Arts Council might not have more cash, but has more creative control

Arts Council might not have more cash, but has more creative control
Academy of Music cellist Peadar Ó Loinsigh and Dance Ireland ballerina Niamh O’Flannagain with Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, ahead of Culture Night last month.Picture: Julien Behal

For the arts, yesterday’s budget will be spelt out by Culture Minister Josepha Madigan at a press conference. Her enthusiasm for transubstantiation didn’t extend to delivering significant extra funds for the Arts Council, out of a Brexit budget.

That matters, because the council is the essential funding system for the arts and artists. Beneath a nominal increase, there will be cuts for some, or, at best, a standstill for others. The €2m in grants allocated for next year is more than the €1.25m committed in additional funds to the Arts Council for its existing functions. If you haven’t received a forward commitment for 2020, you are now scrambling for a share of less. That’s backwards, not forwards.

For Fine Gael, the grand commitment to double arts funding by 2023 is a broken promise. Recovery from the nadir of 2013 has stopped. Morale is undermined. And a detail, please: How much of the €1.25m is current funding, and how much is capital? At the time of writing, I don’t know. But it is important to understand.

There is a slightly bigger picture, however.

Arts Council funding will be presented as increasing by €5m. How so? Functions from Madigan’s Arts Department are shifting, with their associated funds, to the council. The excellent Creative Schools Initiative and Culture Night are two such functions. So that’s most of the extra €5m right there.

In the longer-term, the tearing by the minister of the perforated edge between her department and the Arts Council may be more significant than the cuts. She is on the cusp of doing something important. That’s refocusing her own department. A fundamental rebalancing of the relationship between it, its minister, and the arts must be an essential purpose of the next government.

It seems Madigan’s instincts were radical and right, but she hesitated. That small, but potentially important, change piece should not be lost sight of because Taoiseach Leo Varadkar oversold on the arts, when he was campaigning to be leader of Fine Gael.

In politics, responsibility is delegated from Government Buildings to cabinet ministers and civilians. Madigan is not dearly loved in the arts, though there is some respect. People who give stage directions pick up intuitively on the political eye looking over their shoulder towards the best next opportunity. When art is your life’s work, it’s because it’s your vocation. That vocation isn’t to be the stage set for a politician’s progress. But that instrumentalisation is the faux status the arts in Ireland seem permanently trapped in.

Madigan did fight the good fight on the budget, but she was in the wrong place at the wrong time..

And she has delivered on key initiatives, including the Percent for Art Scheme. It allocates up to 1% of public capital projects to the commissioning of new works of art. Well-known pieces include ‘Perpetual Motion’ at the Naas junction on the N7 motorway. Changes to the scheme, this year, will ensure more money for more arts projects, and if capital spending progresses as planned, that will be a good thing.

An apparently smaller, but probably more important, matter is that rules for artists seeking jobseekers’ allowance have recently changed, too. The arts are recognised as real jobs now, you see, and that is major progress. Working at your craft is recognised, for the first time, as an employment ‘activation’ measure.

Resource organisations for the art forms certify artists for eligibility. And in a great move-on for dance, choreography, that most ephemeral of all arts, is now recognised as real work. That itself is the work of years of insistence and persuasion by Dance Ireland, the resource organisation and umbrella for dance.

That dance-makers can go on the dole without pretending to be waiters seems a small thing. In the arts, where income is paltry and the practitioners usually more talented than those who make up the rules for them, it’s about getting through the week with a little more money and a lot less humiliation. If Madigan must take the blame for undelivered party-time promises, she can take some credit, too.

Money will always follow economic reality. Function follows power. The story, since 2011, is of endless accretion of function by the minister’s department, along with the funds to deliver them. That, without debate, withered the arm’s-length principle, which means that the minster is there to set policy and provide funds to deliver on them. It is not for the minister to be, by virtue of political office, the national curator, editor, and director. The modest reallocation of function is an important gesture. It is also one that needs to be developed.

A commitment to put the then newly created Culture Ireland on a statutory footing was abandoned.

Worse, a promise to advertise publicly the post of its director, after the first appointee’s term was over, was reneged on.

Ireland’s curation of the platform for our arts abroad is a wholly owned, and in-house, function of the department. An in-house hiatus in the lead-in to the 1916 commemoration saw talented marketer John Concannon drafted in to lead. He was a good choice and did a good job.

But it was a move that subsequently accentuated the instrumentalisation of the arts; that is to say, their use to support other policies, government politically, and the state abroad.

What was absent was any felt connect with art for art’s own sake. It was about the show, not the experience.

Creative Ireland, which was the aftermath of the commemoration, is both the basis for some good work, a duplication of resources, and an arch example of political determination to exercise direct patronage in culture and arts.

It’s truly good Creative Schools initiative was always dependent on the Arts Council for delivery. And Culture Night is clearly better fitted in the council, where there is deep expertise.

Josepha Madigan is about to exit her department, regarded as a minister of the middling sort. She was good in parts.

She has a last opportunity to change that judgement, and follow on in the Fine Gael manifesto. She can, and should, say that she has taken a first step in ensuring that the arm’s-length principle is reinforced.

Culture Ireland and Creative Ireland will no longer sit as accidental accretions under a minister’s direct control, nor be the duplication that diverts funding from artists. Instead, Madigan will reimagine an independent and renewed Arts Council and refocus her department on policy.

It is that restraint and concentration which, institutionally, the department has stubbornly resisted.

Ministers come and go, but the department goes on and on, ever larger, offering more promotion

opportunities to generalists doing specialist jobs. But no matter. They can dance on the dole.

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