Follow the Leader, John Crumlish, Galway International Arts Festival

In the latest of our interviews with business leaders about their journey so far and plans for future success, we speak to John Crumlish, CEO of Galway International Arts Festival.

Now in its 41st year, Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) is one of Europe’s leading arts festivals, covering a range of art forms including theatre, dance, music, opera, comedy, talks and visual arts. The festival is the showpiece of the wider GIAF organisation, which, in addition to the annual event, develops and produces new work that tours nationally and internationally. GIAF also produces and presents discussion platform First Thought Talks, showcasing forward-thinking ideas and creative best practice from Irish and international thought leaders in arts and non-arts sectors. Festival CEO John Crumlish reveals what he’s most proud of, and why the arts are good for the soul.

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What is the elevator pitch for Galway International Arts Festival?

“We’re Ireland’s largest arts festival, and one of the top five arts festivals in Europe, according to the Guardian. We’re a big festival in a small town – you can walk between all the events. We do over 200 events in 33 venues over 14 days, with an attendance of over 210,000.”

What was the key motivation and raison d’être behind the festival?

“Forty-one years ago a bunch of students decided that they simply wanted to bring much more culture to Galway, and to bring national and international acts to the west. That was their founding motivation.”

Looking back to the early stages of the festival, would you do anything differently in terms of leadership?

“Back when the festival first began, they had absolutely the right kind of leadership for the time – they did it very well. We’ve made a couple of strategic decisions along the way that changed the course of things. We’ve grown from an event to a culture organisation that does a lot of things outside of its two weeks.”

What motivates you and keeps you engaged to drive the festival on?

“It’s a very nice job to have. It’s great fun, and the only limiting thing is the level of your own ambition and imagination, so there’s lots of potential to explore.”


“My mantra has always been ‘Hire people smarter than yourself’. We go from a full-time staff of seven to a further 120 people at festival time, with 600 volunteers, so you need people heading things up that are really good at their jobs”


John Crumlish, CEO, Galway International Arts Festival

What has been your proudest achievement with the festival to date?

“One of the most memorable achievements isn’t actually directly linked to the festival. We started to make our own theatre productions, and I must say that seeing Misterman at the National in London – one of our very first productions – would have been a 10-year ambition, but we were there in just two. The curtain opening on that night was special.

“As far as the festival is concerned specifically, it’s the world premieres of our own shows. Traditionally we’d take in acts and productions; now we’re producing them here and sending them out – that’s a big move and a great achievement.”

Your approach as a leader is best described by which three words?

“I wouldn’t want to do it in three words, but I would say my mantra has always been ‘Hire people smarter than yourself’. In an organisation like ours, we go from a full-time staff of seven to a further 120 people at festival time, with 600 volunteers, so you need people heading things up that are really good at their jobs.”

What would you say to those who view the arts as a luxury and only for a small sector of our community?

“We firmly believe that the arts are actually a right, and that everybody is improved through connection to it. The purpose of art, according to Pablo Picasso, was to wash away the dirt of everyday life from the soul. Another way of looking at it, and Seamus Heaney sums it up well, is ‘to catch the heart off guard and blow it open’. Who wouldn’t want their heart blown open?”

Parting shot: what’s next for your business?

“We’re now in scaling-up mode as Galway has the European Capital of Culture designation in 2020, and we’re scaling up with a view to maximising the opportunities that will be available to us from that year. We’ll do two or three of the biggest projects we’ve ever done, and using that as our platform allows us access to a European-wide audience and media that may have been hard to access otherwise. In terms of our work, it’ll be our Olympics.”


Comments 1

Carol McMahon on Thursday, 02 August 2018 16:33

Great interview from John Crumlish. The Festival this year was amazing.

Great interview from John Crumlish. The Festival this year was amazing.
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