What is culture anyway?


And why should anyone want to be the capital of it?

With the announcement of European Capital of Culture 2020 in the pipeline, I throw out some thoughts on the process. I haven’t been actively involved in any one of the bid projects; I support each of them in their own way, and there’s a few things I’ve seen from the outside that I need to get off my chest. I started this with some questions, as I mean to go on!

On a fundamental level, the Capital of Culture programme allows for huge sums of money to be pumped into the selected regions. The irony in the entire European Capital of Culture title is that “cultural capital” is a nonsense concept built to keep normal people out of cultural institutions. To me, the whole point of Capital of Culture is to take the concept of and turn it on its head; take the idea of elitism and high-brow ‘culture’ and instill a sense of involvement across all spectrums of the community.

The OED has an astounding number of definitions for culture. Let’s assume this is the one we’re mostly thinking about:

Culture, n. – 6. Refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development. Hence: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

It’s also where we get ‘cultivation’ from. Other entries in the same dictionary are all about farming, tillage, tending to the land and to its inhabitants.

What is being done to cultivate a sense of community in the ECoC2020 bids? What’s being done to foster growth among the people? It’s a question on the bid form but it doesn’t always get answered.

Culture isn’t a product; it’s not a tangible entity defined by music, dance, theatre, art. It’s a shared experience, encompassing visual and performing arts and the people who create and consume them. It also encompasses the people that don’t consume those things.


Monopoly money! Image: Chris-Håvard Berge on Flickr.

As for capital, this one’s easy. It’s money, or a resource of worth. You invest capital in a company so it can grow.

Put them together and we get…
Cultural capital, then, should mean a part of your culture that you invest in, in order to help it grow (or something you invest in your community, your people, in order to nurture them). These days, though, cultural capital mostly reminds me of that sort of person who goes to the opera so they can seem more impressive than they are. Or someone who goes to see a ‘foreign film’ because they get to tell their friends not about the film, but about the fact that they went to see it and wasn’t it only subtitled?

Anyway, this gets me to how utterly disappointed I am in some of the proposed events in the European Capital of Culture 2020 bids.

As you’ll know from my last post, Kilkenny Arts Festival holds a special place in my heart. From the beginning, I was overjoyed to see that The Three Sisters (led by Waterford) were in the race for the ECoC2020 title. I have invested a lot of my personal time (chronological capital?) in that city and I want to see it strive. The community feeling is powerful in Kilkenny City, Kilkenny County. Just look what happens when you give them a run for their money in the hurling (don’t; they won’t let you live it down). Shamefully, I know little about Waterford and Wexford, though I do know of the excellent reputation of Spraoi and Wexford Festival Opera.

Two of my siblings went to college in Galway, and I spent enough time at McDonagh’s to love the place (the city, not just the restaurant). I’ve hen-partied in the city and been to some excellent local gigs (‘hon the Róisín) and gotten poured on from the high heavens on Shop Street.

culture night

I passed Limerick every summer on the way to Dingle with my family when I was a kid. More chips. I also had the opportunity to go to some of the events for City of Culture in 2014, some of which were phenomenal and some of which fell flat. I worked in the Hunt Museum for Culture Night last year and met so many people who were there, in the city’s very active museum, for the first time. People who felt like they didn’t belong there except on Culture Night, because Culture Night shows everyone that they are accepted in so-called cultural spaces.

I worry that this feeling is lost on every single one of the other 364 days of the year.

How do each of the bid cities intend to involve their communities in their activities? Will their events be accessible to the actual general public? Will there be an outreach project for schools and community groups so people can feel like everything is open to them? How much will the tickets cost? Who can afford them? Will events and venues be wheelchair accessible?

I’m personally invested in arts and culture in this country. More and more, though, I feel like there’s a certain element of tooting your own horn just for the sake of it. Get the funding. Complete the project. Don’t actually think it out to the best of your ability – just get it to the point where it will work, take some pictures, move on.

I imagine this is partly due to the year-on-year funding process whereby cultural institutions in Ireland can’t actually plan in advance, and effectively live on scraps. That’s an argument for #ArtsDeptNow.

Are we asking for too much money? Are we asking for enough? Are we doing enough with it when we get it?

And here, what’s so great about street art and performance anyway? It’s interesting how street art has been incorporated into the bids, how it is assumed to have the power to initiate urban regeneration, how the use of street art to rejuvenate is somehow new and unheard of and going to change the world.

It might. It probably can.

But can you prove it? What are your measures of success? There’s a reason it’s one of the questions that needs to be answered in the bid process. It’s also not one I feel has been adequately answered. Look at Dublin’s initial bid. They posed pretty much the same question, and then failed at answering it.

Screen shot 2016-07-08 at 14.53.54

From Dublin’s initial bid book, p. 40/62 here.

Funnily enough, the Dublin bid included a lot about community, but I don’t know if I ever believed it. Plus there are a lot of negative pop-out quotes like the one above that are pretty off-putting at first glance.

There’s really no end to the questions posed in the lead-up to the ECoC2020 announcements.

Whoever wins the bid will have a lot to live up to. As of now, we don’t know how this will affect Ireland’s economy, Ireland’s cultural or social landscape, and of course the hosts. All I know is that we should all be pretty interested in getting some answers.

I’ll happily stand behind whoever gets the title and I hope everyone will be of a similar mindset.

After all, shouldn’t we make sure it’s a worthwhile investment?



Volunteering: Chicken soup for the soul or for the CV?


On June 25th I arrived at the Irish Museum of Modern Art for a 4-hour shift as an invigilator, and I stayed for eight hours. This was for a video installation as part of Two Suitcases (a project from Helium Arts and Health and CanTeen Ireland). The project sits somewhere beautifully between the realms of arts and youth engagement, which means it’s right up my alley. I’ve met a few people in my life who have chastised me for giving my time freely to things like this. I might as well explain why I do.

I was a quiet kid. I had more imaginary friends than I could count, and I didn’t socialise well until I was maybe ten or eleven years old. I spent secondary school struggling with peer pressure and feeling like an outsider in a new town. In 4th year, I had a truly inspirational theatre/poetry recital mentor, and I finally started to break out of my shell. In 2009, a family member moved to Kilkenny City invited me to stay for a week or two so that I could volunteer for Kilkenny Arts Festival. I was sixteen, and I had no idea how much my life was about to change.

The first year there, I was asked what my interests were and I said I liked photography. Hey presto, I was helping the festival photographer Colm Hogan to carry gear and cover the events. I am uncertain how much of a help I actually was – I’m actually pretty sure I was a hindrance – but I loved it. On top of that, I asked if I could do at least one event every day, and I tried to go see as many other events as I could. My teenage eyes were opened to theatre, poetry, dance, music, visual art, street performance and, above all, the incredible power of teamwork.

For the next few years, I aimed to work at least two events per day of each festival period and helping out in the office when I could. I delivered festival brochures, punched holes in volunteer name tags, brought people to their seats, gave directions in a city I had quickly grown to know and love, and sat for hours on end in the castle to guard over a sound installation with automatically programmed record players. I was treated like an adult, by the most fantastic and capable team, and truly felt respected as a worthwhile cog in the machine.

In the meantime, I also managed the band that won the Irish Youth Music Awards, worked with the Dunamaise Arts Centre and photographed Michael D, photographed a weekend-long festival, and volunteered with the Darklight Film Festival in my first year as a student in Dublin. I worked at the Cat Laugh’s Comedy Festival. I worked at Dublin Biennial 2014. I worked with GAZE Film Festival. I met the phenomenal team behind Once in Dublin and had the dream opportunity of interning with them last summer (paid – achieved solely because of my extensive volunteer experience). During my time in college, I filled my spare time with extra-curriculars, working with UCD’s LGBTQ+ Society and spending two phenomenal years with the visual arts society, UCD Drawsoc (incidentally, how I learned about Helium Arts and Health in the first place).


Image: © Ross Costigan.

In 2013, the team in Kilkenny trusted me enough to put me in charge of other volunteers, and offered me a position as Venue Manager with Architects of Air. I was one of the youngest to be given this responsibility, I think largely because I’d proven in the previous four years that I was unhinged enough to work 12-hour days, and that I was trust-worthy. I took on the challenge with immense pride and buckets of nerves, and did my best to encourage the volunteers working with me.

I threw myself into everything I did and, every single time, I learned something new. There is no end to what you can figure out if you give yourself a chance and let somebody else give you a chance too. Volunteering is about so much more than filling out your CV. It’s about finding something that you love and helping to make it happen – whether that’s a comic convention, science conference, film festival, theatre production, pride parade or otherwise. When people are interested in something, they will congregate to celebrate it, and that celebration will invariably need a team to organise it.

So much of arts and cultural programming in this country would be completely impossible without the work of volunteers. The community understands the hard graft required to carry out such work, and of all the things I’ve done I have never experienced as much gratitude as I have when working with arts organisations. That’s my area, but I’m certain that other spheres work the same way.


Image source: GIAF.ie.

Galway International Arts Festival are currently looking for volunteers, as are Kilkenny Arts Festival. You can also keep an eye out on volunteering opportunities all over the country if you sign up to www.volunteer.ie.

If you’re volunteering for something purely to fill up your CV, make sure you make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s your time that you’re giving away for free; don’t waste it for the sake of an extra line of text on an application.

Ask if you can help. See if there’s an extra step you can take to make somebody else have a better day (they’ll be more willing to do the same for you). Smile, make small talk, learn about the people and organisations you work with. Listen to people’s stories.

You will be the better for it. You will feel a greater sense of accomplishment for your actions.

There is no end to what you can do. You might surprise yourself.


Helium Arts and Health (CHY19236) gives a creative voice to children and teenagers in hospitals and healthcare settings through participatory arts programmes. Email info@helium.ie to find out more about volunteering, and you can donate directly to them by clicking here.

CanTeen Ireland is a nationwide support group for young people between the ages of 12 and 25 years who have or have had cancer. You can find out about volunteering with CanTeen and/or donating by clicking here.