It is refreshing to see Kieran MacSweeney, the president of Limerick Chamber of Commerce, outlining a set on nine potential uses for the Opera Centre site. In it he notes that the purchase of the site by the city council will allow all possible stakeholders to contribute ‘from our new unitary local authority and the regeneration agencies to IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Limerick Institute of Technology, University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College, Failte Ireland, Shannon Development as well as ourselves in Limerick Chamber and many other business interests’. The most crucial stakeholder is not mentioned. The people of Limerick themselves.
MacSweeney notes that Limerick is in a prime position to be designated Irish capital of arts, sports and culture. He mentions the School of Art and Design, the World Academy of Music and Dance, our Georgian Heritage and our success in Sport as key selling points to obtain such status. What he does not mention is that our city has failed to deliver a dedicated, focussed and thriving artistic scene and the failure lies in the fact that there has been no joined-up thinking when it comes to the arts.
Where was the furore from City Hall, the Chamber and Shannon Development when Limerick’s oldest and internationally renowned arts festival EVA lost it’s funding? Where was the heated debate when Dagdha Dance Company quietly went bust leaving a wonderful venue lieing dead and empty on John’s Square? Where was the lobbying for the locating of the the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in the city centre? Where is the compulsory purchase orders on the beautiful Georgian buildings scattered around the city that have been allowed go to rack and ruin?
It is very easy to put out sweeping statements about the future of the city centre. In relation to the arts the simple fact is this. Limerick is a disjointed and on many level uninterested city when it comes to supporting home grown culture. It is widely recognised that the Cranberries were not embraced by the city until they finally achieved a international success. It is true that the Rubberbandits have been on the go for many years only to be adopted by Limerick upon reaching the pinnacle of their success. In order to continue to produce such nationally and internationally renowed acts there must be support from the outset.
A number of years ago discussions began surrounding the future of the Belltable Arts Centre. I was not living in Limerick at the time and am not in a position to comment on the political decisions made. One thing has become obvious. The design of the new Belltable is seriously flawed. The redevelopment of the building should never have taken place on the existing site. The arts office and the Arts Council should have entered sturdy negociations about the future of the Belltable. Instead what has happened is that any money once available to better Limerick City Centre’s theatrical and cultural hub was wasted. The design and fit out is in no way near what is required from leading touring companies. This is not a criticism of the current artistic director, someone who has come to the fore at a very difficult time in the Belltable’s history. This is a damning criticism of the powers that be who did not consult the most important stakeholders. The theatre goers themselves and the theatre practitioners in the city.
There has been recent discussion surrounding the potential redevelopment of the Theatre Royal site with the location of a digital media academy and digital arthouse cinema being the likely occupants should development take place. Very welcome one might say. However what is never mentioned in media reports is that, as part of its new scheduling and thanks to Arts Council funding, the Belltable Arts Centre has invested in a state of the art digital cinema system and is already regularly screen arthouse and mainstream foreign cinema in the 220 seat venue. Why would a city the size of Limerick need two arthouse cinemas around the corner from one another when the existing one struggles to get bums on seats in the first place? Once again, when it comes to the arts, the key stakeholders are not being consulted.
It has often been said that Limerick is a working class city. It does not have a cultural theatre going tradition. Well if I was to base my opinion on the numbers of parents sending children to performing arts schools, dance classes and music lessons in the city I would be certain that there is a definite recognition of the importance of the arts. What is missing is a central, well-designed arts centre in the centre of the city, a space where people can congregate, view art, attend theatre, visit museums, have lunch and take in the magnificent River Shannon as they do so.
It has taken the likes of Mick Dolan to take the risk and produce and promote big acts at the Milk Market’s Big Top. This is civic leadership. It has taken the management of the likes of Bourkes Pub to provide a new platform for up and coming musicians and bands. Limerick is a cultural hive of activity. What is needed is a strategy, a planned view to the future lead by those on the ground, in the know and actively involved. There is no point in appointing decision makers from Shannon Development, City Hall, Failte Ireland and so on if there is no understanding on how the city works from a cultural and artistic point of view. The track record to date is poor so maybe there needs to be a consensus that a new way consulting is approached going forward.
In the 1990’s the then Corporation allowed the old Savoy Theatre to be raised to the ground. In doing so we lost a theatrical gem and a key centre of life in our city. If culture really was at the forefront of the political agenda in the city this would never have been allowed to happen. I am firmly of the belief that if we were to create a civic space which can offer all our cultural offers under one roof then we would convert those with an interest in the arts back into fully paying punters. The new owners of the Opera Centre should bear this in mind as they panic over whether to give M&S free rent.
Culture is only one of the many good points made today by Kieran MacSweeney but it is a crucial aspect of Limerick’s future. The people must play a huge role in any consultation going forward.