Paddy Tobin – Head of the Centre for Creative Arts & Media, at GMIT
Formerly of Letterfrack GMIT, Paddy took up the position of Head of Centre at CCAM with ambitious plans to secure the future of the creative arts in the city and county.
Can you tell us about your background?
I'm originally from Sligo, the parish of Tourlestrane. Both my parents were secondary school teachers. My mother was an art teacher - she also taught Technical Drawing, Woodwork, Maths, Geography, History, Computers; she loved learning and taught just about everything, and my father taught Latin and English. I suppose a lot of my interest in the arts, and creativity, comes from them. When I left school I applied for an Industrial Design programme in NCAD and was interviewed by two engineers from the UK. They actually spent most of the interview giggling about the name of the townland where I come from in Sligo, which is Tullinaglug; they couldn't believe that somebody came from a place called Tullinaglug. They felt that my portfolio at the time was too Fine Art-orientated and they recommended me for the Fine Art programme. I didn't think I would ever be good enough to make it as a fine artist, so I chose Industrial Engineering in NUIG and I have to say I never regretted it. The principles, techniques and values around problem-solving, the focus on the human factor, and consideration of designed elements as part of a larger system, are very similar to those espoused and practiced in the current movements in 'Design Thinking', 'Interaction Design' and 'User eXperience (UX) Design'.
After graduating from NUIG, I took a career path in the computing and IT area. I was working in the food industry for a while, setting up and managing information systems in fish farms in Connemara. That's where I met my wife, Meadhbh, who is from Carna. I set up my own company for a few years – working on projects mainly on the IT side. Then I moved from there into a furniture company here in Galway, T O'Higgins Manufacturing in Shantalla. They're no longer in business now – but I really enjoyed my time there and stayed involved with the furniture and wood products industry from there.
From there, I did an MBA along the way. I moved into consulting work and also worked in other management positions with other furniture companies and back in 1996, I started working in GMIT in Letterfrack. I was Programme Chair of the B.Sc. (Hons) in Furniture Design & Manufacture and the B.Sc (Hons) in Furniture and Wood Technology. One of my roles in Letterfrack over the years was organising and supervising student placements, and we developed a very strong international placement programme. Back in 2000, I took a career break because I was doing a PhD, so we took the family to America for the year and I built up some very good contacts on the East Coast, and that's where our placement programme really took off from. We eventually had students going to over 15 countries, as far afield as Vietnam and Thailand, so we made a huge amount of contacts internationally. I spent nearly 20 years in Letterfrack and I loved it; I loved teaching there, loved working with the students and made great friends in the local community.
You won the GMIT President's Award for Teaching Excellence...
That was a very nice recognition to receive; and I was in very nice company when they were giving out the award. President Higgins was getting a Fellowship, as was Philip Treacy, Marie Mullen and several other great people. In education, for me, I think it's very important for us to create opportunities for the youngsters that come to us. I think it's not just enough to give them their degree and say, 'Good luck to you now'. We can do a lot more than that. Because GMIT is a sizable institution and organisation, we have credibility, we have integrity, we can help set things up for our graduates to give them a good start. We can connect with industry and develop opportunities and pathways for graduates. During the recession, I felt we really needed to start looking to other options in Letterfrack. I got involved with Design Network West, during Galway Design Week in November 2014, when we did a joint exhibition here in CCAM between CCAM and Letterfrack students. Myself and colleagues from Letterfrack and CCAM, together with members of the network, were all talking about the challenges we were facing. We felt we really needed to do something for Galway, for the West - to get together and have a real focus on the creative sector with design and making, across all of the diverse areas and arts. So that got me thinking, and by coincidence the Head of Centre position here in CCAM became vacant a few months later. I had to do some serious thinking about it then, put my money where my mouth was, so I applied for it and took up the position in June.
I have a tendency to see opportunities and take action, and I hate missing opportunities; sometimes it's a curse, but the radar is always on. A few months before I took up the position here, an opportunity came up to apply for Springboard funding, so we took it and applied for funding for our new Creative Enterprise programme, which we're now running in CCAM. I knew there was a latent demand for people who were very good creatively - artists, designers, writers etc. – and who just felt that they were missing the business side of the skills. So we put together a programme for creatives, helping them to build on their creative strengths with marketing skills, project management, costing, and business planning. Then when I arrived in CCAM last June, there was a lot of change happening. We used to teach the BA in Art and Design programme here for nearly 40 years, but it had just been restructured and reprogrammed as a BA (Hons) in Contemporary Art programme. I felt there was an immediate opportunity, having dropped the 'Design' from our title, to develop more commercially orientated disciplines with a broader appeal. On the BA in Contemporary Art programme, the disciplines represented here are painting, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, textiles, photography, digital media. So we moved quickly to develop a new programme and from next September we're also going to be offering a new BA in Design programme with specialisms in graphic design and illustration, fashion design, animation and game design, interior design, and industrial design. So that will bring a whole new dimension to the creative space in the west. We're also currently going through the approval process with a new Master's degree - an MA in Creative Practice - and we're planning to offer that in September 2016 as well.
Can you tell us about your other plans for here?
We are developing a concept called 'Creative Pathways' to help describe what we do. When the students come to us here, we help them here to choose their pathway and we help them on their pathway. As well as the Contemporary Art programme and the new Design programme with all their pathways, we also have the highly regarded BA (Hons) in Film & Documentary with pathways that include editing, screenwriting, audio, production design, 4D design, and cinematography. We are working to set up an international internship programme to provide opportunities for graduates so that when they leave us, they can spend a few years abroad with an approved host organisation or company, they can develop good contacts, they can get good experience, they can come home and start up here, or they don't come home but they collaborate with their network at home. If they come home, they can 'bring' work home with them. This has worked for Letterfrack graduates in the past. For example, a couple hundred yards from here in CCAM, there are a group of Letterfrack graduates working together in Nádhúra Design, a company based in the Galway Technology Centre, doing design work for companies in America and the UK. It's almost all intellectual type work, design work and it stemmed from the contacts they made from their placements internationally, and from their network of peers. They are also developing their own products and services, and slowly steadily growing their market. So our idea in CCAM is get our graduates out to hosts internationally, provide pathways back home again and then support them to set up their own enterprise. We are setting up a Creative Enterprise centre here in CCAM with spaces where people can work at making things as well as designing in offices, and film-making or creating art in studios. The idea is that we could have a number of long-term occupants, particularly organisations like the Galway Film Centre who support the creative sector, and graduates would come back here, set up their enterprise, work here for a couple of years, incubate here and take advantage of the creative and supportive environment. We're in the process of setting up a joint venture with the Western Development Commission (WDC) and St Columba's Credit Union Ltd (SCCUL), to support and develop this new centre. We also plan to facilitate a flow of enterprises, after incubation here, out to regional community enterprise centres in places like Ballinasloe, Gort, Letterfrack, Headford, Tuam, Castlebar, Roscommon and further afield, and we have had very early 'concept' discussions with some locations. They would be all connected back to this creative ecosystem and so have a support system for people to stay linked into.
Is that something you see as lacking in the Galway creative sphere - that kind of support?
I don't know of any similar concept that's purely focused on the creative industry. This is really trying to join up all the dots - it's a big picture idea. The Western Development Commission did some research a few years ago to look at the potential growth for the creative economy in the West and they forecasted significant growth if we could develop these networks of practice and international markets for our creative output. One of the things you have to remember is that anything you physically output here in the West of Ireland, we don't have a huge market for it here – so it probably has to leave here. So you're into transport costs straight away and if it's a high-value item the transport cost does not matter as much, but you're at a disadvantage if you're transporting bulky moderately priced physical product out of here. However, if it's digital content or output, if it's intellectually based, you're not at any disadvantage because you can work collaboratively and share your product around the world instantly. So for example if you're providing your ideas, or formulating your ideas and providing a creative input into other companies, then the West of Ireland is an ideal base. We have a great environment for creative activity here in CCAM, to help to grow that sector and grow the cross pollination between different aspects of it. When I came here to work on the Design Week exhibition back in September 2014 and felt the creative energy and saw the potential, it immediately suggested itself to me that you could have the nucleus of something really great here if you could bring all the different stakeholders together and all the different potential actors working together.
What drives you?
I just like to get things done. I enjoy making progress. when my son was in 5th class in primary school in Claregalway, some secondary schools came in and talked about their offerings. Actually, most of the secondary schools I would have liked to send him to didn't come to talk to us at all, and the ones that did said, 'Well, we're not sure we'd have space for you'. So I went off in a huff; I was really angry after that meeting. I did some research that night and discovered that within five miles of Claregalway, there was 1,900 kids in primary schools near Claregalway and the nearest secondary schools were in Galway, Oranmore, Athenry, Tuam and Headford. It was as if Claregalway was at the hub of the wheel and our kids were going to 14 different schools on the rim. So that night I decided to try to get a secondary school for Claregalway. That was back in March 2010. I got in contact with other community activists and parents, we put a great team together and a few months later, we met the Minister for Education and within six months, the Dept of Education agreed we would get a secondary school. Three years later, the school opened in a new building. Obviously, there was a lot more to it than that and we could probably write a book about it. But it was a great feeling of achievement for the team, and for the whole community; being part of a big rewarding and successful project, and it gave me a taste for taking on big challenges. So when I saw the opportunity here in CCAM to seed and feed the creative sector in a new and innovative way, I really wanted to get involved and get things moving. It's exciting. What's also good is that you're doing something for your region, for the community and for the youngsters, because in the last eight years there hasn't been much good news for them. That's what's really important. The creative sector in particular really excites me because it has great potential to keep people in the West because we can develop an economy around it that doesn't require a lot of physical product moving. You can have a lot of creative business trading based on intellectual work and content. That motivates me to do what I can. Selfishly, of course, I have four children and whatever I can do to improve the quality of life of our community and region will also benefit my family in the future. When you're involved in education, you get great personal rewards from working with young people, doing what you can to help them, and then to see them getting on and doing well.
Any major influencers along the way?
There are a lot of people I admire from a distance, and I've worked with a lot of great people that have helped me along the way. Obviously my mother and my father have been a huge influence. But since I came here to GMIT, one of my great friends and a great mentor is Jim O'Connor from Claregalway. Jim was the Head of Department in Letterfrack when I joined in 1996. He returned to his preferred arena of working directly with students in GMIT, teaching them computer-aided design, a few years later. Jim is still at the forefront of technology in his area. He's one of the leading experts in the country in the area of Building Information Modelling. He is still enthused every single day working with our young people. When you're working in a large organisation and you're interested in projects and you are interested in doing things, it's great to have someone like Jim who is full of energy and wants to do things as well. You can lean on them, get advice from them, and get support from them. So Jim has been a great friend and mentor over the years and still is. He is also a great role model for any teachers who want to develop creativity and innovation in their students.
Where do you see Galway at the moment in terms of its creative culture?
I think Galway has huge opportunities but some elements of the creative sector are probably a little understated. For many people the creative face of Galway is performance, for example the Arts Festival, but we've always had a bedrock of people here creating other things as well. In the past they might have been in the background and I think there's a chance for them to come out to forefront. There's a chance for Galway to become a lot more internationally recognised as a creative centre alongside the cultural reputation we have already. There are lots of people with great possibilities in the design space to complement what we're doing in the arts, but there has to be a lot more collaboration and integration of all the stakeholders to make this happen. I also think that the International linkages are hugely important. We have a great opportunity now, because we're a UNESCO City of Film, to link in with the creative cities network internationally. The City of Film is one designation of 8 or 9 designations. So you have Cities of Design, Cities of Craft, Cities of Literature, Cities of Theatre and they're all part of the network that we're part of. We could link in with that network internationally, to grow our international contacts and grow our name in the international creative space. I think the European Capital of Culture project has been a great facilitator for bringing people together and getting people talking. If we never get the ECOC designation, we're in a much better place now for the creative sector because we've all started talking and thinking and working together, and that's a great achievement on its own.
Do you have a vision of what the result would be if all that you're hoping to come about does?
I see us having a very strong creative region. I would like to actively connect the region to CCAM as a source and ongoing feed of creative people. We currently have over 400 students on creative programmes in Film, Art, Design and Enterprise and we expect to grow to double this number over the next five years. We need to support development pathways for these graduates and I think the provision of centres, hubs or zones is very good for creatives. Because many of them are small operations, being part of a larger creative community is very important for many reasons, not least to avoid isolation. We have several successful technology hubs around Galway already, and hopefully we'll have more in future. So the development of creative hubs, covering a broader range of creative activities, is well within our scope. At the moment, we seem to view the hubs as mainly start-up platforms. While it might be true that most creative enterprise are unlikely to grow to a significant size, we should consider the potential of hubs as sustaining communities for creatives, and as connected parts of a larger creative community or ecosystem. We could develop the creative enterprise centre at CCAM as incubation, feeding connected hubs with creative enterprises that can sustain themselves long term.
I'm interested in the idea of 'unifying' enterprises that would collaborate with a range of different types of creatives as well. The Animation and Game Design sector is a good example; they need to work with visual artists of all kinds, people with object or model making skills, people with film production skills, creative writers etc. They create virtual environments with buildings, interiors, wonderful visual scenes, incredible stories, characters, costumes - the list goes on. I believe we could have hubs, centres, zones, clusters, bringing together creatives in locations in the city, nearby villages like in Oranmore, Claregalway and Moycullen, and the regional towns I already mentioned. We have a lot of empty spaces around still, so there's no reason why we can't plan to develop into those areas.
Another thing we do need in Galway, if we are going to have creatives here who are producing physical and virtual product, are more showcases and visual spaces, retail spaces as well - spaces where the people of the city and region and visitors to the city can see what's going on. If we, as a city and a region, can remove barriers and develop the pathways, the infrastructure and supports to enable Creative Enterprise to develop international markets, collaborate successfully and flourish as small businesses, I believe we have the people and the talent who will get on with the creative work and achieve wonderful things.