CHRISTINE SISK began work in June as CEO of Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish arts abroad. She’s been kept busy. Along with its five major showcases — including 30 productions dispatched to Edinburgh’s arts festivals this month — Culture Ireland is planning for Ireland’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, starting in January 2013.
There are two elements to the culture programme for the presidency. The Arts Council will manage issues in Ireland, such as the arrival of high-level delegates, and the engagement of Irish citizens with Europe. But Culture Ireland’s brief is international. “Brussels will be a main focus,” says Ms Sisk. “We need to have an installation in the main council building, which has thousands of people working in it, and going through it every day for meetings, and we’ll work also with the Crafts Council in furnishing key areas of that building, and in showcasing Irish crafts. We will have an opening concert, and a major exhibition of contemporary art with IMMA and the Hugh Lane. And we will have Irish music, theatre and film promoted in significant venues in Brussels.
“We’re having a special focus on Paris, where we’re working with the Georges Pompidou Centre on a retrospective of Eileen Gray, and we’re linking in with the Crafts Council and the Irish Cultural Centre, in Paris, for a focus on contemporary furniture. Across all art forms, and across all Europe, we’ll have a series of mini-tours and initiatives over the six months, which peak around St Patrick’s Day, May Day and Bloomsday.”
Culture Ireland has a budget of €1.55m for the six-month reach. “It will be a fairly significant initiative, following on from the US one last year. We’ve put out an open call to artists who want to be part of it, and to European venues who want to engage with it. Those applications are coming in this month.”
Ms Sisk is well-placed for the challenge of steering Culture Ireland in Europe. She coordinated Ireland’s cultural programme for its EU presidency in 2004, a year before Culture Ireland was established. She highlights a significant funding pot Ireland should be tapping — Creative Europe, the Commission’s €1.6bn budget for its cultural sector from 2014-2020. The fund’s final negotiations will be during Ireland’s EU presidency in 2013. It’s a successor allocation to Culture Programme 2007-2013, monies that the Irish arts community has been slow to plunder.
“The one thing that we’re all very conscious of is being members of Europe, particularly with the way the financial situation affects us all,” says Ms Sisk. “There’s a much more heightened awareness of what it means to be a member of the European Union, and the culture we share.
“There’s also keenness that we would avail more, particularly in the cultural field, of the new cultural programme, coming on stream next year with the greatest ever funding allowed — Creative Europe. Ireland hasn’t availed of any great European funding to date. It’s quite clear why — we’re on the periphery of Europe, and when you’re on an island it’s difficult to build up contacts. All these funding initiatives require a minimum of three partners and a lot require five. It’s much easier on mainland Europe to build up relationships and to work together on large-scale projects.”
No-one enters a business relationship unless they’re familiar with their partners and share a vision. “For Irish artists to build that special relationship, for example a dance company to get to know other dance companies and to agree an artistic vision and funding applications, it would need to build up confidence and a shared interest with the other partners.
“There are one or two projects ongoing, for example the 12 Points jazz festival. They have European funding for their series of concerts around Europe. I know the National Sculpture Factory, as well, are involved with other visual arts groups presenting a pan-European project, but the level of participation and benefit from European funding is extremely low in Ireland, compared to other countries. If we can access some of that Creative Europe funding, and supplement it to increase opportunity for Irish artists, it would be great. It’s something that we’re working on,” Ms Sisk says.
Culture Ireland has a budget of €3.5m for 2012, a chunk smaller than the €4m it had in 2011 when it scored some significant hits with its A Year of Irish Arts in America drive.
“Druid did an extensive tour in America last year — that was fantastic,” says Ms Sisk. “Theatre has a natural audience. The figures we saw at Druid shows, last year in the US, was 40,000 alone, but, in terms of new connections, we had a visual-arts placement in Los Angeles, where we developed a lot of contacts with new galleries for Irish artists going to the United States for the first time.
“Jesse Jones, for example, presented on the West Coast and has gotten great opportunities out of it. She works a lot in film and new media, and has been invited to the Istanbul Biennale, and is gaining a very strong international reputation. She’s one of the great new talents to emerge.
“In terms of the US, people think traditionally of trad bands touring, and New York is a natural draw for Irish artists across art forms, but to get to the west coast and make an impact with visual arts was a whole new area for us.”
Culture Ireland has utilised actor Gabriel Byrne’s position as Ireland’s cultural ambassador, an appointment made by former Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the White House on St Patrick’s Day 2010.
Byrne’s three-year term draws to a close early next year. “Gabriel probably feels he’s given a lot of time, free gratis, to us and is probably happy to step aside and let somebody else be appointed, which is a matter for the minister in government,” says Ms Sisk.
“It worked very well for Culture Ireland to have somebody of such high profile in the US for 2011. He curated a film festival at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To get into MOMA, and be invited to present a series of Irish films over a number of nights, was fantastic and then Gabriel brought along people like Jim Sheridan, and friends of his, for interview panels.
“He’s very close to Colum McCann, in New York, as well, and he attended a lot of those literature events; he interviewed Edna O’Brien at one of them.
“Once Gabriel was participating, it was encouraging for other people to participate, and it obviously attracted much more media interest when you have a star like that.”
Ms Sisk worked in the Department for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht when President Michael D Higgins was minister. Ms Sisk says that President Higgins has been getting his hands dirty for the Irish arts community abroad. He’s not one for sitting on the sidelines.
“It’s fantastic to have a President with such a passion for the arts. It was very evident when we were on a visit to New York in May. We were at a film event in the Lincoln Center, where the President actually partook in the panel discussion and really enjoyed it,” she says.