Just as the million monkeys with typewriters might eventually bash out a line from Hamlet, so has the City of Culture board managed to stumble onto the one obvious solution that was staring it in the face from the beginning: there’s no need for a CEO. There was never a need for a CEO, since the thing was already led by a professional, but such thinking doesn’t fit comfortably into the mindset of Irish local government.
Fortunately, that’s in the past, and any new artistic director will be completely bullet-proof, since no city manager in his right mind will ever want to touch this thing again. Conn Murray must be cursing the day he ever heard of the City of Culture, and with every reason, since he seems to have acted in good faith, but it’s never the big things that trip you up.
As a metaphor for post-Ahern Ireland, it could hardly be more apt. Here was a perception of political cronyism, of closed doors and smoke-filled rooms, and there was a general public, battered and disillusioned after six years of bank scandals and salary top-ups, no longer in any mood to swallow empty jargon, especially of the kind so smoothly dispensed by that quintessential political insider, Pat Cox, chairman of the board.
With his every mention of blessings in disguise and bumps in the road, Cox succeeded in angering the public even more, and it didn’t help that he stuck to his script when it came to hinting that Karl Wallace failed to attend performance reviews in December. It took a member of the 600-strong crowd in the Clarion hotel to publicly call him on this, as he prepared once more to repeat the innuendo, by pointing out that Karl Wallace was in England at a family funeral and could not have attended whatever inquisition had been prepared for him.
Contrary to what certain elements have been suggesting, this was no mob rule. This was the sort of cold public anger that Irish people failed to display over the last six years. This was the outcry that finally, in unambiguous terms, told the men in grey suits that the answer is NO.
No more spin. No more waffle. No more thinking that people will swallow any old nonsense.
What actually happened is this: the people of Limerick led the way in showing Ireland that it really is possible to call shenanigans on this sort of thing. It really is possible to remind officials that their power is strictly limited and that they owe a responsibility to the people they serve to show some respect instead of treating them like half-wits who will believe whatever rubbish is thrown their way.
The interim appointment of Mike Fitzpatrick, head of the Limerick School of Art and Design, has been welcomed by everyone and properly so, since the project is now being led by an experienced professional, perfectly capable of doing the job until the position is filled in an open and transparent way.
Many Limerick artists stated publicly that they would prefer to tear up their contracts and lose the money rather than be part of a process in which they had no confidence. Given the precarious nature of art funding, that took considerable courage, and it took even more guts to stand up in front of the very people you think might be able to shaft you and challenge them eyeball to eyeball. But they did so and it will always be to their credit.
Far from being an unedifying little squabble, as it has been presented in some quarters perhaps by people who sought to gain some advantage, the furore over the Limerick City of Culture project has set down markers for how these things should be done in future: openly, with integrity and without political interference of any kind.