WHEN the Taoiseach and Mario Rosenstock got involved, you knew that the controversy over Limerick City of Culture had crossed the “line in the sand” that Pat Cox was attempting to draw.
One look at the media coverage from Thursday through to Sunday of last week, described by the chairman of the board as a “tsunami of media interest”, and it became apparent that a tipping point had been reached.
Patricia Ryan had become, in the elegant words of one local artist, “a lightning conductor for a lot of the focus” of this coverage. The manner of her appointment, a lack of transparency, combined with anger over the circumstances of artistic director Karl Wallace’s departure, caused the groundswell and mobilisation of the local artistic community that resulted in 500 people attending a stormy meeting in the Clarion on Friday night.
The board members present, admirably facing a less than adoring public, were subjected to the undiluted, raw and at times bitter opinions of those who professed to care about the future direction of the City of Culture project, which had been plunged into disarray.
In the aftermath it became clear to the board that something had to be done. As press coverage continued to focus narrowly on Ms Ryan and the nature of her appointment, she was left with no choice but to resign, citing the “speculation and commentary surrounding the events of recent days” that had “regrettably compromised my authority and capacity to continue leading this project”.
That the personalities involved had been subjected to abuse was regrettable.
Pat Cox said of Ms Ryan: “I felt there was an extraordinary level of personal hostility and anger vented at her and I am deeply sorry to have seen that.”
But it appears from the outside that there was ample opportunity to rescue the project, to bring all parties to the table before the Doomsday scenario occurred. Attempts at mediation were made, but went largely ignored.
It is understood from speaking to those in the artistic community that were present in the Limerick City Gallery of Art last week when Karl Wallace presented the reasons behind his departure, and that of two of his programming team, Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath, that, despite his many concerns, he was attempting to quietly walk away from the project, “without damaging the year” any further.
The firestorm that erupted from the decision was as much a surprise to Mr Wallace and his team as it was to the board of City of Culture.
Disbelief greeted Minister Deenihan’s admission on Sunday that he “wasn’t aware of his (Mr Wallace’s) resignation so obviously if I was aware that he was threatening to resign or that he had concerns I would have discussed it with him.
“I just read about his resignation in the paper, he had resigned at that stage. So obviously there was no point in having a discussion with him, he had made up his mind,” added the minister, who dreamt up this national cultural designation and elected to give it to Limerick in the first instance, where he attended college years ago.
After the fiery public meeting, it was apparent to the board, and latterly to the minister, that something had to give. Two extra-ordinary general meetings subsequently took place, on Friday and then on Monday.
The latter continued deep into the night, taking place in Culture House in Pery Square.
During this period, Limerick Institute of Technology, through proactive president Dr Maria Hinfelaar, had already begun to make overtures to the embattled project, one which it had been very active within since its very inception.
“Over the weekend, ahead of the resignation, LIT had stepped forward and offered its assistance in dealing with what had started to evolve as a major issue for City of Culture,” said one insider.
“They put their hand up even before Patricia Ryan resigned,” said another.
Jimmy Deenihan weighed in and Mike Fitzpatrick was sounded out as a potential candidate to “steady the ship” once Patricia Ryan’s departure was confirmed.
The result was a “collaborative, institutional and civic partnership” between LIT and City of Culture, that would allow the LSAD head of school and respected curator to join the project on secondment.
“It was possible through generosity of LIT to do this on the basis of a collaboration between two public service institutions, which meant that in terms of process and procurement, that those issues didn’t arise,” explained Tim O’Connor, newly installed vice-chair of the board and a former chairman of the Gathering project.
Mr Fitzpatrick will be interim head of City of Culture, likely for a period of two months and amalgamating the two roles vacated by Wallace and Ryan.
Effectively the interim head will be given ‘carte blanche’ to analyse the structures, programme and projects in place, and decide the best way forward, both in terms of implementing it and finding his own replacement.
Mr Cox praised the LIT duo for “stepping up to the mark at this time and for showing commendable civic leadership”.
In the meantime, it was also confirmed that the heads of an agreement were signed between Jimmy Deenihan and city and county manager Conn Murray, described a “key step” in accessing the €6m in funding provided by Government in its October Budget.
Mr Fitzpatrick admitted honestly to being “daunted” by the role, which will see him having to formulate some plan forward by the time the board next meet on January 17.
However, the man tasked with saving the project from destruction, said he was “not here as a healer”.
“Can I be very direct, I am not here as a healer, I am here to do a job, and my job is running the City of Culture organisation. I am not in that business. I think I am a practical manager, and that is what I will do and I am looking forward to it.”
He ruled out having “meetings for the sake of meetings”.
“If I have to meet somebody it will be about ‘what part of the project are we doing now’? It is not discussing life and what happened or whatever, I honestly don’t have the time to do it.”
Another insider described Fitzpatrick, a former director/curator of Limerick City Gallery of Art, director of eva International and Ireland’s commissioner for the Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibition in 2007, as the “right man, in the right place, at the right time”.
“He is like the school principal who commands respect and has the ability to stop them stepping out of line. He will be listened to.”
Dr Michael Finneran, senior lecturer in drama in Mary Immaculate College, said that the interim appointment “has to be welcomed” and said it was now “time to move on”.
“I was particularly impressed with his statement that his job wasn’t to heal what has gone before but is to take the project forward. That needs to be the case,” he said.
“There are still questions unanswered and there are certainly issues unresolved, and I think the board and governance of the city and county need to be aware of that and lessons need to be learned, but I think the mood is one of putting our best foot forward collectively now and getting out there and making it a positive experience for the city.”
Mr Fitzpatrick’s credentials are impeccable. That his appointment was warmly welcomed by Mr Wallace speaks volumes.
“We believe that Mike has the confidence of the arts community, knows the business of the cultural industry and is a very fine arts practitioner, and therefore his appointment ensures that arts and culture are once more front and centre in the inaugural year of the National City of Culture,” said Mr Wallace on behalf of his team, who put together an impressive and eclectic programme.
“I have worked with Mike already in my capacity as artistic director and it was a great pleasure and privilege to do so. We look forward to being able to hand over to Mr Fitzpatrick and offer him any support we can provide, to ensure the smooth transition of the vibrant programme that our team enjoyed developing and planning.”
The interim appointment has been universally welcomed, the broadening of the board to include the artistic community and the backing of LIT adding a weight and stability that was sorely lacking.
Dr Hinfelaar appealed to the business community to return their support in kind.
“The interim structures are now in place, and we will be working towards a settled structure, so that should also help to gain the confidence of the business community. This is something that they can row in behind and see as an opportunity for them to raise their profile as being part of the fabric of Limerick city, supporting the cultural scene.”