Artists will be at the heart of renewal

Like many organisations, the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) has over the past few weeks been busy preparing its pre-budget submission for the Government, local authorities and other funding bodies.

Artists will be at the heart of renewal

It has also launched an ambitious longer-term campaign, ‘2016 The Republic of Culture’, which aims to restore arts and culture to the central role in Irish society which they enjoyed at the foundation of the state.

The NCFA, a volunteer-led movement which makes the case for the arts in Ireland, sees the new campaign as particularly relevant given the current Decade of Commemorations and, more especially, the centenary of the 1916 Rising in which writers and artists played such a prominent role. Indeed, artists have long enjoyed an honoured place in our national consciousness, from cairn builders 5,000 years ago and manuscript illuminators of early Christian times to those involved as protagonists and rebels in the foundation of the state.

One of the many casualties of our short-lived affluence has been losing sight of the value of the arts as an essential part of a humane and fully-functioning society. One of the causes of our recent economic and associated social difficulties was a dangerous complacency, leading to a too-ready acceptance of the status quo. Artists have an inherent ability to provoke us to think for ourselves. Those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy an involvement with the arts, even at one remove as an audience member, greatly value its capacity to lift our spirits. However, more importantly given our recent history, artists also have a special ability to challenge us and our easy assumptions — not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable.

Another commodity in short supply during more affluent times was a sense of common endeavour. This has begun to reassert itself during our journey to recovery and will continue to be an essential ingredient in that recovery for many years to come. Shared experience has long been acknowledged as one of the defining characteristics of the arts, not just between arts practitioners, but with their audiences and the wider society.

The benefits of a vibrant arts sector are tangible and measurable.

A joint study by the University of Sydney and the Australian Council for the Arts, published just last week, found that engagement in the arts benefits students not just in the classroom but also in life generally, with those involved in various arts forms demonstrating more positive academic and personal outcomes than those who had no connection with the arts.

Closer to home, a recent gain has been a greater understanding of the critical role of creativity across our society and economy, and surely our arts communities, whose day-to-day work is rooted in ideas, are especially well suited to give a lead in this area.

In fact, it is this very ability to adapt to prevailing circumstances, together with their passionate commitment to their work, that has enabled so many artists to continue to function despite widespread cutbacks in funding and the financial pressures on audiences and supporters. These realities also mean that, well before the general downturn, they had perfected the art of doing more for less, now one of our national touchstones.

Arts and culture have also proved useful magnets for tourists, with US research showing that visitors who include arts and culture events in their activities spend more and stay longer than the average tourist.

These wide-ranging positive influences have benefited Ireland enormously, even those among us who have little or no involvement in the arts. We would do well to bear in mind that this has only been possible because of centuries of work by our many, usually poorly rewarded, artists.

It would be the height of folly to put all this at risk.

Let us join together to reaffirm our commitment to the arts, to ensure that in rebuilding our country we create not just an economy but a truly inclusive and creative society — a new republic of culture for 2016.

* Tony Sheehan is artistic director of Triskel Christchurch, Cork, and a member of NCFA.

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