Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business

Shona McCarthy

With City of Culture year underway in Derry/Londonderry, Lucy Gollogly caught up with the CEO of Culture Company 2013 to find out how she is going about organising such a major series of events.

The task of transforming Derry/Londonderry's image from that of battle scarred provincial city to international arts hub isn't one for the faint hearted. It's fortunate then that Shona McCarthy definitely isn't that.

She's largely shrugged off problems such as the continuing threat from dissident republicans, who have twice targeted the Culture Company's offices in Ebrington Square, and a disagreement with Derry City Council that saw it take control of the company's marketing budget last October.

All but the most cynical would be impressed by the £16m programme of events Ms McCarthy and her team have put together for UK City of Culture's inaugural year.

There are the huge-scale, 'big ticket' events, such as the Turner Prize and performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and the National Ballet. However, the programme is also designed to reflect the city's rich cultural heritage and contemporary arts scene, with the opening concert Sons and Daughters featuring Derry luminaries such as Phil Coulter, Paul Brady, The Undertones and Damian McGinty. There is also an emphasis on community based projects, such as the photographic collection Portrait of a City, which aims to let the people of Derry tell their own stories.

Ms McCarthy, who was director of the British Council Northern Ireland before she took the Derry job, admits she was initially reluctant to go for the chief executive post.

"I had resisted becoming involved in the bid for Derry/Londonderry to become UK City of Culture. I thought, I've done this before; I'm not going to do it again. But then when Derry won and they were looking for a chief executive to take it to the next level, then it became irresistible," she said. "And I love this city as well. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's the first, and it's the benchmark for all the UK Cities of Culture that will follow."

The breadth and depth of Ms McCarthy's experience in the cultural sector is impressive: early in her 20-year career she established Cinemagic, the Belfast-based international film festival for children and young people. The Co. Down native was chief executive of the Foyle Film Festival in the 1990s, and at one point ran both film festivals at the same time. She also headed up Imagine Belfast 2008, the organisation which oversaw the city's bid to become European City of Culture. That honour went to Liverpool instead, but the experience was instrumental in preparing her for the Derry role. The mother of two admits it was a daunting if exciting prospect, but that a life-changing six-month stint working in India helped prepare her.

"Probably one of the most life enhancing experiences I've ever had was in 2007 when I was nominated as the Northern Ireland representative for the NESTA Cultural Leadership Awards. Basically it was an invitation to choose one out of 30 cultural leaders internationally to go and work with for six months. I chose to go to a place called the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. It's a publishing house, gallery and a multi-media arts centre in Kolkata," she said.

Ms McCarthy brought her family, sending her two daughters to a school which was the first in the city to admit street children, along with fee-paying students.

After that, she says, she was "ready for anything" Derry 2013 could throw at her.

"I love the idea of starting something from scratch. When I walked into this post, it literally was that. The first day there was no office, no computer, no desk – I was sitting at the end of a desk in Ilex, the regeneration company, and I was handed a Blackberry and that was it.

"I got the opportunity to build the team from scratch. We now have 18 full-time core people and there's probably a further 15 or 16 people who are project workers or secondees or project managers and that is likely to grow significantly this year," she explained.

"We are absolutely working at full tilt. I've never seen a more productive, dedicated and committed team of people in my life. They're really genuinely brilliant."

Hopes are high that Derry's year with the title will result in real economic benefits to a city that was plagued with high unemployment even before the current economic downturn. Ms McCarthy points to Liverpool as an example of what can be achieved. The UK City of Culture project was born out of the huge success of that city as European Capital of Culture in 2008. The Liverpool programme secured a total income of £130m over six years and helped change the city's image from bleak and socially deprived to exciting and vibrant.

Ms McCarthy says she is confident Derry's programme will bring many hundreds of thousands of people to the city, its hinterland and Northern Ireland as a whole.

She says success will be partly down to the "massive collective effort" from stakeholders and funders including the Executive (which put up the lion's share – £12.6m – of the budget), Derry Chamber of Commerce, the City Centre Initiative, the Arts Council, Northern Ireland Screen, the various corporate sponsors and the city's community and cultural organisations.

In particular, she says it is hoped that the All-Ireland Fleadh in May will attract up to 400,000 people. When it took place in Cavan last year, it drew over 300,000 people and the value to the local economy was estimated at €40m. And she is certain the economic and cultural benefits will last longer than one year.

"I think we've seen how other UK cities have in the past benefitted from the European Capital of Culture," she said.

"I absolutely believe that the legacy will be realised."

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