit was limited to only the Cluain Mhuire graduates, leaving 3rd years scrambling for alternative venues. Making a point of arriving early, I made the rounds, saw it all and think limiting the show to graduates makes complete sense. The sculpture department had two particularly interesting, and not particularly sculptural, spaces. Out of that, Ann Maria Healy and Tim Acheson’s works come to mind immediately. Elsewhere, Gráinne McHale’s video work was memorable, but my pick for the show was Eimear Twomey’s subtle and playful installation. The ambition of undergrads is never to be taken lightly. Now, how do we keep them in Galway?
1. The absence of a purpose built visual arts centre. Alas, the Celtic Tiger has come and gone. It has left the country with many things, including new purpose built art centres dotted around most counties and cities… except Galway. Galway is a city that capitalises on its creative and cultural industries, but while there are numerous venues suitable for professional level theatre and music, there are none for visual arts. Cavan, Carlow, Cork, Letterkenny, Sligo, Dublin, etc. have all moved forward and invested in their cities' cultural fabric with new purpose built art centres. Galway has not, nor has any concrete plans to. Perhaps this isn’t entirely a bad thing, as we can learn from other’s mistakes. But it is primarily a bad thing.
In the last few years the Arts Festival and Tulca have rented an old hardware shop or cavernous, cold and empty commercial unit behind the bus station. GMIT has no gallery and NUIG might as well not have one. The Arts Centre’s building is simply inadequate. The absence of a landmark arts centre, a Glucksman if you will, is the single biggest issue preventing the visual arts in Galway from moving forward.
If and when the City, NUIG, GMIT and/or private interests decide to move forward they will need to think of this as an investment in the region’s and the population’s future. They will need to move cautiously, ambitiously and intelligently in their plans and they must get local contemporary artists involved from day one.
2. The City Museum remains a regional embarrassment. Due to poor planning and ongoing leadership issues the museum lacks a vision and more importantly a purpose.
Each time I enter this new €6.8 million building I cringe in a new way. Galway is a city that has been incorporated for more than 500 years and was constructed several hundred before that. Yet from the looks of the displays and boat reproductions that dominate the galleries, nothing has been painted, crafted, written, constructed, printed, embroidered, photographed, etc, etc, in this time. So the Museum wasn’t built to museum standards. What are the costs of achieving this?
And finally, the feeble attempts at some type of curated season of art are numbingly bad. What should be a dedicated space for the regions history and culture has turned into a community catch all for some of the most tired and mediocre exhibitions the city has seen this year.
3. The Galway Arts Centre as a visual arts venue is average at best. Occupying Lady Gregory’s listed former residence, it is greatly limited in what improvements can be made. Four fireplaces and storage heaters dominate the various galleries and overused or neglected plugs, switches, cables, fixtures, etc. adorn the walls and ceiling alongside the original architectural ornamentation. Until recently the care taken (or rather lack of) in installation was so abysmal that hooks, tape and unpainted patching were visible throughout the galleries. But, the Arts Centre also lacks staff support: the galleries receive no invigilation or security.
However, the most visible setback was the decommissioning of Gallery 3 on the 2nd floor of the building. This smaller gallery in the past often provided emerging artists with a venue to show alongside large group shows or more established practitioners exhibiting downstairs. It also served as an ideal black out room for video and film works. The decision to convert it into a classroom for theatre students is unwise. No one art form should compromise another. We need to work together to create a more creative and interesting city of culture. The myopicism of this kind of decision is surprising.
All in all, the Arts Centre’s commitment to teaching ‘how to’ classes in its exhibition spaces, its unabashed bias to theatre and often palpable disdain for visual art keep it relegated to mediocrity. Again, what exactly is the Arts Centre’s remit?
4. The Galway Arts Festival tightened their belts this year as private and public funding shrunk and guess what… they cut support for the visual arts. Overall the Festival looked out of touch. The strange and conservative exhibit at the Festival Box Office (McDonagh’s, InStore, Merchants Road, Meadows & Byrne…) featured several interesting artists, but they were crowded into a senseless maze of false walls, with little thought put into the overall layout or relationship of the works on each other. The lasting visual image I have is of the documentary photography of African child soldiers situated next to the crass and commercial Absolut art collection.
Another ongoing issue is the Festivals inclusion of smaller projects under its umbrella. While keeping curatorial ownership of these events, the festival failed to financially support them in 2009, the best example of this being MART. And the Galway Arts Festival completely missed the ball with their failure to support the most significant and talked about visual arts exhibit on at the time: Hank Willis Thomas’ Its About Time, located just around the corner from the Box Office at 126.
5. The press. What can I say? Its bad. Very Bad.
The Advertiser and the Independent have reduced their visual arts coverage, have missed numerous news-worthy exhibitions, don’t give contemporary art enough ink, print incorrect information, don’t do reviews, don’t print enough photos and generally don’t understand visual art. Galway Now offers a pay-per-interview service and the others are good for local Confirmation photos and that’s about it.
‘Ireland’s leading magazine for contemporary art and visual culture’, Circa, remains mysterious to me. How do they decide what is worthy of review? They have missed many of the important shows in the west of Ireland, full stop. Seriously, what exactly constitutes a printable review? The Irish Times’ Aidan Dunne comes to Galway twice a year. First to pick a few highlights for the GMIT degree show review and second to write an upbeat piece on the Arts Festival. In both cases, we are really talking about something that is symptomatic of a larger national problem: the Dublin-centricity of art. But, sure with the new motorway its only two hours to Dublin, maybe things will change for the better.
Well, there you have it. 2009, It was a roller coaster ride and a lot of hard work, there is a lot to be said and even more to be done. I firmly believe Galway has enormous potential as a city of visual arts and culture. I don’t think it will be easy, but with time and organization, Galway will step up its game and enter a new phase of cultural development. Happy New Year!