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The Detail: Arts and Minds

Clare People, Tuesday, 13th November 2007

Minister Tony Killeen's recent announcement of a new library and arts centre for Ennis has sparked a lively debate over how the arts are being catered for in Clare. Brian O'Connell investigates.

It started with an e-mail. "New Library and Arts Centre for Ennis," boasted the subject line, as Minister of State, Tony Killeen, informed his electorate last Friday that the project to build a new library and arts centre in the county capital was to move to design phase.

After probing, a further e-mail from the press officer confirmed that the 45,000 square foot, three-storey building would incorporate performance, exhibition and rehearsal space, in what was termed "a cultural centre for County Clare".

And why shouldn't Ennis have its own designated arts centre, you might ask? The town's population has grown by more than a quarter in the last decade and now harbours many young professionals with a certain expendable income and openness to the arts. County Clare is well known as home to the traditional arts and, increasingly in recent years, the visual arts have begun to take root in places such as Tulla and Ennistymon. Last year, two inaugural events - the Ennis Book Club Festival and the Ennis Guitar Festival - were both hugely successful events in the town.

Thurles has an arts centre, so too Kilmallock - so why not Ennis? Well, the problem is that Ennis already has a multi-disciplinary arts venue in the form of the Glór Irish Music Centre - one of the largest venues in the mid-west built at a cost of £6.5 million and opened in 2001.

The news that a second building was now being added to the local cultural landscape came as a complete surprise to many, not least David Collopy, Glór's Acting Artistic Director. "I have asked in our office here and no-one knew anything about this. In a small town like this, there should be a bit of discussion," he said. "It's an embarrassment to the venue that it doesn't know that something like this is being proposed."

Glór has had a troubled emergence, beginning life as the centre for the performance of traditional Irish music. That remit had to be abandoned three years in, when it proved unsustainable, and for the past three years the venue has been re-branding itself as a multidisciplinary community arts centre. A youth drama group has been established and uses the space regularly, and on any given Saturday, teenagers can choose between "Trad for Teens" or, later in the evening, all ages acoustic performances. Recently, it has applied for capital funding to transform its studio into a more versatile space, better suited for use by community groups. Those plans may now prove somewhat redundant.

While broadly welcoming any moves that would enhance the cultural and artistic landscape of County Clare, Collopy urged planners to proceed with caution. "Glór is still finding its feet in terms of developing its audience and it takes a long time to weave a venue such as this into the fabric of the community," he says. "What would concern me is that, so early on in this development, another venue would come into play with a similar constituency, remit and vision as Glór. There is limited funding available from local authorities, as well as commercial and private donors. I don't know how it is proposed to finance this new venue and I think we need to be careful in terms of how it is funded and what impact that may have on Glór's future."

Collopy is not alone in his concerns. Frank Whelan, a board member at Glór, is a well-known member of Comhaltas Ceoltoírí Éireann in Clare. At present, Comhaltas is completing renovations on Cois na hAbhann, a 300-seater venue within the outskirts of the town expected to officially re-open in January.

While the venue's loyalties lie exclusively within the traditional arts, Cois na hAbhann will also house rehearsal and conference facilities and is open to any community group within the traditional arts sector wishing to hire the facility.

"Operating a venue is a costly business," says Whelan. "For us, it will be a challenge to try and pay our bills when we re-open. Down the road, I would expect us to be looking for some support from local agencies. Now, if another venue is to be funded out of the same pot, and unless their remit is very specific, then there are concerns. For instance, what type of acts, if any, will they be bringing in? Will they have a commercial remit? If the venue is to be directed purely at community groups, then there is probably a need for that. But the smaller theatre at Glór, if revamped, could well cater for that. So if the plan for the new library is to incorporate a performance space, then I would be concerned that it will do us damage, certainly."

Driving the campaign for the new library and arts centre is County Librarian, Noel Crowley, who has long been recognised as one of the most pioneering librarians in the country. Having appointed the first ever Arts Officer in Ireland in the guise of Kay Sheehy some years back, the branch library in Ennis has also been pioneering in many other respects, from incorporating local studies departments to absorbing information technology into the library's remit. His vision now is for a building that will respond to the current needs of the community. His argument is that the library is very active (150,000 people passed through its doors last year) and the physical space has simply become too small for the demands being placed on it.

Standing at the top of Bindon Lane, five minutes walk from both the Clare Museum and Glór Irish Music Centre, the locally termed "post office field" is where Crowley hopes his vision will be realised. The field is a valuable piece of real estate, roughly an acre in size and currently home to an assortment of wetland wildlife. Crowley describes it as "one of the most amazing urban spaces left in any big town", and envisages creating what he calls a "cultural area between the site, the museum and Glór, all in one short walk". He envisages a modern library facility as well as a purpose-built performance and rehearsal space and sees no potential conflict between his plans and what is already in place at Glór. "The more facilities the better," he says, before adding, "we don't intend to be in competition with Glór here, but Ennis does need a multi-purpose space that can stretch to accommodate upwards of 400 people if need be." While he admits it is early days, he hopes the facility will be up and running within three years and projects the building costs somewhere in the region of €10 million.

Siobhán Mulcahy, County Clare's current Arts Officer, who will have ultimate responsibility for the cultural and artistic affairs of the new facility, supports Crowley's vision. "I see the building being multi-purpose and multi-functional, able to cater for activities ongoing and allow for new ones to develop," she says. In terms of where the money will come from to fund the programming of the building, Mulcahy says the hope is that some of the events will generate income. "There is a huge gap in the arts here in what is being provided in Glór and what this facility could provide. I don't see it as competition. Our hope would be to increase the number of activities we programme currently and for some of the added activities to be income-generating. Half of our funding at present comes from the Arts Council and the other half from the local authority - it's been that way for the past 25 years and we would hope it stays that way for another 25 years."

For its part, the Arts Council has consistently warned local authorities and political bodies against parachuting arts infrastructure into locales, without comprehensive consultation or needs assessment. Arts Council head of venues, Val Balance, was surprised to learn of the plans in Ennis and says that, in general, the council has been moving from multi-disciplinary venues in favour of sites of artistic speciality. Typically, capital funding is raised for these buildings through local or national schemes, yet a year or two down the line, venue managers come knocking on the Arts Council's door looking for programming funding, which they don't have.

He says that more often than not the call for an arts centre in a town may be due to political rather than artistic needs. "Often these venues are called for by certain groups, such as amateur dramatics or musical societies, or indeed as a result of political pressure. The sensible approach would be for the planners to make early contact with the Arts Council and to use our resources. We have a number of people on the staff here very familiar with these areas that can give good advice. I'd strongly recommend people would do that."

A few more phonecalls in Ennis had local officials trying to downplay the new centre's proposed artistic remit. Mayor of Ennis, Tommy Brennan, who speaks on behalf of the elected members of Ennis Town Council, said he had seen no plans for the new site and as of yet no decision has been made on the building's content. "I don't know what has been proposed for the buildings as I haven't seen plans and it has not come before the town council," he said. "I do know, though, that Glór are looking to extend their facilities."

Ennis Town Manager, Tom Coughlan, who also happens to be a board member of Glór, stated, "At this stage, a number of ideas have been put forward which incorporate artistic and community facilities. The primary objective of the proposed development is to provide modern library facilities for the greater Ennis area. However, all other proposals will be considered in the context of the overall design."

Coughlan pointed out that Glór's proposed revamp of its studio space is still very much alive - having received approval from the Town Council and with planning permission granted. The only remaining stumbling block was capital funding. The revamp would allow the space incorporate a cinema space, general performance and arts usage, or, in Coughlan's words, "a mini arts centre, if you like".

The back-pedalling didn't stop there, though. A press release was issued after last Monday night's meeting of Ennis Town Council under the headline "Mayor of Ennis on Proposed Library Building". No mention of the arts centre and this from the same source who, a few days earlier, had announced the "New Library and Arts Centre" with much gusto.

Reading on, the release announced that Mayor of Ennis, Cllr Tommy Brennan, has welcomed the announcement that formal approval has been given to Clare County Council to proceed with appointing a project design team for the proposed new "County Library building" in Ennis.

Cllr Brennan, who only a few hours earlier had little to say about the new building or its proposed remit, suddenly found his voice: "The proposed development will pave the way for the provision of state-of-the-art library facilities for the people of Ennis and County Clare. It would also serve to underline Clare County Library's outstanding record in providing a comprehensive and modern library service. I now look forward to the results of the project design team's work," he concluded.

The final word then should go to Minister Killeen, whose e-mail announcement first made mention of Clare's new library and arts venue. When told of the surprise reaction to his announcement from some quarters, the minister sounded genuinely bemused. "I don't see any negative aspects to this plan," he said, "It will, in my view, further project the arts to communities in Clare and I would be astounded if anyone managed to argue against that. The local authorities already pick up a lot of the tab for Glór and some of them are the ones proposing and supporting this idea, so I think they are best able to judge its sustainability."

Minister Killeen did leave room for input when the project goes to the planning stage and offered an olive branch to those in the local arts community who may have felt disenfranchised by his announcement. "If there are people in the arts community who have constructive ideas that will enable this building to tie in with Glór, I would think that the local council would be more than happy to hear them," said the Minister.

You get the feeling that some in the local community may just take him up on that offer.

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