Press & media

Esker Arts had 20,000 visitors in first year

April 17, 2024
Esker Arts Exterior

Gearoid Keegan

The Esker Arts Centre in Tullamore welcomed 20,000 visitors in its first full year of operation, a meeting of Offaly County Council was told on Monday.

In a review of the centre's first 12 months, artistic director Sean Walsh told councillors that he does not expect that figure to grow.

And Esker Arts chair Conor Brady said: “We can together look on a year of considerable success. It's been a great year of programming under Sean's direction. Our programme has been excellent, our management has been excellent.”

Mr Brady said the council, both elected members and officials, could be very proud of what was achieved and he said the centre could hold its own with any comparable institution in the state.

“It's early days and there is a great future ahead,” said Mr Brady.

Mr Walsh recalled that Sunday, April 14 was the first anniversary of the opening concert at the centre's Ailiun theatre when three choirs took to the stage.

“It was a fantastic night, an historic night, an important night for the arts in this part of the country,” said Mr Walsh.

There had been over 20,000 visitors to the centre and over 170 events ranging from talks and workshops to big theatre productions and exhibitions.

Getting “the building right” is very important and Tullamore's is fantastic. “Everything really is spot-on, it's easy to get to, easy to access, it's comfortably big enough to take the events that we present in it.”

There are two art galleries, open five days a week with free admission. “The visual art programme is central to what Esker Arts is all about.”

Along with its 228-seat theatre, the centre has an outdoor theatre where Tullamore Amateur Dramatic Society staged Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream last June.

There are three Tullamore Area councillors on the centre board and one of them, Cllr Declan Harvey said he was on the previous arts centre board for 12 years.

Cllr Harvey said it was in about 2002 when former Taoiseach Brian Cowen ring-fenced €2.2 million for an arts centre in Tullamore and some years later Cllr Harvey had proposed a council loan to purchase a premises.

He praised council chief executive Anna Marie Delaney who “stuck her neck out” and backed a new arts centre.

“Tullamore would be a very very sore and sad place without our arts centre today.” He also recalled the fundraising work of the late Paddy Fenning.

Another councillor on the board, Cllr Danny Owens, noted how the idea of an arts centre had grown from a small germination to a major facility and he paid tribute to those who drove the project to fruition.

Cllr Owens said: “No one will ever know the amount of hardship they got at one time or another, having a site at one time falling through, and an awful lot of disappointed people around the place expressing their anger at the time.”

The third councillor on the board, Cllr Sean O'Brien said the arts centre was lucky to have Conor Brady and Sean Walsh, plus the “very small” number of staff who showed tremendous commitment.

Cllr O'Brien echoed words of thanks from Cllr Owens to all those who helped raise the required €500,000 community contribution for the centre.

“It's absolutely thriving at present,” said Cllr O'Brien. “It's bringing tremendous business to Tullamore and a lot of local businesses have mentioned that. Long may it continue.”

Cllrs Tony McCormack and Cllr Neil Feighery also praised the centre with the latter stating: “This is a key part of our place making, in making Tullamore a more attractive place to live and do business.”

Cllr John Leahy asked for a future projection of attendances and if the centre director had any detail on the demographics and geographic locations of the 20,000 patrons.

Cllr Leahy, who lives in Kilcormac and is elected in the Birr Municipal District, said representatives across the county had decided to support an arts centre for the county town.

He also remarked that he hoped Cllr O'Brien will support projects elsewhere in the county which depend on funds from the local property tax.

Cllr John Carroll, Birr, said there were concerns about the possible effects of a new Tullamore centre on its Birr equivalent, which he said is a “community run social enterprise” but there was an awareness that they could work hand in hand with each creating its own dynamic.

Cllr Mark Hackett said with 20,000 visitors in year one the centre had certainly hit the ground running while Cllr Liam Quinn said he was delighted that the community had managed to raise €500,000 which seemed an “insurmountable task”.

Cllr Eamon Dooley said the arts centre should host a photographic exhibition on “old” Bord na Mona and Cllr John Clendennen said he shared the concerns about how the Tullamore facility would be funded and how it would impact on the Birr theatre but the arts in Offaly had gone from strength to strength.

Cllr Clendennen did ask what the “break even point” for the Esker Arts Centre would be and “what is it going to look like when the Tullamore arts centre is going to wash its own face” without needing any, or as much, support from the council.

Cllr Noel Cribbin looked forward to Edenderry having its own arts centre and he noted that his town was starting out on that journey.

Replying to the queries from Cllrs Leahy and Clendennen, Mr Walsh said 20,000 was the number of people who attended ticketed events and exhibitions.

“We probably won't get much bigger than 20,000 because it was a fairly packed year. That includes big events like the Tullamore musical and the panto.”

They were multi night events and the panto was sold out for about 15 shows. “In terms of room to get any bigger than that there isn't a lot.”

Mr Walsh added: “The ticketing system we use takes personal data like names and addresses, emails, so most of those 20,000 would be as a result of ticketed events where we do have that data. We haven't analysed that yet but we will because we will be using that to make our case on various stages going forward.”

He said “off the the top of my head” most of the 20,000 were from within Offaly but he met “super fans” of a particular show who had travelled from Cork.

“We will be putting the data together and analysing it.”

Council chief executive Anna Marie Delaney thanked all those who supported the development of the centre, including Des Doyle from the previous committee.

“It's a county wide and regional facility and I think it's working very well currently.”

She said the real issues around arts centres were the ongoing costs and Offaly County Council had an allocation each year for the Esker Arts Centre and she looked forward to further support from the Arts Council.

“There will be probably ongoing fundraising needed to keep centres such as these open and it's the same right across the country.”


Originally published by Tullamore Tribune