Exclusive Interview with City of Culture Company Executive

Garbhan Downey speaks with the woman chosen to lead Derry’s cultural revolution

Managing a City of Culture company is one of the toughest jobs in show business. A recent study conducted for the European Commission revealed that fewer than half the City of Culture chief executives appointed at the outset make it to the end of their target year*.

The most common problems listed by researchers included budgetary restraints, limited preparation time and insufficient personnel. They listed dozens more besides – from trying to separate arts organisations scrapping over their patches to trying to please every interest group that ever had a cultural thought. And that’s before you factor in the local politics.

So, it is significant and, perhaps, wise that Derry went outside its municipal boundaries to recruit a chief executive for the Culture Company which will lead the planning and delivery of the 2013 City of Culture programme.

The new boss, Shona McCarthy, will bring the critical eye of the impartial outsider to the job, but she has also considerable knowledge of the locale as well. She lived in Derry and in the 1990s served as a director of the Foyle Film Festival.

Importantly, McCarthy – who takes up the reins on April 18 – brings a wealth of national and international connections to the post. Currently director of the British Council in the North, she has spent the past 20 years working in the cultural sector here. She ran her own cultural consultancy firm, and is a former chief executive of Cinemagic, Northern Ireland’s International Film Festival for young people, and of Imagine Belfast 2008.

But is she ready to take on the dreams of a city which has such high expectations of success?

‘I’m exhilarated by the challenge,’ she says. ‘I am aware of all the risks, but if we just focused on those we would never do anything. This represents such an exceptional opportunity for the city and for all of Northern Ireland, that we have to make it work and make it something of which we can all be rightly proud.

‘The Culture Company is not a sole delivery agency, this is a shared responsibility for all of us in the city. My job is primarily about leading the process, facilitating and enabling so that the right individuals, organisations, groups, with the skills and experience can be supported to deliver not just a cultural year but long term benefits for Derry.’

The cultural programme for 2013 will, according to the campaign budgets, cost approximately £20 million to put into effect. This money will come from various government agencies, the private sector (advertisers and sponsors), trusts and foundations, and ticket sales.

Without this diversity of funding sources until now, the decision-making process has been top-heavy. The initial bid was handled by Derry City Council, Ilex (the city’s urban regeneration company) and the Strategic Investment Board (Stormont). They were receiving advice from many other bodies, including the Derry’s own Strategy Board and the fledgling Cultural Partnership Forum.

McCarthy’s new Culture Company, however, will exist independently from these strictures and, she hopes, will be able to move and act quickly.

‘The new company marks a change in the way things will be done. The board are just being appointed – and there will be a small team of staff, who we want in place very soon. We will then have the autonomy of any independent company limited by guarantee - though we will, of course, be reporting back at all stages to our funders.

‘I met with the chairman of the new company, Martin Bradley [former mayor of Derry] after my appointment, and we immediately agreed that we would abide by the three principles for the Culture Company - transparency, openness and accessibility.

‘It is essential that the company is independent – we want to be fleet of foot, free of baggage and able to adopt a fresh and objective approach.

‘But while the decision was made in the bid to set up an independent company to lead the City of Culture process, it is very important to point out that, one of the most powerful features of Derry’s bid was the strong and collective backing it got from the strategic agencies. And their contribution mustn’t be undervalued. It was the process to date which won Derry the title, and that was down to the massive passion, dedication and effort of those involved.’

Some funding is already in place, and the planning process for the 2013 programme is underway. A series of open meetings was initiated before Christmas to invite contributions from the general public. McCarthy hopes to have an outline programme for 2013 ready by the autumn.

‘I intend to hit the ground running. Although I’m not in situ yet, I’m making sure that the structures are ready and the recruitment process underway to put the core team in place.

‘You need a structured timetable – particularly for the major events, which take a long time to plan. By necessity, though, programming is not a static process – we’ll be continuing to develop elements of the programme right up until 2013; there should always be window for new ideas and innovation.’

Despite being the person administering the budgets, McCarthy is emphatic that her role won’t be that of a funding agency.

‘My job is to honour the themes and pledges of the bid, bring coherence and a unique identity to the programme, spot good ideas, and enable those to be delivered. I am keen that we facilitate and help develop quality ideas in partnership with people across arts, education, business and community in the city. I am not interested in conversations that begin with grants but ones that begin with ideas that can/will make a positive contribution to the cultural regeneration of the city for the benefit of its people.’

Derry’s City of Culture bid was predicated on bringing about a ‘sea change’ to the city via its cultural excellence. But McCarthy is mindful that sea changes don’t happen overnight.

‘They don’t happen in two to three years. But in saying that, as someone who lived in the city and is now returning, I can see that there have already been momentous changes here in just a few years. This is a city with something to say about itself; it is buoyed up - confident. It’s not always easy for people living here, the citizens themselves, to see it. But the change is already happening. Coming in with fresh eyes, you see a different energy here now. The City of Culture programme hopes to build on this and develop a further cultural legacy.’

Key to the city’s step-change will be the physical development of sites such as the former Ebrington Barracks, which, it’s envisaged, will eventually feature its own cluster of cultural centres and projects. This initiative is being championed by Cultural Broker Caoimhin Corrigan.

The former parade ground at Ebrington is being widely touted as a venue for major outdoor concerts. Work is already underway on the buildings at the site, and the last piece of the new footbridge which will connect the old barracks to the city-centre was laid last month.

‘It would be ideal if the building projects at Ebrington were in place to chime with the 2013 celebrations though we can’t be completely sure,’ says McCarthy.

McCarthy is adamant, however, that event-hosting won’t be the sole preserve of the bigger or more established venues. There must, she says, be provision for the entire community.

‘One of the things which excites me is that the entire city can be a canvas for 2013. Every park and green space, no matter how small, can be part of it. And things will happen on a community level, if people make them happen.’

Not everyone wants to play, however. And McCarthy is also mindful that there are sections of the community who, for different reasons, have chosen to oppose or ignore the City of Culture project.

‘People are entitled not to be part of it. One of the themes that first attracted me was that of “Purposeful Inquiry”. And part of that is about creating a forum for ongoing dialogue with and between people in the city, including those who wish to dissent, but also with people from across the island of Ireland, the UK and the world. A city has to find not just one voice but its many voices and to be a mature and open enough space for difference and pluralism to thrive.

‘When I was involved in Belfast’s bid to become European City of Culture in 2008, Aideen McGinley [now chief executive of Ilex] described it as one of the most successful failures ever. The process started a dialogue among people who would never otherwise have discussed their city with one another in this way. There has been a lasting legacy and Belfast is a dynamic city right now, a cultural city that continues to grow in confidence and establish its place in the world.’

Other dissenters take a different tack entirely. In cities such as Edinburgh, hugely successful fringe festivals have sprung up to offer an alternative to the mainstream. McCarthy acknowledges that this could well happen in Derry.

‘There is definitely potential here for a fringe festival or even twenty fringe festivals. But it has to happen from the people up. It’s not something should ever be imposed.’

While none of the keynote events for 2013 are as yet set in stone, there are a number of proposals which McCarthy is very taken with.

‘I love the idea of “The Return of Colmcille: The Peacemaker” [an outdoor pageant on the River Foyle]. This will see every young person in the city being given an oak sapling to plant – which is great as it promotes both culture and sustainability.

‘Another initiative that really grabs me is the “Children’s Music Promise”, which will give every young person in the city access to a musical instrument and the training in how to use it. Both these projects will leave a lasting and meaningful legacy.’

But it’s not just about celebrating the local. McCarthy has extensive experience of developing international links through her work with the British Council. And she intends to carry on this tradition in her new post.

‘The Council has an amazing infrastructure. As part of one initiative, a quarter of Northern Ireland schools have now developed links with overseas schools.

‘Previously, I have helped establish national and international connections in the higher and further education sectors, and the cultural sector as well.

‘One of the themes of 2013 is “Creative Connections”. And this will allow us to examine our current role on the edge, on the periphery of Europe - and explore where we might connect to. Potential connections are everywhere. For example, I worked for six months in Calcutta at the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, which is a publishing house and multi-media resource centre - very like the Nerve Centre in Derry in many ways. And like the Nerve Centre they don’t set themselves any limits on what they do. This city has a diaspora of people and a diaspora of interest out there that can help us make Derry’s cultural capital truly international in outlook’

A native of Ballycran, County Down, McCarthy has two children and lives in Ballycastle. Besides the arts her passions, it seems, also extend to the sporting world.

‘Be sure and write I’m from ‘Ballycran’ – not Portaferry,’ she insists. ‘We’ve three great hurling teams down there that I’m very proud of, but it has to be Ballycran…’

*European Cities and Capitals of Culture: Study Prepared for the European Commission (2004)