Rachel Holstead’s role as facilitator for Munster at Gaeltacht arts body Ealaín na Gaeltachta, covers a geographic stretch from West Kerry, through Múscraí and Cape Clear in Co Cork to An Rinn in Co Waterford.
Its demographic range extends from pre-school children to senior citizens, but that diversity is both the job’s challenge and its reward, she says.
“It’s everyone from the children in school or out of school, to older people whose musical or literary work we don’t want to forget, and we want to celebrate — and everything in between. It feels like a very healthy mix,” she adds.
“The arts in the Gaeltacht aren’t ghettoised as this thing that ‘those people over there’ do. They’re something that we all do, and we all own.”
Working in rural communities means arts events may fail to draw crowds of thousands, but lack of population does not signal any lack of richness or variety in the arts in
comparison with urban settings, she believes.
“We’re very realistic — we’re working in small communities, so it’s not a numbers game, it’s a quality game.
We’re working with very resourceful and resilient communities and we also have to be resourceful and resilient in that we have to be more responsive.
We work with who is there, and in the Gaeltachts they tend to be amazing and wonderful artists and amazing and wonderful communities.
“There’s a really interesting interface between people whose families have been there for many generations, and people who are drawn by that mysterious creative thing that is the Gaeltacht community and its landscapes,” says Rachel.
“With that you get that really interesting and quite potent mixture between traditional art forms and more contemporary modes of expression and they complement each other so beautifully.
Each brings out something wonderful in the other and illuminates the other.
“There’s a confidence in engaging with the arts in the Gaeltachts that isn’t necessarily there in all other rural areas,” she adds.
Originally a composer by profession, her work straddled contemporary and traditional styles, including writing for orchestras, string quartets, gamelan groups, and DJs.
These experiences gave Rachel an insight she now draws upon, into the day-to-day challenges of survival as an artist, exacerbated by recession-era funding cuts.
“I was freelance and working to commission, and I had several residencies,” she explains.
“I know well the existence of the artist: You basically never stop living like a student, so that’s something I’m very keenly attuned to and appreciate that constant challenge of having to apply for your own job over and over. It’s really difficult.
“Now I’m on the other side and trying to make sure I don’t forget the reality and the challenge of that experience, that even when you’ve built up a very good track record, a livelihood is by no means guaranteed.
“It’s lovely to be in a position where at least I can help, if only a little,” says Rachel, who was previously a music adviser to the Arts Council and has been on the board of the National Concert Hall and Dingle’s An Lab arts centre.
Funding cuts ripped huge holes in the fabric of arts structures nationwide, and with minimal budgetary increases trickling through since the recession, Rachel is pragmatic about what limited financial assistance she can offer in her role with Ealaín na Gaeltachta.
“My role is to offer advice, advocate on behalf of parties, administer the funding schemes, and look for opportunities constantly, to grow good practice in the engagement between the public and the arts.
For example, if there are opportunities for collaborations, you would look to see that artists with good experience are employed, that they’re properly paid.
That you’re supporting events that are run well; for example making sure that children are taken care of properly, that things are done appropriately, with the highest artistic standards or the highest standards of engagement.
It’s not always about Picasso, it’s about that quality of engagement being as high as you can make it,” she adds.