THE contrasts between the two meetings in Limerick’s Clarion Hotel, just four days apart, could not have been more apparent.
On Friday, as the weather raged, opinions and anger were howled at an embattled Limerick City of Culture board by a not so adoring public.
This Tuesday lunchtime, a calm and measured board chairman Pat Cox pulled a rabbit out of a hat as he announced the installation of Mike Fitzpatrick as ‘interim head’ of the project, in the wake of the mass resignings in recent days of the artistic director, two members of his programming team and, latterly, the embattled CEO, Patricia Ryan.
In doing so, Mr Cox, assisted by newly appointed vice chair Tim O’Connor, chairman of the Gathering, immediately removed the sting from the bitter and fractious debate of the last week, appeasing a deeply unimpressed artistic - and wider - community in Limerick.
The notion of Mr Fitzpatrick, head of Limerick School of Art and Design, former Limerick City Gallery of Art boss, director of eva International and a renowned curator in his own right, taking over the project on a temporary basis, was made possible by a “collaborative, institutional and civic partnership” with his employer, LIT, whose president, Dr Maria Hinfelaar, flanked the three men seated at the press conference.
Speaking to the Limerick Leader, Dr Hinfelaar said: “It pained us to see where it was going and we really felt that we needed to do something here.
“We needed to offer our services and what then came out of that dialogue is the arrangement that has been presented here today.”
Asked about the prospect of Mr Fitzpatrick uniting the faction in the debate, the LIT president said: “There will be no different sides, there is only one side.
“My conviction is that at the heart of it all, everyone is on the side of making Limerick City of Culture a success. There have been different views over the past few days as to how, but I think everyone is back on side now.”
Mr Fitzpatrick said he was not “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 am a practical manager, and that is what I will do and I am looking forward to it.”
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 Fitzpatrick admitted to being “daunted” by the role, which will see him having to formulate some plan by the time the board next meet on January 17.
“I have to go in and assess what the situation is, I have got to ensure that whatever projects are ongoing are ongoing, I have to meet with the team, I have to see what resources I need from the local authority, I have to prepare specs for the new management structure and maybe get that agreed by January 17 and then implemented. So it is a very clear set of goals in a way,” he said.
“It is very important that we take ownership, things have gone a bit sideways so it is important to take ownership, so of course, in the sense that I as an individual would feel very daunted, but I as part of an institution, don’t feel as daunted.”
He added: “We have to go through the proper procedures and I hope to be able to come back to the board at their next meeting, which is quite soon, with the new arrangements in terms of staffing.”
Mr Cox said that in the midst of a “tsunami of media interest, we had to try and find the calm resolution behind the scenes to fashion an available and substantial interim arrangement, which this institutional collaboration represents.”
He praised the LIT duo for “stepping up to the mark at this time and for showing commendable civic leadership”.
As such, given it is a “collaboration between two public service institutions” as Tim O’Connor put it, the previous issues surrounding Ms Ryan’s appointment, which was not advertised, “those issues didn’t arise”.
A statement issued by Karl Wallace and his team, Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath, welcomed the appointment, and news of a greater involvement of city and county arts officer Sheila Deegan, as well as commitment to “broaden the membership” of the board to encompass greater representation from the artistic community and the local authority.
“We believe 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 in the statement.
“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 appointment was welcomed across the arts sphere in Limerick.
“Certainly the mood is very positive and after I have seen Karl and his team come out in support of this move, I think that is very significant,” said Ann Blake, local artist and chairperson of the arts and artists pillar group set up within City of Culture.
Local playwright Mary Coll, who had been a sort of spokesperson for the key stakeholders from the artistic community in the project, welcomed Mr Wallace’s statement and Mr Fitzpatrick’s appointment.
“I think people are generally very pleased,” she said.
“They are relieved that you can now say a safe pair of hands are in charge after all of the storms of last week, because last week was so tumultuous that there was a general fear of how will we ever right the ship now. Mike Fitzpatrick being prepared to step up and take on that responsibility I think relieves people generally.”