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Ballina Arts Centre sees brighter days ahead

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KEEPING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD  Sean Walsh pictured at his desk in the Ballina Arts Centre. With generous assistance from the Arts Council, the centre has been able to maintain a few residencies and run some online events during lockdown.Pic: Paul Fox

Oisín McGovern

It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war. When this period has passed, the arts will surely come to be regarded as the first casualty of a pandemic.
Bar a handful of physically distanced events that were held during the lax summer restrictions, the creative industry has been virtually dormant for almost a year. Being among the first to close and the last to open under the Government’s five-level Covid framework, live venues and arts centres have the longest road to ‘normality’ of any industry.
Speaking to The Mayo News, Ballina Arts Centre director Sean Walsh says the industry has had to adapt to the difficult circumstances.
“In the spring, like everybody else, [the lockdown] came out of the blue for us. Initially, like everybody else, we thought it’d only be couple of weeks. Almost a year later, we’re still in the same boat,” says Sean.
“Last year, after the initial realisation that it was going to be longer than a few weeks, we did look at what we were doing for the remainder of the year.
“We did some online programming last year and we broadcast some concerts on YouTube and Facebook. It gave us the opportunity to do some things that we would not have been able to do before due to lack of capacity or resources.”

Strange days
From their state-of-the-art facility by the banks of the Moy, Ballina Arts Centre has become a hub for local groups since opening in 2011. As well as hosting plays, concerts and exhibitions, the centre is used by a variety of local dance and drama groups. With the country in full lockdown, the halls of the €5 million facility now lie echoey and void.
“A building like Ballina Arts Centre, even on a rainy Tuesday night in January, there’d be a real buzz going on always,” says Sean. “There’d be dance classes going on, rehearsals for plays, exhibitions, people in and out of the building using it.”
“A building like an arts centre is hard to get in the first place,” he adds. “In Ballina it took 20 or 30 years of dedicated hard work by local volunteer board members.
“I’m in and out of the building these days, and it’s just so strange to walk through this big building and it’s completely empty, completely silent.”
With generous assistance from the Arts Council, the centre has been able to maintain a few residencies and run some online events.
Recently, their dance artist-in-residence Tara Brandel hosted a dance workshop for children via Zoom. Last year, Ballina playwright Niamh McGrath received a commission from the centre to write a play based on the success of Ballina’s basketball team in the 90s.
The venue was even able to allow 50 people in the door for art exhibitions during the summer.
While the doors are currently closed once more, Sean hopes that vaccines and declining Covid case numbers will allow them to plan shows for the autumn.
“Like everybody else, we’re watching the situation. We’re definitely planning for autumn. If things were to kick in to gear and start moving at a pace that we’d like we’d definitely be in a position to have events in a summer.”
He adds: “The Mayo Collaborative Project is something we’re planning for June if we’re able to get funding for it. You’d be hopeful. As soon as it’s possible we’ll be on top of it.”

Collective experience
Despite losing two-thirds of its income in 2020, Sean is confident that the centre will remain viable so long as the Arts Council funding is adequately maintained.
He is also positive that there will be a huge demand for live entertainment once the country finally emerges from the long shadow of Covid. “I think definitely playwrights, novelists and artists will have lots of material to work with over the next few years,” he says.
“The whole lockdown thing has showed that the arts are the thing that people turn to for solace in situations like this.
“Whether it’s reading books; watching movies on Netflix, watching things online like plays and dance shows or whatever, it’s always been an essential part of our society.
“Maybe people will appreciate it even more so after this, whether it’s Electric Picnic or watching a string quartet down in Ballina Arts Centre.
“That feeling of collective audience-ship, watching something in a room with people and you’re all experiencing the same thing, that’s one of the big things that’s been missed in the whole Covid period.”