Derry artists fear triumphal gains from City of Culture title will be squandered
Feargal Murray, musician and Derry man, was back in his home city to perform The Rape of Lucrece with singer Camille O'Sullivan at the weekend – the first time a production by the had been seen there for over 20 years.
The show was at the Waterside , in a Protestant area of the largely Catholic city; afterwards he and his family went out for a few drinks with O'Sullivan, keeping to one side of the bar while a group of loyalists drank noisily at the other.
The next morning he pointed over the river Foyle, across the Peace Bridge towards the former Ebrington British army barracks – now festooned with signs welcoming visitors to the exhibition, which opens . "Look at that," he said, almost incredulous at the transformation. "Art wins out in the end. What a story!"
Derry-Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture has been, it is almost universally agreed, a triumph. The Royal Ballet and have visited; in June 38,000 people lined the banks of the Foyle for a spectacular pageant, devised by Frank Cottrell Boyce, about the city's saint, Colmcille (or Columba) – who brought Christianity to Iona).
council's arts officer Brendan McMenamin cites an even simpler personal highlight of the year: the fact that his 17-year-old son sat out in the park with other teenagers in the sunshine this summer – something that would have been unthinkable when he was growing up in the shadow of the Troubles, when gatherings in the streets meant only riots. "The young people have repossessed the city," he said.
But now fears are growing that these gains risk being frittered away through lack of vision and ambition. Symbolic of this for many is the fact that the £2.5m galleries created for the Turner prize – high-spec, museum-quality spaces converted from barracks that will see 8,000 pre-booked schoolchildren and some 100,000 adults come through the doors over the next four months – will revert to the offices of a digital hub after the show has closed.
According to the Derry-born artist Willie Doherty, himself twice shortlisted for the Turner prize, it is "ludicrous that a town spending that amount of money would let it last just four months and not take the opportunity to build upon it". The risk is, he said, that after the Turner prize show has rolled out of town, "it will feel like the lights have been switched off again in Derry".
Local arts leaders blame a byzantine bureaucracy, with responsibility for the city's cultural future hovering uncertainly between the council, the regeneration company Ilex, which is in charge of redeveloping the Ebrington barracks site, and the office of the first minister and deputy first minister at Stormont.
Meanwhile, three members of the board of the Culture Company, the body set up to devise the events for 2013, have resigned over the past fortnight, with one, the broadcaster Ana Leddy, citing fears over the legacy of the City of Culture. According to Martin Melarkey, Culture Company programmer: "The plan to convert state-of-the-art galleries into office space sounds like a decision made by central planning in the dark days of the Soviet Union. It's as if someone is playing a sick joke on the citizens of Derry-Londonderry."
According to Caoimhín Corrigan, of Ilex, the spaces in question have long been earmarked for offices and had been "borrowed from their intended use for the Turner prize. We can't turn round and tell people who are expecting them to be one thing that sorry, they are going to be something else." He said a consultation was in process towards a redevelopment plan for the barracks site that would be submitted for approval at Stormont, and that "culture is one of the things that is being referenced". Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister, did not respond to requests for comment.
But others argue that even to talk in such terms is a betrayal of the original cultural ambitions for the site. "There is no need for this retreat from the vision," said Professor Declan McGonagle, director of the National College of and Design in Dublin, who, as the director of Derry's Orchard Gallery in the 1980s, is the only curator to have been nominated for the Turner prize.
According to McGonagle, a feasibility study in 2008 laid out the arguments for Ebrington to have a future as a centre for arts and culture rather than purely shops and businesses – a notion that was part of the successful Capital of Culture bid. The stakes are high, he argues: Ebrington, if used in the right way, could be a focus for "societal change".
At the very heart of Northern Ireland's still divided society, he said, "is an issue of cultural identity. Before it was ever about politics or political violence, it was always an issue of cultural identity.
"It is resolvable only when it is understood as a cultural issue; culture is a place where you can have that argument without threat."
Pearse Moore runs the Nerve Centre, central Derry's arts centre. "In five years' time, when people ask how they cocked up the legacy of City of Culture, they'll look back on this moment," he said.
Graeme Farrow, Culture Company programmer, put the case succinctly: "This city has the choice to stay in the Premier League or plummet down into the first division. Just seize the moment, Derry."