Thursday, January 6, 2011

The State of It 2

The State of It 2

The Top 5 Best and Worst of Galway’s Visual Arts 2010

By Jim Ricks

As the thaw sets in and the first week of 2011 passes, I reflect back on some of Galway city's strengths and weaknesses of last year.

It was a difficult, if not bleak year for many of us. It was a year of economic crisis, budget cuts, freezes, unemployment and... did I mention depression? But fortunately the arts continue to march on. The national budget reflected a comparatively small cut as there is even some talk theses days that creative industries stimulate the economy! But this doesn’t mean we can throw money at existing arts organisations. Changes have and must come on the heels of the wastefulness of the Tiger. Funding and development of the arts must be inventive and well thought out.

Unfortunately, many of last year’s gripes and grins still hold true, so I have done my damndest to dig a little deeper. In keeping with Shower of Kunst’s patented candor I present to you the highlights and lowlights from the visual arts in Galway.


1. Adapt Galway. In response to the criticism coming from both the arts community (‘There’s no consultation’) and the powers and funders that be (‘There’s no joined up thinking’), visual arts organisations in Galway have come together to form a coalition. Representatives of over 300 artists, from the likes of well established studios and members of collectives formed as recently as last year, have sat down regularly for the last 8 months and discussed plans for the visual arts in Galway.

Information and ideas are exchanged and people are talking with each other. This is a success in itself, as Galway’s artists are geographically fragmented and generally dispersed.

While nothing revolutionary has been made manifest yet, the coalition continues to grow (currently with 126, Artspace, Engage, Lorg, Groundworks, Knee-jerk, A-merge and more) and become more organised. Adapt is slowly making head way on some of its key proposals, so let’s see where 2011 takes them.

2. Tulca. Galway’s equivalent of a biennial marches nearer to its tenth birthday and continues to change every year. Curated by artist Michelle Browne this year the festival inventively reused many slack spaces, some old some new, throughout Galway.

The Niland Gallery stood out as particularly well curated and represented a diverse group of artists from Engage Studios. The use of the Fairgreen basement was dramatic and spacious and the use of remote headphones in Bar EIGHT to listen to Anthony Haughey’s projected piece across on the Docks Shed worked very well.

While there were a few glitches, particularly in the Live @ EIGHT event, the festival pulls in a significant audience from around the country and operates at a high standard. My biggest gripes would be that Francis Alÿs’ “epic project” When Faith Moves Mountains was given a woefully small room and deserved better, there wasn't a stand-out piece for the whole festival and there was a general lack of publicity for the ‘Season of Visual Art’.

3. Different Directions Experimental Film Festival. This is a new and ambitious project now in its third year. The quality of the artists in the programme is inspiring and one wonders how the organisers Katherine Waugh, Fergus Daly and Tom Flannagan pull it off. Most larger cities wouldn’t have a parallel festival and I must confess that I wonder if it is a bit wasted on the likes of this town.

There is a need for improvement in certain areas however. The publicity is lacking and this doesn’t do anyone any favours, as it is reflected in the attendance. The actual, physical programme/poster is difficult to navigate and I wonder if the Nun’s Island venue is ideal... would a more experimental venue suit the Experimental Film Festival? An image of a projection on a massive wall with bean bags and gas heaters in a barn comes to mind for some reason.

4. 126, Artist-run gallery. Guess what? These guys are still doing it right. Now that they’re in town, they’ve become an essential part of the local visual arts infrastructure. Indeed, they’ve become nationally essential, as they provide young Irish artists a place to exhibit a solo show and more established ones a place to experiment. In fact they’ve provided a way in for some very interesting international works to enter Ireland over the years.

In 2010 solo shows by Ben Sloat, Alan Butler, Jon Sasaki, Jennifer Brady and Dominic Thorpe all stood out, as did Spilth by Christine Clemmesen and Caoimhe Kilfeather and the 126 members’ show at the RHA in Dublin.

The ever-changing board has proved successful and the gallery evolves and reinvents itself year after year. There is of course always room to grow and personally I’d love to see the programme of generally 4 week exhibitions dotted with more weekend screenings, events, short shows and performances.

5. Independent arts groups and collectives. It seems every year for the last five or so years a few young and ambitious artists get together and start something new: a new gallery, a new group, a new proposal. Fostered primarily by GMIT, these organisations are refreshing and almost always bring in a new angle, a fresh approach to visual art in Galway. Some have moved on, some have hibernated a bit, some have dissolved and some have flourished.

Of course, I mentioned 126 already. MART was formed several years ago with an eye to video and performance and has gone on to coordinate European and US tours. Knee-jerk is a couple of years old and specialises in socially engaged and temporary interventions, workshops and performances (Fort Building Workshop, Make Your Own Instrument, Pass the Giant Parcel to name a few.) The Rosa Parks Art Gallery popped up on the outskirts of Galway city. They transformed a residential space into a gallery. It's not the first time and it won't be the last, I like it! And let us not forget Average Arts Initiative's good use of a prime 'slack space' last year, as well as A-merge's long term ambition of the development of a sculpture facility in Galway.

And I'm sure they'll keep on a-coming for years to come, but can Galway keep them?


1. National University of Ireland, Galway Gallery. ‘What gallery?’ Exactly. The university, its arts officer and its partner of the Burren College of Art have yet to see themselves as stakeholders in the development of Galway as a creative city, at least not in a tangible way in the visual arts. The current space is in a basement, is used as a classroom to teach staff extracurricular art courses, isn’t properly lit, maintained or looked after. It’s terrible.

NUIG should look to UCC and use, in general, the model of the Glucksman. They have the land and space to do it, or could even renovate an existing structure.

2. The Galway City Grants. The City Arts Office is indeed well intentioned and seriously understaffed, but there are major ongoing issues with the grants. This lies primarily in the procedures and transparency. Even without comparison to international standards of best practice, it is safe to say many of Ireland’s cities and towns have adopted improved policies and procedures in this department over the last decades.

Explicitly the problems in Galway are not enough notice in advance of the deadline, no acknowledgement of receipt of an application, no timeline given as to when the decision will be made, no ‘rejection letter’ and no feedback given if you are unsuccessful or partially successful. In practice what generally happens is the deadline is in May or June, the decision is in October and monies dispersed in December... or so, if you’re lucky. How can organisations plan for 2010 if they won’t receive funding, if they’re successful, until the end of the year?! (Rhetorical question, please don’t respond.)

The City Arts Office must find a fair solution to this problem. Questions of fairness, cronyism, favoritism, etc. will vanish with a transparent system and procedure. An elected peer-based committee should replace the existing one-man band to make the grants decisions.

3. The Galway City Development Plan. After an expensive consultation, public input, ad-hoc committees, extensive Community Forum meetings and sub-committee meetings, specific and well-researched proposals, private consultations, meetings with Councilors, etc., etc., etc., the City Development Plan largely ignored the input of professionals in the arts community. Whether this is due to the ineptitude of the City Manager’s recommendations, corruption, arrogance or just plain ignorance is still a question to me.

By and large this plan shies away from specifics and makes general gestures to the arts. More often than not, not even to specific arts, just the arts in general. It is enormously disappointing and toothless.

4. The lack of a purpose built visual arts centre. Pretty much ditto from last year:

“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...

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...”

The only development in this area was the Féach proposal, which has been initiated and carried by local creatives. Looking towards the Temporare Kunsthalle in Berlin as a precedent, the committee has outlined the potential, the significance and the particulars needed for such a centre. Unfortunately, this innovative proposal remains on hold for the time being.

5. Illiteracy. In the visual arts that is. There is no easy target to blame for this problem, but it is indeed my biggest pet peeve of the year. It usually goes like this: “Oh you're an artist? What kind of painting do you do?” Baffled and enraged, I patiently explain that I detest painters and describe my own theories of a post Post Modern avante-garde vis-a-vis Nicolas Bourriaud's concept of the 'radicant'...

In seriousness, this is an issue. Decision makers frequently don't have a working knowledge of contemporary art. They infrequently attend exhibitions. How can they be expected to make informed decisions about the visual arts?

This issue needs to be addresses through a broad campaign to engage with the public. It would take a coordinated plan involving local press, politicians, schools and visual arts stakeholders. Is it unreasonable to call for a specific, progressive, city supported committee to address community outreach and development?


I still very much believe in the potential of Galway as a contemporary creative hub. While my optimism is slightly diminished, it is clear some progress has indeed been made. But we cannot be complacent. There's alot more to be done, we will have to do it with less money and less support and we will have to do it together. Let's keep building on our strengths and invest in our infrastructure.

And that's a wrap!


  1. Bourriaud is sooo 2009 : )
    if i get asked one more time why i dont put my art on the railings of stephen's green i may just kill.

  2. Agreed the Alÿs was a headliner