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.
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.
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
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.