Beyond the Belltable: How will Limerick make art without an arts centre?
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Main image: Darren Shine as Mrs Potty outside the Belltable Arts Centre to promote 'Jack and the Beanstalk' written by Mike Finn, their Christmas panto in 2012. Photo: Keith Wiseman

Beyond the Belltable: How will Limerick make art without an arts centre?

As the Belltable company went into liquidation this month, the full extent of the beleaguered organisation’s debts were finally revealed at a creditors meeting on March 12. The company owes more than €2.3m to its various creditors, most of whom are arts companies and staff. But the most significant claim is for almost €1m from the building contractors that carried out the theatre’s renovations in 2009 and 2010, which the Belltable still disputes.

To follow the detailed reporting of the Limerick Leader since January is to see the consequence of the Belltable’s apparent mismanagement appear in alarming stages: from a debt initially thought to amount to six figures in January, then a report that the contractor was owed more than €750,000, and now this stunning peak. “I can’t grasp how that happened,” said Mary Coll, who was artistic director of the arts centre from 1991 until 2000, and has been one of few people willing to comment on the situation – if only to ask questions – while the board remains silent.

Clarity may be some time coming, but the Belltable’s refurbishment, managed by chief executive Peter McNamara, has come under intense scrutiny following the overrun of a renovation that initially received €1.2m in funding from the Department of Arts and Limerick City Council. It is the standout detail in a tapestry of woes that include a long-running dispute with a neighbouring mechanic and thinner speculation about the competition brought by the new Lime Tree Theatre – in truth, a very different venue run on a commercial basis.

But with the closure of the Belltable building comes a more palpable deficit in cultural activity in Limerick city as independent artists lose both a space in which to perform and the vital institutional support to assist Arts Council grant applications. The fate of the building itself, now in the control of its owners, Limerick City Council, is unclear. (As liquidation proceeds, the Council is unable to make comment about the building’s future use.)

The timing could not be worse. Limerick has been one of the hardest hit cities in the Irish recession, where the Belltable is another light out among a scattering of darkened premises in the city centre. Sadder still is what Mary Coll describes as “a sinkhole” effect of disappearing arts infrastructure, from the demise of Island Theatre Company in 2008 and the “cryogenic suspension” of the Daghdha dance spaces since the company ceased operations in 2011. The Belltable’s closure also comes ahead of Limerick’s designation as the first National City of Culture in 2014, an event that, coincidentally, announced its new Artistic Director on the day of the Belltable’s creditors meeting with the well-regarded appointment of Karl Wallace, the chief executive of Siamsa Tíre and a former Artistic Director of the Belltable.

While the crisis may have caused deep concern among the arts community in Limerick, it has also mobilised much of its energy. “We’re in a void at the moment and we’re looking at what we can do,” Monica Spencer said of the effect of the Belltable’s loss to the context for making art in Limerick. But Spencer, an actor, director and youth drama facilitator who is involved with the new Creative Communities Limerick network, highlights the healthy activity of community arts in the county. The network, which was officially launched earlier this month by Minister Jimmy Deenihan, has brought together a diverse range of individuals and organisations interested in arts participation, from Limerick Learning HUB to People Against Unemployment in Limerick, and that energy is now being applied to organising professional artists in the city.

Under the working name PLAN – Professional Limerick Artists Network – a number of practitioners from various artforms are at the early stages of establishing a lobby group and formulating a mission statement.

Working in association with community groups, PLAN’s efforts are not, as Spencer describes them, engaged with taking over the Belltable, but to work with local and national partners to restore a structure to arts activity in Limerick. “We recognise we need some flagship events, but we’re more interested in real activity on the ground,” Spencer told ITM. “How can we move forward now?”

PLAN “brings artists together for the first time”, says Mary Coll, who has also been involved in its early stages. If the Belltable “is too big a loss to sustain”, as she put it, this could be the beginning of an alternative. “We need an arts centre,” said Coll. “It doesn’t have to be the Belltable, or that building.”

Established in 1981, the Belltable deserved a better legacy than its ignominious collapse, but with various stakeholders now interested in the cultural health of Limerick at a critical time, in an indirect way it could still have one. “We want to take part in and support Limerick City of culture,” said Coll. “It should build something that lasts beyond 2014.”

Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine


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