Culture Night: “An Expression of Cultural Capital”

Once a year, cities, towns and villages around the country are filled with the hard work, ideas and creativity of artists and facilitators in their communities, as the spotlight goes on them for Culture Night. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with some of the co-ordinators of the event.

Since its inception in Dublin in 2006, Culture Night has become an annual highlight for arts organisations and practitioners around the country. Expanding nationally two years later with the help of city and county councils around the country, the first Culture Night in Cork city saw 34 venues partake in proceedings, a figure that has jumped over ten years to a staggering 130 spaces, hosting over 250 distinct and separate arts events, with fifty thousand revellers filling the streets for the occasion. It’s a phenomenon that continues to grow, and for City Council Arts Office’s Trish Murphy, it’s an event that places their office’s work in perspective. “This is a city wide collaboration that wouldn’t be feasible without the engagement and participation of cultural venues, both traditional and non-traditional, practitioners and volunteers across the city. It includes people and institutions from all walks of life, and across all creative genres, that make up our vibrant city, including music, theatre, visual arts, dance, performance, spoken word, literature, craft, heritage and sport. For one night only each year, this is an expression of the cultural capital this city has to offer its citizens, and all for free.”

The process of assembling a programme comes from input from participating organisations, many of whom organise major annual showcases for the night. Working from there to get everything in place, and getting the overall programme over the line involves an extended process of consultation. “Cork City Council, under the remit of the Arts Office, coordinates the production of the Culture Night Cork City programme each year. However, this wouldn’t be feasible without engagement of all of the participants, including venues, practitioners and volunteers, who make it happen on the night. The call for participation in Culture Night began in May of this year and marked the start of an intensive three-month procession of following up with venues, collating information, design, proof and print.”

Within ten years, there’s been a tremendous amount of turnover in the city’s artistic and performance spaces, which has only accelerated amid the current property bubble. Meanwhile, the city’s ongoing expansion provides opportunities for growth for the arts, alongside the resurgence that various arts groups have been having as of recent. Murphy tends toward looking forward when quizzed on her thoughts on the venue changes. “What has been evident is how much Culture Night has grown over the years, and has become such an intrinsic part of the City’s cultural calendar. What is particularly evident is the increased level of participation across non-traditional venues, like hospitals, sports grounds, offices and banks, as well as the continued growth and development across our more traditional cultural venues, like museums, theatres, galleries, libraries etc. As the City is redeveloped, and expands, it is anticipated that Culture Night’s reach will expand as well, and in particular it is hoped to reach out further into local communities to host events and to have a truly city-wide celebration.”

Meanwhile, the greater county area will be engaged in a wide-ranging series of events, as the towns and villages of Cork will play host to community-organised events, concerts, installations and exhibitions. It’s a broad church, with West Cork towns drawing from a rich vein of artistic talent, while the North and East county areas begin mounting their plans for rebuilding the arts and music in their areas as a means of community work and rejuvenation. For visual artist and Ballyhea woman Judy Reardon, the challenge of her first Culture Night as its co-ordinator is to be relished, presenting new opportunities. “It’s been a very positive experience. Everybody’s been only too happy to get onboard. There’s a lot of time invested in organising by all the participants, and everyone is doing so free of charge, and there was a lot of good feedback when I contacted them and asked them to be part of it.”

While working with community arts groups and venues is part and parcel of the Culture Night initiative, it comes into especially sharp focus in smaller towns and villages around the county, where, in many cases, such groups are the only arts infrastructure in town. Additionally, many of these groups are helping take the mantle of social recovery after decades of underinvestment and the onslaught of austerity. “People are talking among themselves, creating their own Culture Night, seeing what each grouping has to offer, be it the library, the local gallery, the local artists… it’s become more collaborative within small towns, that’s the feeling I get. When I’ve been onto participants, they’re telling me they’ve been onto others that are organising, as well. Working together.”

The knock-on effect that Culture Night has had on arts uptake and engagement in towns and villages around the county is evident, providing a rare opportunity not only for non-festival programming, but also for arts programmers and enthusiasts to co-ordinate and get planning among themselves, as stated. As an artist herself, Reardon sees firsthand the initiative bringing out the best in people. “I see it as an opportunity for artists to showcase, get known in their community, and become part of an event. It wouldn’t be as intimidating as setting up by themselves. It’s a very enjoyable way for people to get out there as artists (and facilitators).”

Culture Night happens on Friday, September 21st around the country. For more information on Culture Night in Cork City, check out culturenightcork.ie. Physical brochures are also available throughout the county, in venues and other public spaces.

…and remember to support your local artists, musicians and facilitators, because for them, every night is Culture Night.

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