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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 136-146
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Galway Arts Festival, 2003:
Focusing on Home, Still Delighting
For twenty-six years the Galway Arts Festival has "morphed" the city of Galway into its natural logical conclusion: the city already boasts a young, artistic community, but for two weeks each summer, the festival brings the spotlight and the crowds to Galway for a celebration of the arts. Of late, however, the festival has suffered from decreased government expenditures on the arts—as have all the arts in Ireland. Recent festivals have been far more subdued than the extravagant Millennial Festival in 1999, during which the city teemed with outdoor events and more than one hundred thousand people gathered to watch the nighttime Macnas parade and fireworks.
The Twenty-Sixth Annual Galway Arts Festival, July 15-27, 2003, was wet—so wet, in fact, that some outdoor events had to be canceled. The entire event was a bit more restrained than in years past, owing largely to the lack of a Macnas parade. The parade, which normally provides focus and a reason for people to be outside, also tends to bring with it a magical charm for good weather. Perhaps the Macnas crowd angered the gods by not programming a parade this year. The untimely death of the beloved street performer Johnny Massacre also added a somber note to the festivities. Johnny, born John Doran, took the role of street performer seriously, challenging his audience's assumptions and performing daring feats of bravado, usually on a unicycle, which earned him the moniker "Massacre." 1 A spontaneous shrine to Johnny appeared on his pitch, outside the Evergreen Health Food store on Shop Street; the area was blanketed with flowers, cards, and mementos, and seemed to grow by the day as word spread through the town. Massacre died in a car accident and the rest of the festival marked his passing in tributes and dedicated performances. 2 In a city that loves its street performers, the loss of such a popular one at a time of high revelry was a great shock. [End Page 136]
Another factor in the "lack of buzz," as many people characterized the mood, was the government's recent decision to require arts—but not sports—producers to pay VAT on the salaries of visiting artists, which meant that the festival had to add twenty-one percent to the fee of every international company. It is interesting that the Galway Arts Festival (GAF) has to pay extra for the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, for example, yet sports figures like Tiger Woods are exempt from the additional tax. The unprecedented move by the government meant that the Arts Festival had to be much more cautious in collaborations with international companies, and had to mind their expenditures carefully. Relying on Arts Council monies along with corporate sponsorship and coproductions, the festival did not have the money to secure and promote international acts on a scale it had previously. In 2003, the Arts Council was unable to meet even half the demand of multidisciplinary festivals. Festivals requested €2,852,000, but the Arts Council's festival budget was only €1,251,000, down €9,000 from 2002. 3 While the GAF received an additional grant, nearly €14,000, this was not enough to make up for the increased tax burden. 4 In 2003, the GAF received €331,000, the same as their 2002 budget. 5
Once hailed as "the biggest, most exciting, most imaginative explosion of arts activity this country has" by the Irish Times, the festival this year returned to its roots, emphasizing the local talent in Galway and the West of Ireland. 6 In the early years, the festival's stated aim was "to celebrate the vigorous local arts activities in Galway and to serve as a venue for visiting national and international musical and theatrical artistes and groups, as well as being a focus for the visual arts." 7 In the halcyon days of the late 1990s and 2000, the GAF was...