Tag Archives: Siamsa Tíre

Altering States: the curious case of Johanne Mullan’s critique and Jimmy Deenihan’s chocolate teapot.

At the beginning of February, RTE repeated its review of regional development in the arts in Ireland as part of Althering States,  Cliodhna Ní Anluain’s series examining “100 years of the arts in Ireland.”  Johannne Mullan of  the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) highlighted the lack of investment in the visual arts by organisations ‘in the regions.’

Johanne Mullan should know. She manages the National Programme at IMMA, a scheme which provides venues and groups with ‘access’ to the Museum’s collection. The key point that she makes is that the development of the visual arts has been hampered by the failure of regional arts venues to make adequate provision for exhibition spaces or the employment of professional visual arts practitioners. Mullan did not refer to Siamsa Tíre or her role as member of its board of directors for much of the past decade.

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Students of Tralee Community College installing their exhibition in the Gallery, Siamsa Tíre. Photo: Emily Doran

Siamsa Tíre was, In many respects, an exception in terms of regional arts development.  In 1991 this grassroots company opened a state of the art, newly built theatre that incorporated a dedicated visual arts space. That space may not have been conventional but  a little bit of investment and a lot of handiwork transformed it into one of the best spaces in the Southwest. Artists liked it: it was a good place to exhibit.

The company also employed a Visual Arts Director from the outset. I replaced Marial Hannon in 1995 and left the company when the post was made redundant in 2010. One of the last exhibitions I curated was a show of photography by John Millington Synge. This opened in Inis Meáin in the Aran Islands and went on to Paris, where it was a big hit. It was incorporated into The Moderns (2010)  in IMMA, one of the rare occasions when an exhibition moved from a regional venue to IMMA.

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The end of an era:the Synge exhibition in Le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.

The Synge exhibition epitomised the scale and scope of the visual arts programme 1n 2010. With the agreement of the Arts Council, the gallery operated like no other arts centre gallery in the country. Exhibitions were commissioned, artists’ fees were adequate, international projects (New York, Shanghai, Newfoundland) were developed in collaboration with artists, and there was a comprehensive programme of engagement with educational and community groups.

The Synge exhibition was also the end of an era. It exposed serious weaknesses on the part of senior managers, who were either unwilling or unable to engage with projects of this complexity and quality. That brought all sorts of difficulties to a head and, in June 2010, senior management decided to make the post of Visual Arts Director redundant .

The board of directors agreed,  Johanne Mullan amongst them. True, at the time Siamsa had more managers than it needed or could afford and the visual arts could, in theory, have been absorbed by the existing management team. As it happened the visual arts programme was dismantled.

Now you see … now you don’t!

The first action by Siamsa management was to cancel or revise contracts agreed with artists and partner organizations in Ireland and abroad. A major international exchange with the Don Gallery in Shanghai was cancelled on the slimmest of pretexts. Documents show how fees agreed with artists were significantly cut, amounting to a deliberate withdrawal of financial support from one of the most exposed sectors of the arts in Ireland – in the midst of a financial crisis that had wiped out many artists’ income.

This was merely the beginning of a deliberate policy of not investing in the visual arts. Seven years on there is little or no support for professional visual artists and the gallery is barely functioning as a visual arts space. Schools in the region no longer have supported access to the visual arts. It’s beginning to look like the ‘bad old days’ when contemporary visual arts were barely visible in the regions, as described by contributors to Altering States: 

Johanne Mullan was a member of the board of directors of Siamsa Tíre while all this was going on.  I emailed her and asked her how she squared her criticism of the lack of investment in professional personnel and appropriate spaces in arts centres and theatres in the “regions” with her role in dismantling the visual arts infrastructure in Kerry. Her reply: “I am happy to bring your opinions to the Siamsa Tíre board.” I’m thinking chocolate teapots but Mullan has a point:  investment in the arts doesn’t just happen, it is a consequence of individual and collective decisions taken by management and approved by boards of directors.

Jimmy’s Chocolate Teapot

There is a wider context that needs to be considered here. Siamsa received €332,000 in public funding in 2016. It is part of regional infrastructure of publicly funded organisations that the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has placed at the center of its plan to “build a legacy of 2016” by making a policy objective of personal and collective creativity. “The best way to nurture the creative imagination“ the Department’s website states “is through active engagement with arts and culture.”

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Heather Humphreys T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, launching the Creative Ireland Programme. Photo:  Departmental website.

The Government has also launched Realising Our Rural Potential, a plan to mobilise economic, social and cultural resources in the regions with the aim of “improving the lives of those living and working in rural Ireland.” The plans come together around the key objective of increasing access to the arts and enhancing cultural facilities in rural communities.

And that is a problem that exercised all the contributors to Altering States:  how is active engagement with arts achieved at a local and regional level? Who calls the shots? Who is accountable? Who pays the Piper? Siamsa Tíre is a really interesting case. The Department of Arts etc. replaced the Arts Council as the primary funder of Siamsa Tíre in 2015, a move brokered by Jimmy Deenihan, then Minister for Arts and the local Fine Gael TD. It was a brazen act of clientilist patronage that politicised arts funding in an unprecedented way.

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Siamsa in 1991: the good ole days.

As part of the deal agreed between Deenihan, the Department, and the Board of Siamsa Tíre, the organisation ceased trading as an Arts Council supported arts centre and became a venue that “provides theatre and exhibition facilities to third parties” (see Directors’ Report and Financial Statements for 2015). What does that mean in practice?  The current visual arts programme comprises a one person exhibition and a touring show produced by “a third party,” pretty much the same level of activity as the year before.

Lack of money is not the issue here. Deenihan sweetened the transfer deal with an increase of 33% in funding, from €225,000 under the Arts Council to €300,ooo from the Department of Arts etc. A further €32,000 per annum is provided by Kerry County Council.

The real issue is the level of investment that is decided by management and approved by the board of directors. It begs the question: what percentage of €332,000 in public funding did Siamsa allocate directly to the support of artists and opportunities for public engagement in 2016? At a guess, I would say around 1%.

That raises all sort of questions about the viability of the Department’s plan to use the ‘regional’ resources like Siamsa Tíre to “nurture the creative imagination” in rural Ireland. Once again, sadly, a chocolate teapot comes to mind. I can’t help thinking that Jimmy Deenihan was thinking along the same lines at the end of the last election count.

Next up: The National Folk Theatre of Ireland: you can’t be serious?

In memory of Mick ‘The Iron Man’ Murphy

Mick 'The Iron Man' Murphy by Barry McCarthy from the exhibition 'Blood, Sweat and Gears,' 2008

Mick ‘The Iron Man’ Murphy by Barry McCarthy from the exhibition ‘Blood, Sweat and Gears,’ 2008.

I have just learned of the death of Mick Murphy of Cahersiveen in Co. Kerry. Mick was known fondly as ‘The Iron Man’ because of his exploits in a celebrated bicycle race in 1958. Aidan O’Connor, writing in The Kerryman newspaper described Mick’s extraordinary Life:

Mick made a living as a spalpeen and a circus performer. After winning the 1958 Rás, Mick returned to Kerry to work in local quarry, breaking stones with a crowbar and sledge hammer. All the while, the Iron Man was completing daily training routines of 100-mile cycles.

Aged just 27 years, Mick Murphy retired and took the boat to England where he worked as a builder, road maker, a carnival act, boxer and a wrestler.

Mick’s training was as unconventional as his lifestyle. Having read about the important of a high protein diet, Mick drank cow’s blood and ate raw meat, well aware that this was regarded with “horror” by the people of Cahersiveen. The legend that was the ‘Iron Man’ was the starting point for an exhibition that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his victory in the Rás in 1958. The exhibition consisted of still photography by Barry McCarthy interviews recorded by film maker Chris Hurley. The impact of that exhibition is captured in Sean Mac an tSithig’s report (above) which was recorded for the main evening news.

Mick Murphy was one of the most remarkable people I worked with in Siamsa, a true folk hero. Following the broadcast of Seán’s film a lot of men who had gone through similar experiences came to the gallery and spoke movingly of their lives as emigrants and their love of cycling.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Fadó Fadó: Once upon a time, in Tralee, there was a folk theatre …

Jeremiah Molneaux (1883–1967) or Gerry Munnix as he was known locally was born in 1883 was a dance teacher in North Kerry who inspired the house style of the National Folk Theatre. Molyneaux’s style is often described as earthy, as the dancer performs close to the ground. He is dancing with dancing with Sheila Bowler.Source: Sharon Phelan: www.pdst.ie/sites/default/files/Dance%20manual.doc

Jeremiah Molneaux (1883–1967) or Gerry Munnix as he was known locally was a dance teacher in North Kerry who inspired the house style of the National Folk Theatre. The “Munnix” style is “often described as earthy, as the dancer performs close to the ground.”  Gerry Munnix is shown dancing with dancing with Sheila Bowler in this photograph.

SLIM PICKINGS AT THE HOME OF THE NATIONlONAL FOLK THEATRE, TRALEE.

A show celebrating 40 years of costume design in Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland is a curious affair. There is very little to see and even less to get excited about, which suggests that all is not well in the National Folk Theatre.

What’s new? “The trouble with Siamsa is …” is one of those awful conversation openings that I became accustomed to when I worked as Visual Arts Director of the National Folk Theatre or “Siamsa” for short. I left Siamsa in 2010 but people still come up to me and say “The trouble with Siamsa is …” Two years or so ago I was stopped in Foynes – an hour up the coast from Tralee – when an artist pulled in and began to berate me about the management of the visual arts in Siamsa, even though she was well aware that I had left the place some time ago. It still goes on. A founding member recently lamented the demise of the company. A conversation in Tralee last Monday was more gentle in style but the same in focus: The trouble with Siamsa is … that it doesn’t work, it is a failed artistic enterprise. It’s hard to escape any other conclusion looking at this exhibition.

I have to declare my position here. I started in Siamsa in 1995 – fadó fadó or a long time ago. By 2010 I had built an innovative commission-based, visual arts programme with a national and international reach. In 2010 there were active collaborations with partners in London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Melbourne and Newfoundland, all of which was underpinned by a strong policy of engagement with local arts interests. In March of that year I went to the Board and reported that “the trouble with Siamsa was that the management of the company was incapable of operating at the level required by such projects.” It wasn’t the first time I had made the point – marketing was a constant issue – but it was the last. The board meeting happened on a Thursday evening and on the following Monday I was told by the CEO that the post of Visual Arts Director was being made redundant and my employment was being terminated. I was expecting it and a reasonable redundancy settlement enabled me develop projects as a freelance curator operating as curator.ie. Life goes on.

As far as Siamsa goes, the visual arts programme of 2010 was dismantled and my work was erased from the record of the company – the visual arts archive on the website begins in June 2010, the month that I left (ironically, the last show I curated with Maurice Galway was called Wisdom, a collaboration with New York based photographer Andrew Zuckerman [Wisdom]). The breach was total it seems.  In 2014 I wasn’t invited to the formal celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the company. None of that comes as a surprise. It pretty much sums up the negative management style that has, apparently, left Siamsa increasingly isolated.

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Fadó Fadó: Siamsa in its heyday: scenes from Broadway, the ‘classic’ Siamsa repertoire and a visit by President Mary Robinson. (Source: Siamsa) Martin Whelan and I are shown meeting Mary and Nicholas Robinson. Also featured are Pat Hanafin,  and the late, much beloved Seánie Mahony, performers who featured on the logo of the company for years.

Conflict was nothing unusual in Siamsa. Since 1991 – when the permanent home of the National Folk Theatre was opened in Tralee – the company has been torn between the conservatism of its folk culture founders, the mass tourism focus of its first general manager, the amateur musical theatre background of many of the company and, significantly, the dependence on Arts Council funding to maintain the company ‘out of season.’  Two things tipped these rivalries into open conflict. The first was the arrival of Riverdance in May 1994. The second was the sudden death of Martin Whelan in 2002. Martin was an inspirational General Manager who was promoted to CEO on the retirement of founding artistic director Fr. Pat Ahern.

Riverdance was an opportunity and a threat. It became the de-facto national ‘folk dance’ company which threatened Siamsa’s status, as well as its ambitions as an international touring company. On the other hand it focussed attention on Siamsa as a full-time folk dance company at a time when the idea of locality was gaining ground in response to flattening effect of globalisation in the arts.

 Jack Lyons, pictured in Teach Siamsa Finuge shortly after the building was completed.

Passing on the torch: Jack Lyons in Teach Siamsa, the first training centre established by Siamsa founder Fr. Pat Ahern. Lyons was one of Molyneaux’s finer pupils and he agreed to have the ‘Munnix” style videotaped in 1983, when he could only dance with the aid of a chair. 

To benefit from this attention Siamsa needed to develop its repertoire and professionalise its practice, especially if it was to compete with Riverdance and the performance standards that it set for the sector. At the same time it needed to maintain the highly successful tourism product that was the ‘Summer Season’ – nightly performances of the repertoire for coach tours between May and October. This was a highly lucrative business and remains the mainstay of the organisation’s output to date. The business is driven largely by commission paid to coach tour operators and depends on a particular type of folk theatre ‘product.’ Art and tourism had to be balanced in terms of the home market.

The international market was a much tougher problem. The apparent lack of discipline and amateurish standards that seemed to be a feature of all Siamsa tours were brutally exposed on a tour to the Ford Theatre in Washington in November 1999. This was intended to relaunch Siamsa on the American stage but it failed, leaving the international market to Riverdance and Riverdance-style ‘entertainments.’ Siamsa may have been “more authentic” (John Sheehan) but it couldn’t compete on an international level. This was to cost the company dearly in terms of revenue that could have been generated from international touring: in 2011, for instance, Kerry based Ceol Chiarraí Teoranta  – a Riverdance-style ‘entertainment much derided in Siamsa – recorded a profit of €5.9m on a turnover of €13m. (Irish Examiner)

Meanwhile, back in Tralee, efforts continued to develop the repertoire in-house but each new show was more dismal than the last. There were exceptions. Mary Nunan’s choreography ensured that Clann Lir (1999)  made the grade but creative disagreement, poor governance, creeping nepotism and the growing influence of Tralee Musical Society began to limit the company’s capacity to respond to the challenges it faced. As the pressure mounted Martin Whelan died of a heart attack, at the age of 52. The suddden loss of leadership quickly developed into a crisis that rolled on for years, a period of intense and damaging infighting that culminated in the disastrous production that was Moriarty.

Since 1994 the future of Siamsa had rested on its ability to re-invent itself ‘post-Riverdance’ and produce shows that could justify the claim to being the national folk theatre, a creative cultural enterprise supported by the Arts Council. Moriarty was intended to be that show. Produced by Karl Wallace, CEO, and directed by Jonathan Kelliher, Artistic Director, the show flopped, with something like 38 people attending a gala performance at the end of a week-long run in April 2009. In many ways this was the inglorious end of Siamsa Tíre as a creative enterprise and  the poor attendance seemed to signal the final break with its support base locally. Amazingly, this seemed to go unnoticed or unheeded by the board, a point which raises all sorts of question about the governance of the company.   

Moriarty has, it seems, sunk without trace and the company has done very little since – Joanne Barry’s Imigéin (2013) being a notable exception. That lack of productivity is reflected in the exhibition of costumes that finishes this week, after a five month run. It features selected costumes from five shows which are supposed illustrate the work of the company over 40 years – Moriarty doesn’t feature nor, curiously, any show directed by current Artistic Director Jonathan Kelliher

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Slim pickings: an exhibition of 40 years of costume from the National Folk Theatre, Tralee. (Photo: Ciarán Walsh)

It’s a sparse show, with a small number of costumes on show. Documentary photographs from various performance are too small to have impact and the collection of masks is a curious addition that underscores the lack of impact of the exhibition as a whole. If this is the history of the National Folk Theatre as expressed in costume, then one cannot help but think of the emperor’s new clothes.

Apart from that, the exhibition has displaced visual arts activity in the gallery for almost half a year, not that there is much activity anyway. There have been three shows to date in 2015, including an exhibition of work by local amateur painters that ran for over 2 months. That level of inactivity hardly matters anymore as Siamsa is no longer subject to Arts Council oversight in terms of its programming.  In an act of apparent political patronage Jimmy Deenihan, the local Fine Gael T.D. acting as Minister for Art, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, transferred responsibility for the state funding of Siamsa from the Arts Council – a statutory agency that was designed to limit political interference in state funding of the arts – to his own Department on the basis that it is a national cultural institution; increasing its funding by around 3% in 2014 by the way. The minister was sacked shortly afterwards and it remains to be seen whether his replacement Heather Humphries can actually see the emperor’s new clothes, or whether she can tell the difference between a low grade tourism product and a national cultural  institution. Either way, the trouble with Siamsa is … that the National Folk Theatre appears to have left home Fadó Fadó.