Meet the Bosses at the Culture Company

Graeme Farrow and Martin Melarkey discuss the challenges ahead

It’s the Year 2013. Culture is taking over the City of Derry. Two men stand between a hugely ambitious £20 million programme and fiasco. Graeme Farrow, director of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, and Marty Melarkey, director of the Nerve Centre, both recently appointed as senior cultural programmers with the new Culture Company 2013, for partnerships and education respectively.

That would be the elevator pitch. And if this really were a film Melarkey would be played by wisecracking motor-mouth Joe Pesci, and Farrow perhaps a more urbane Ray Liotta, with a Mackem accent.

Here we are in the dining room of marketing capo Garbhan Downey, with cups of tea and plate of Jacobs Club biscuits, to discuss their new appointments and just how Farrow and Melarkey are going to tackle the City of Culture programme.

Tell me a little bit more about how you’ve got to where you are today. I’m interested in any parallels you see between yourselves.

Graeme Farrow: We both saw the Pixies live in the early 1990s…

Marty Melarkey: And we both like Sonic Youth.

GF: There is a similarity in that I’ve been [in Northern Ireland] 18 years, but some of the earliest things I did were in Derry~Londonderry for the Nerve Centre. I worked on three short films that were made over a three week period and I knew Pearse Moore and Marty, and indeed Shona McCarthy, from way back then.

I programmed the first two Belfast Film Festivals, and of course the Nerve Centre were involved with the Foyle Film Festival, so although Marty and I aren’t best buddies or anything we’ve known each other for years and I think it would be fair to say that we both share a big love of film and music … So I would say yes there are a lot of similarities between the two of us. Marty’s much older than me though.

MM: That’s the downside. I’ve got less time to go, so I have to speak faster ... It’s been a long journey in one sense. At a fairly early age I had the opportunity to work with a group of people who really wanted to live in Derry and have a cultural career, although we weren’t really thinking about it in those terms, just a sense of connection to the city so we could play music or make films …

Personally for me, there has been a second journey. Going back to the reasons why we were setting up [the Nerve Centre] in the first place, we didn’t get to do this stuff at school. Popular music wasn’t really recognised within the school curriculum, film wasn’t, and now over the last ten years some of that has started to change.

The digital revolution has been the defining moment in my life in terms of what people involved in arts and culture can potentially do. I see the digital revolution as being the sea change that puts artists into the driving seat of nearly everything, but particularly education … My interest in this post was to look at the way in which artists are in the driving seat of the digital revolution, and that means that they should be everywhere, in the community, in the classroom, connecting everything.

GF: I think there’s an aspect to that that’s quite important. There have been cities of culture like Glasgow, Cork and even Liverpool, but the difference here is that when we get to 2013 we will genuinely be able to do things that the whole world can watch. We can point a camera and it can be broadcast anywhere. If you look at how much technology is going to change even before people get to 2013, keeping on top of that and using that technology is going to be hugely important.

It may be that things can happen in Derry that don’t necessarily have to happen live in the city. There’s huge potential to involve people in this digitally. Of course you can never beat live performance in Derry, and there will be plenty of that, but the flip side is you’ll be able to see stuff in New York as well. So it’s an incredible opportunity to be globally connected.

MM: Educationally, we’ve a great interest in trying to bring artists from all around the world to the city, and if you can’t do that physically you can do it through Skype. Why couldn’t we have poets, writers, film-makers, musicians and artists in a dialogue with young people who are making creative work in the classroom and the community? The technology is definitely there. It should be about us using the technology for our ultimate advantage.

Over the years you’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of arts and cultural events. What has stood out in your mind?

GF: Bloody hell.

MM: You mean anywhere in the world? I saw Jessica Lange in Long Day’s Journey into the Night in the West End about six or seven years ago. The acting talent was phenomenal. But if you want to talk about something a bit closer, seeing Danny Boyle bring Trainspotting to Derry before he premiered it in London or showed it to any journalists ... He showed it to a bunch of our film trainees on a Monday morning in the Orchard cinema, turned around afterwards and said: ‘What do you think of that Marty?’ I just sort of knew that British cinema had changed. When you see something like that you think this is absolutely incredible, how did someone do this? That’s just two things. It’s a long list.

GF: Sunderland in north east England, which is where I’m from originally, is not exactly a hot bed of culture, right? I’d never been to the theatre until I was 21, apart from the odd trip to the panto, but some early things I saw, at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s actually, completely changed my perceptions of what drama and contemporary dance could be, like the first time I saw Akram Khan.

I just want people to feel the same way about things that I feel. For example, when I went to see DV8 dance company’s To Be Straight With You, I came out of the theatre feeling like I wanted to punch the air, because I just thought that was an incredible experience, educational, emotional, all the rest of it. The director was there that night and I just went straight up to him and said this is coming to Belfast next year ...

Somebody said to me the other day: ‘What I want out of this is just for young people from Derry to think this city is really cool, that they don’t feel that they have to leave it, because they can see and hear brilliant music or they can make records or they can join a theatre company so they can realise their aspirations.' Perhaps that hasn’t been the case but hopefully it will be more the case after 2013.

The City of Culture is big, I’m not sure people realise yet just how big. There is lots of talk about ‘step changes’, building a cultural economy, creating thousands of jobs. How realistic do you think that vision is?

MM: It’s going back to the digital again. This decade we’re living in now is the decade where people have more access to creative tools than in any other period in human history. An Apple Mac computer to me is the most creative thing ever invented in terms of what you can do and how it connects all types of creativity together – music and sound and graphic design.

The notion of being on the margins geographically does not exist in the digital world, because a young person from any part of the world, if they come up with something original and inspiring, can get it out there straight away. So for me there’s a tremendous optimism if people feel they are getting access to these creative tools, and if they’re getting the right support and training.

A lot of my focus is thinking around the community and educational context for that. Are schools tooled up with the best creative tools? Do the teachers feel that they can release the creative energies of young people? Can the floodgates be opened? What’s going to inspire a renaissance of culture?

GF: We’re talking about trying to embed this creative culture into the psyche of the people of Derry~Londonderry, particularly young people, so they can use that to try and develop, whether it be in the creative industries, or thinking creatively ... But I think there is a kind of danger here. You know, Snow Patrol didn’t start making music so they could have a great effect on the gross domestic product of Northern Ireland. They do it because they have to.

If we get it right all of those things will be positive by-products of the 2013 programme, but we can’t think we have to do this thing here primarily because it’s going to reduce unemployment by 1%. We can’t measure culture always in those kind of bottom line terms, because a lot of stuff just wouldn’t happen. It starts with people, it doesn’t start with macroeconomics. The macroeconomics come out of getting the programme of activity right.

MM: We never had any idea when we started the music collective that evolved into the Nerve Centre that any of us would have a job. We were all unemployed, we were interested in playing music, that’s what we wanted to do. I couldn’t do it in my back shed on the council estate because people were complaining over the back wall about the noise, so we had to find a space in the city centre that lots of people across the city who were facing exactly the same problem could join, and then from that little acorn the whole thing grew out of it. But we never sat down and thought, 'Well in five years time there had better be 20 jobs here or this will be a failure'.

How are you going to ensure that all sides ‘buy in’ to the City of Culture?

MM: If we can’t do that, I would certainly see the thing as a failure. We’re trying to embrace all of the people and all the identities that have created Derry, Londonderry, Doire – whatever name you want to use – in the past and in the more contemporary, cosmopolitan city that we’re hopefully building now. There has to be a way of connecting all that together.

There are things that people share in common. Some of it obviously negative, like the Troubles, but things like the Columban heritage both communities really identify with ... Columban monasteries created the greatest work of art in Irish history and that flowering of art, culture and creativity, I think, in a sense, we’re still trying to get back to that. We’ve got role models in the past that we can go back and use and it’s fortunate that those role models aren’t ones that we’re divided and fighting over.

GF: I think obviously there is a peculiarity to this city, but if you were putting on a City of Culture for a year in New York, there’d be a fair few challenges in bringing the communities of New York City together too. We’ve got a particularly acute challenge here, but it’s not impossible, and also the size of the city does give us something to work on, where it’s possible to really involve everybody and engulf the city in projects and culture for a year.

Let’s not forget there are people who live in Derry~Londonderry who aren’t Protestant or Catholic, or who aren’t British or Irish should I say. This needs to be an international thing that we have in 2013, we need to think of where this city sits in a global sense, not just within the UK or Ireland. We have to be able to look outward and also examine the legacy of the cultural and historical and political heritage that we have ... We need to look upon it as a hugely positive opportunity to bring people together in a celebration of all that’s good about this city.

MM: Some people would argue if you think about what Northern Ireland is known for apart from the Troubles, during the whole period of the Troubles some of the most brilliant art, poetry, literature, visual arts was created as a response to a society tearing itself apart.

GF: Particularly in this city. When you look at the work that has been created in this city, what other city of 120,000 people could have produced a body of work like that? There’s certainly no other city on these islands, put it that way. Do not underestimate Derry~Londonderry.

The next few years of your life are going to be consumed by the City of Culture. i.e. lots of pressure and impossible deadlines. How are you going to cope with all that?

MM: I’ve been trying to figure that one out for the last 20 years. Obviously the ambition is huge and the expectation is huge, but it’s about two things for me. One is the group that we bring together. Obviously we would see ourselves as part of a very creative, energetic, committed team, who will have to work their socks off.

But on the other hand it’s the extent to which we can help people realise their dreams or desires and involve them, ignite their passion and enthusiasm so that people are doing it for themselves. This is not some company coming in that will solve everyone’s problems and sort life out for the next generation, but it is about sparking people, getting people to see their own ability to help themselves.

GF: I know that it’s going to be all-consuming, but you have to be able to manage your own life as well. Everybody will have to put a shift in here. The community groups, artists and institutions, venues and so on of this city, are going to have to work at least as hard as us.

Nobody’s going to come and see me or Marty on a stage or screen. It’s those people who are creating the work that are the important people here and the audiences for that. They’re the ones who are going to be even more consumed, hopefully. Everybody should be seeing this as an opportunity to try something different, to discover new territories and maybe wander off the beaten track. There’ll be a new journey for me and Marty and Shona and everybody else. I’ll be walking off the track that I know best and trying out new things.

MM: There’s no safety net.

GF: And the stakes are high, you’re right. But if it wasn’t a challenge it wouldn’t be worth doing in my opinion.

Arts organisations and artists are desperate to know how to get involved. How the funding mechanisms are going to work. How much money is available.

MM: That’s exactly what I’m trying to find out myself! There’s still a process underway recruiting the final members of the team. Obviously there’s a process going on at the same time to figure out how can we get people fully participating and how can we get resources and funding into the communities, the individual artists and the arts groups. There is a challenge there for the Culture Company to be as inclusive and as fair as we can. It’s going to be a very intensive summer to get some of these things put in place properly but I think this can be done if people can be patient for a little bit longer.