Ready and waiting to take centre stage


HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL Seán Walsh of Ballina Arts Centre is confident the arts can flourish post Covid-19.


Anton McNulty

WHEN your industry is on its knees and the Minister responsible for guiding you through the uncertainty tells you to find another career, there would be every reason for anyone working in the arts sector to feel despondent.
After a summer of inaction, the people involved in the Ballina Arts Centre were busy making plans to open the doors to the public for the autumn and winter months, hoping to bring some life back into the venue. Then came last week’s new government restrictions and the widespread confusion which followed.
For Seán Walsh, the Director of the Ballina Arts Centre, it has thrown all their plans for the coming months ‘up in the air’ but despite everything, he says they have to remain resilient.
“As a sector, resilience is one of those things which is essential for the arts. We have endured bad things before and we will get through this as well. A central component of resilience is optimism and while this has set us back in terms of planning, I will still be aiming to have things on in late September or early October ... so we never feel defeated,” he told The Mayo News.
The centre, which is located on Barrett Street along the banks of the Moy, reopened its doors on July 20 following the lockdown but social distancing has restricted its activities. The back-end of the year is the busy time for the centre and Seán explained they had planned to start a cultural cinema programme in September — and even hold concerts and small scale theatre in October.
Even with the new restrictions, Seán explained that with social distancing likely to remain in place for a number of months, they have had to think outside the box in terms of what they stage.
Ability to adapt
“One of the things this whole occurrence has shown us is the ability to adapt. We are allowed to have 50 people at an indoor gathering and we were getting accustomed to the idea. We have to see what is manageable. The programmes we had planned for the rest of the year was based on those principles. Films are good because there is nobody on the stage and you just have to worry about the audience. You will have to have a small group on the stage so the guidelines can be managed and followed. Ultimately it does affect us [financially] big time. But you have to adapt.”
At the start of the year when the coronavirus hadn’t taken a grip here Seán outlined the financial difficulties facing the arts centre and sought help from the local authority. The Covid-19 crisis has meant they have been able to reduce their expenditure quite considerably, on the other hand income streams have dried up.
While he says this crisis will not close the centre, it has affected plans they can do going forward.
“Like a good number of venues around the country, we exist on a financial tightrope at the best of times. There is never a stable footing and it is things like this which take away that footing alot more. It creates more uncertainty.
“Our expenditure is considerably reduced and that helps but we started the year with the plan to restore real stability financially to the project and then this happened. That leaves us here. We are okay and not going to close but it has put those plans back considerably. It has created more uncertainty than there normally is.”

Ticking over
Arts Council and other grants have allowed them to keep ticking over but long-term Seán is not sure how long it will be viable. He is also concerned by the number of freelance technicians whose livelihoods have been affected by the crisis and believes that the Government needs to have their backs.
“The big thing is what will next year be like if grant funding is affected and I’d imagine it will be if the public purse is reduced. That is the big worry for this whole sector. We can make the argument that the arts is exactly where people do take solace, whether it is music or movies or books.
“Recently Minister Heather Humphreys said that people should look at retraining for other jobs and that was disappointing as it was not the kind of attitude we like to see from the people in government who should be leading us through this. Arts is almost like a vocation and those who want to do it will do it. Most don’t do it to be rich, they do it because they love it.
“The arts is always wheeled out as the great symbol and emblem of Ireland. If you go to places like China people will mention James Joyce and WB Yeats … the arts is a huge part of our identity internationally. It is used for tourism and that is fair enough but it is give and take. The sector needs support.”
Despite the uncertainty, Seán is still confident the arts sector will continue to move forward and to use an industry cliche, ‘the show must go on’.
“This is all so unprecedented we don’t have anything to compare it to. We are all groping in the dark and trying to move forward through it. That [wait] is all we can do... when the guidelines were relaxed, there were the beginnings of a sign of relief and people were getting back to normal living, but the affect of that seems to be an increase of cases.
“It has shown we can’t do normal living right now so it has set us back but it is important that the arts move forward with an optimistic heart  — and see the glass as half full and hope to fill the rest of it soon.”