By Cliff Carlson
Shona McCarthy was recently appointed as the Chief Executive Director for Culture Company 2013 Limited. Ms McCarthy will be responsible for leading the planning and delivery of a host of events including the cultural program, at the heart of City of Culture, between now and 2013. In a Skype interview she talks about her journey to this auspicious year. www.cityofculture2013.com
Shona: I started back in 1990, 22 years as a cultural activist. I had done film and media studies as a degree course and my first proper job, if you like, was at the Film Council of Northern Ireland representing all of the art forms.
It was felt that there was no real voice for film. Bizarre as it may seem in 2012, there was no representative body for film and many people would have argued that film should be a proper art form. A group of academics and producers, developed the Northern Ireland Film Council, a representative body for education, production and exhibition films. They needed a flagship project. Something that would really capture the imagination.
There was no films for children or young people happening at that time on any of the islands, either, Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England for that matter. They set up a children's film festival called Cinemagic and I was hired right out of University as the programer. That really combined two of my interests- one in film in particular, and in arts and culture more generally.
I was born in 1968, which is the year that the modern Troubles began. I guess that what Cinemagic did was look at bigger worlds and bring film from all other countries around the world to Northern Ireland. It was a way of having a grasp on global issues and other context but having it in your own place. It was a way of exposing young people in Northern Ireland to the world through cinema. That became a major passion and an ongoing thread throughout my career: looking outward and connecting to the outer world.
We did Cinemagic in Pittsburgh, and brought Roy Disney over to be the key note speaker in a major conference on film making for young people. We created something that punched way above it's weight for a small place like Northern Ireland by hosting a film festival that had international recognition and it is still going very strong today. That was my main job. I also ran the Foyle Film Festival, which is the film festival based here, in Derry.
I became director of the Foyle Film Festival. We took it from being a wee local festival with an audience of 2,000 in it’s first year to the year 2000, when I moved on from it, we had an audience of over 20,000.
In the year 2000, Belfast decided it was going to be the European Capital of Culture and go for that title. I headed up the Belfast bid and that was an amazing process. It gave me the interest for the whole City of Culture initiative. We always described it as one of life's most “successful failures” because, even though it didn't win, it did force a city that was emerging from conflict, a city that was still experiencing bomb scares on the streets, to actually envision a future of itself beyond the conflict. Not only for people visiting the city, but essentially for the people of the city themselves. Really in 2000, with that bidding process, we created a cultural strategy for Belfast and a vision for the city that is still being acted out today. 10 years after, Derry went for the UK City of Culture title, won it, and gloriously, I get a chance to actually do what I didn't get to do the last time with Belfast .
Cliff: I also notice that you served six months in Calcutta. I'm just wondering what made you choose that because it looks like you've been a leader most of those 22 years, you could have done whatever you wanted.
Shona: A London based organization called N.E.S.T.A (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) were supporting innovation and they were doing a lot of work to support cultural organizations. They were supporting all kinds of innovations, and creativity and they started a big program that only ran for 2 years which supported people who were already in cultural leadership positions across the UK to take their leadership to another level and to internationalize their experience. They put together a panel in Northern Ireland and I was really, really fortunate to be nominated by the panel. What interested me was out of the choice of twenty places to go, a lot of the places were European or English speaking or whatever. I thought, “If you're going to do something like this, you'd really have to be out of your own comfort zone. You'd really want to be in a place that is more challenging to your culture norms.” I shortened the list to Calcutta, India and Shanghai. It was actually the organization in Calcutta called, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. It was a publishing place, it was an art gallery, it was a multi-media resource center. It had a big program in education with young people and human rights. I really liked the combination of what they were doing. So, I went to Calcutta to live and worked for 6 months, and I took my two children who were then eight and nine, with me and it was a life enhancing experience.
Cliff: Has that helped you broaden your view in the events that you put on now?
Shona : It helped me broaden my view in the events, but it has also helped as an individual to not be afraid of anything. Going to a place like Calcutta, the program gave me a budget and said, 'Look, manage the budget, go find a place to live, find a place for your kids to go to school, get a house.' Literally they just left it up to you to go and do. I don't know if you've ever been to Calcutta, but it's not the easiest city on the planet. When you first get there, you are forced to get your head around it all, you navigate your way through those kind of logistics of somewhere to live, transport and all that kind of stuff. It made me not afraid to do things and not afraid to take risks. I just kind of learned by different ways and different approaches to working. I always have been a real believer in learning through experience. Not only find your way around but to really meet some extraordinary people, support and lead them through different projects. The whole history of the Irish missionary movement who went out to India and all of that is still absolutely huge. The cultural reference point that I found in Calcutta through the Irish theater there and literature and music and language and all kinds of things was just really staggering. Yes, it made the world a smaller place.
Cliff: It’s good for you in Derry that the Irish diaspora is as big as it is. You can reach out to any continent and ask people to come back for your big event in 2012 and 2013, can't you?
Shona: That is really what we wanted. For Derry society, at last, is brimming in confidence. It was not an easy place to grow up between 1968 and now the last 10 years has been an ongoing transformation on this part of the island. As we have merged and grown wide of what was probably a very inward looking attitude, you'll be very impressed by the confidence here. We're a society that wants to open up and blossom, welcome people in, encourage diversity and encourage new thinking, new conversations and move on from this sort of stagnant place that we had been for the past 30 years. So yeah, bring it on.
Cliff: Like Phil Coulter said, 'The New Derry'.
Shona : Exactly, exactly. I spent two years working for the British Council, which is the International Culture Relations Agency for Great Britain. That was a fascinating time as well. That took me to all kinds of countries and places, too. They have 110 offices all across the world where they do education in language and arts based programs. I met a number of musicians who were Indian descent or Pakistani descent or Iranian musicians. They have a huge repertoire of Irish music, but are not all from Irish or from Irish descent. There is a big diaspora out there also that have a connection of understanding of music theater and are not necessarily Irish.
Cliff: In your latest role as the Chief Executive of Derry, The City of Culture 2013, how many agencies do you have to work with?
Shona : It's huge. We have this perception of being, to some people, a British study, to many people, an Irish study. I see as an opportunity to work with all of the cultural institutions across the island of Ireland. But then we also have the opportunity to work with cultural institutions and agencies and studies across the UK and we are receiving tons of support from the Arts Councils of England. For English cultural organizations we'll have, for example, the National Ballet in London come to Derry for the first time ever. We'll have the London Symphony Orchestra, we'll have the Boy Blues Street Band Company from Jaspers, that's supported by the Arts of England.
The potential of it, the ambition of it and the potential benefits of it, aren't just for Derry but are for all of Northern Ireland; to reach across the island of Ireland and just pass through other cities. We're going to be in Washington then Toronto, so we start to feel the international effort.
This is the time to encourage people to spend time in Belfast, then come over the Giants Causeway. Travel on down and take that fabulous journey that leads to Derry. The City of Derry is going to be electric throughout 2013 with music, art and creativity. People need to come back home and take the journey and rediscover this place.
The Fleadh Cheoil is the single biggest event on the island of Ireland, annually. It brings together Irish music from all over the world and it has over 300,000 people and it is going on here in August 2013.
It's a big undertaking, but we've been working very closely with all the businesses and hoteliers and entrepreneurs in the city. There's going to be increased hotel accommodations. The university campus will be used to accommodate visitors throughout the year. We expect it to have a huge benefit to the area around as well.
The Olympics are happening in 2012. So actually, the Olympics are nearly upon us and as part of the Olympian effort the London 2012 Festival has really linked with Northern Ireland too in a series of events. The actual opening concert of the London 2012 Festival, which is the cultural festival running along side the Olympics, is going to happen right outside my window! Right here in Derry, London Derry, on the 21st of June 2012.
The next two years, really, is going to be a great time. In 2013, there's also what's been called “The Gathering”, which is spearheaded by the Irish government. There is a call out now for Irish theater to come back to the island of Ireland in the year of 2013. So between 2012 and 2013 this is the time for any Irish American, Irish Canadian, or Irish across the world anywhere to come back home.
Cliff: Some American's might be concerned for their safety. Since you've been talking openly about the Troubles, maybe you'd like to make a statement to lessen their fears.
Shona: Absolutely. This is interesting, Cliff, because it isn't just American's who feel that way. Even people in the South of Ireland were concerned about safety issues. What we did was bring together a whole delegation for the city, including representatives at superintendents level from the police service of Northern Ireland. The reality is, and all of the statistics prove, that Derry is the safest city on the island. Really to be honest, we've been seeing less and less of that kind of activity here as well. We were able to give all of the reassurance that this is one of the safest cities that you will ever visit. We are working very closely with all of the agencies in the city and very closely with the security forces as well. So many of the events that are coming here are major family events. We really have moved on.
Cliff: It's a wonderful city. I've been there two or three times now. I remember looking down on a road, it was a wide road. It looked almost wide enough for cars to go both directions, but I never saw a car. Later on in my visit, I was down on top of this road and realized it was your ringed Wall. It's very thick. It's very wide.
Shona: The city wall is one of the greatest assets in Derry. In fact, in 2013, it's going to the 400th anniversary of the building of the wall. It's going to be a really special year for that kind of heritage in the city. One of the big efforts through 2013, is to encourage the city and its citizens to take ownership of the wall as well. All of things that are on your doorstep you don't really experience or appreciate the same way as a visitor does. We did a huge poll with the city and had people come forward with their ideas about how they'd like to celebrate in 2013. We are going to have all kinds of animation on the city wall, from Irish dancing to music playing to big world performances. So any visitor that comes to Derry in 2013 is going to see the walls really come alive. There's going to be gardens on the walls, all kinds of things. Of course, from up there, you get every aspect of life in the city. You get the internal from the center itself within the walls and then the views right across every aspect of the city from on top of the walls. It's very lovely.
Cliff: Your Peace Bridge is fantastic.
Shona: I don't think, anybody would have really predicted just the level of transformation would happen in the city with the opening of the Peace Bridge. It has really doubled the size of Derry, not just the Peace Bridge itself, but the fact that it's the first and only walkway that takes you from one side to the other. I'm looking out the window here and I can see people jogging, people walking, people dressed as Amelia Earhart, because she flew across the Atlantic and landed in Derry. There's reenactments and all kinds of things going on outside of this window and it really has warmed the city. There has been over 400,000 over the bridge since it opened at the end of June in 2011.
Cliff: I want to know, can visitors go to Guildhall Press and peruse the books they publish? Or is that place smaller than I think it is?
Shona: It is small, but of course the Guildhall Press would be very welcoming if you go there. There's a wonderful collection of books on the heritage and stories of the city. I guess whichever interests of life you're interested in, whether it's theater, whether it's music, you're going to be able to find all of this in Derry in 2013. We're using the actual city itself as a canvas. Visually, you won't be able to escape that this is a city that is connecting with art and culture. We're going to close our city of culture celebrations with a major celebration of life in December 2013. You can come any month and enjoy our wonderful town of Derry.