Fergus Finlay: miserly sum an insult to all those involved in the arts in Ireland

Fergus Finlay: miserly sum an insult to all those involved in the arts in Ireland
An artist by the name of John Paul painting outside Trinity College in Dublin during the lockdown. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

I need to simmer down. I have seldom been more disgusted by a government pronouncement, more irritated by the smugness of a government minister, and more enraged by the bureaucracy of a state body.

As I read and followed what they’ve done — ostensibly to protect artists and the arts during the crisis caused by the pandemic — I found myself thinking, who the hell are these people?

Every theatre, without exception, is dark. No musician can earn a red cent. Every actor, every stagehand, every dancer, every painter, every sculptor — every artist in every discipline — has seen their work count for nothing, and their chances of an income disappear.

Except their work doesn’t count for nothing. Only in the eyes of the smug and complacent bureaucracy they have to deal with.

I wish I had the artist’s skill to tell you how much this matters. This is the best I can do.

My favourite poem is about Paris. My missus and I have been there a couple of times, and always stayed in tiny little hotels, with tiny little bedrooms, in the centre of the city. You’d pick them because in Paris you want to walk all day, and then have a few drinks and something to eat before heading back.

One of the first times we ever went we took advice from a friend — a friend of impeccable taste — and booked into what seemed like a really charming little place in the Place de Vosges. It’s one of the most beautiful city squares in the world. And the hotel was tasteful beyond description.

I will never forget the sensation, however, at the close of a lovely weekend, of handing my debit card to the receptionist in return for one of the most eye-watering bills I’ve ever seen. There was an interminable silence, that seemed to echo around the lobby, while the machine debated whether to accept my card or laugh out loud.

The Place de Vosges was worth it, and someday, when I’ve won the Lotto and the pandemic has passed, we’ll go back to that hotel. In the meantime, my missus will have to settle for this:

“Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earfulAnd I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.I’m one of your talking wounded.I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.But I’m in Paris with you.”

Poetry can get you through anything — especially if you’re better at it than I am. That poem — In Paris with You — is by an English poet called James Fenton, and I love it because it’s funny, romantic, and kind of tragic all at the same time. And because every time I read it I’m there. Poetry can do that in twenty lines or so.

So can music, and great writing, acting and directing, great painting and sculpture. And we’ve never needed them more.

This is a time when for many, the world is turned upside down. I find it deeply unnatural to have to depend on my children and younger siblings to deliver groceries — that has always been my job when they’re not well, and now suddenly they’re looking after me. I can’t make it feel right.

But I also know two women, brave angry women, who are in fear of their lives from this virus. If either of them get it, their existing health status makes them intensely vulnerable. The first couple of weeks had them terribly fearful.

But they’re coping better now — one by brilliantly colourful painting, the other by restarting the writing of memoirs of a very full life. The artist in them is helping them, and will contribute to everyone around them.

Because that’s what artists do. Artists who are serious about their work and who have platforms are the definition of generosity — they tend to give everything they have to the world around them. A town with a vibrant sense of the arts is a better place to live in.

And now that theatres and libraries are dark and shuttered, now that art exhibitions can’t happen, now that comedians can’t make us laugh in a live and open space, what are we going to do for them?

We’re going to divide a million quid between them, that’s what. It’s a tiny fraction of what most civilised countries are proposing to do. Even in the midst of a health and social crisis that has enormous economic ramifications in the short to medium term, we could afford a multiple of that.

To make matters worse, this million quid was announced in an entirely self-congratulatory and smug speech by the relevant minister, Josepha Madigan. The money is apparently based on two principles.

First, it’s really really important to deploy all the means at our disposal to protect the incomes of people who work in this sector so that they can produce work that will continue to enrich our cultural lives. And it’s really really important to develop “innovative and imaginative” initiatives to bring arts and creative engagement directly into our homes and lives.

If they meant a word of that, they wouldn’t have set up a system, based on a miserly sum of money, that forces everyone who makes their living in the arts to compete with everyone else for a slice of it. They’re going to give out 330 grants of €3,000 – and that’s it. The money will be gone.

And if you want to go after it, you’d better get cracking. Because the application process set up by the Arts Council for this pittance is harder than applying for citizenship. I recently did my tax returns for the year, using the Revenue’s dreaded Form 11 on their website. It’s friendly, helpful, and does a lot of the calculation for you. All it needs is a tiny bit of calculation (and a bit of honesty!) on your part.

The Arts Council deadline is April 16 – that’s nine or 10 days from now. But you can’t apply unless you’re first registered with them. I went through that process on Monday morning, to see how complicated it was. Not too bad, as long as I could remember my pps number.

But when I had done it, I was told that I’d get a message, some time in the next five days, and only then would I be able to see the application form.

I’m told it’s long. I know it has to be accompanied by a one-page CV listing all my artistic accomplishments. But buried away in the Arts Council explanation (and not mentioned at all in the minister’s publicity) is the fact that nobody can apply for this one-off tiny grant and at the same time be in receipt of the Covid-19 payment of €350 a week.

This is a joke. It’s basically saying to everyone who works in the arts in Ireland — the vast majority of whom live on a pittance — that their government regards the arts as a luxury, to be funded when times are good, but expendable when times are harder.

Our government has chosen the time when we most need artistic endeavour to lift our spirits to treat the arts with contempt. Now that is genuinely contemptible.

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