‘Derry should never stop striving for excellence’

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IN this open letter, Derry author, satirist and journalist Garbhan Downey, who campaigned for Derry to be awarded the City of Culture accolade responds to author Jennifer Johnston’s assertion that the arts in Derry are lacking in creativity and professionalism.

Jennifer Johnston makes a timely point when she talks about the need for Derry’s artistic community to demonstrate greater ambition (DJ, Jan 4). The city should never stop striving for excellence.

International recognition for Derry’s contribution to the arts, such as the first UK City of Culture award, could easily lend us a false sense of our status and capabilities. We are, as Ms Johnston’s intervention reminds us, a small city punching way above our weight – aspirational, rather than the finished article.

We may have Tony winners, Nobel winners, Eurovision winners and Oscar nominees in our midst. But ultimately, this is all yesterday’s news, and we have no right to rest on our laurels.

The novelist is right, too, to salute the great ambition of those involved in the cultural sector during her heyday of the early Troubles; people who fought fiercely for the arts – and eventually delivered the new purpose-built venues, which Ms Johnston suggests people don’t actually visit.

I disagree with her on that point, though. I attend arts events regularly in the city, and have, myself, held book launches in a number of Derry’s new centres, and I have always been hugely impressed by the extent of support for culture from a city only a tenth the size of Ms Johnston’s native Dublin.

Derry’s swathe of new arts centres brought its own problems, no doubt. Today, there is an immediate need to shift the focus to the development of talent and product, if Derry is to make good on its potential.

Too much time and investment is currently tied up in cultural bureaucracy (and buildings) and, as a consequence, there is a risk of the art itself disappearing from view. Quick question, why seven months on, is there not a single signpost at the urban boundaries welcoming visitors to ‘City of Culture 2013’?

I would contend, nonetheless, that the product, the talent and the ambition are still here in Derry – if a little unsung.

As an example of best practice, Ms Johnston might consider the Nerve Centre, an internationally-renowned production centre for film, animation and music, which also serves as a state-of-the-art educational complex and first-class venue.

It certainly has a reputation as “a hotbed of imagination”, for both groups and individual artists, and it is frequently cited as a cultural model throughout these islands.

Ms Johnston’s criticism of our city’s ambition is all the more important given that her status - as one of the great chroniclers of the dying Anglo-Irish ascendancy and one of the most renowned literary commentators on modern Ireland - unquestionably contributed to our success in winning the City of Culture award.

Derry’s arts administrators and professional artists need astute and experienced practitioners like Ms Johnston to involve themselves in advising us how to proceed successfully in the development of both structures and product.

The one sure way to foster ambition and expectations is to offer guidance and direction. And Ms Johnston is clearly well-placed to tender wise counsel and to use her considerable cultural connections to the benefit of our city.