Supports for artists’ R&D will see Ireland reap benefits globally

Using arts to support Ireland is fine. Ireland supporting the arts is different, writes Gerard Howlin.

Supports for artists’ R&D will see Ireland reap benefits globally

MONDAY saw two significant announcements on the arts and two important speeches from Leo Varadkar. One was partly about the arts. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, launched Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025. It focused on Ireland’s place in the world, expanding our diplomatic network, and more.

On the arts, our enlarged global footprint will promote “Irish arts, heritage, and culture to new generations and new audiences across the world”. Culture Minister Josepha Madigan said: “We already know that the strength of Ireland’s culture in a globalised world is a very powerful way of expressing who we are; of connecting with our diaspora; and of opening doors for inward investment and tourism...”

Separately, Madigan announced that one of her burgeoning number of arts agencies, Creative Ireland, will fund, and the Arts Council will lead, a programme for 150 schools as part of a Creative Schools pilot. It’s about putting “the arts and creativity at the heart of young people’s lives”. There will be a creative associate, an artist or educator, who will “plan and design a unique programme that responds to the needs and priorities of their school”. It’s about children understanding from an early age that the arts are for them, not just for others. It is about access, experience, and, I hope, some fun.

In April almost €1.2bn was announced under the culture banner of Project Ireland 2040. That includes €460m for national cultural institutions. On a smaller scale, but perhaps more real because of it, there was the recent Boden report recommending that the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra be established as an independent body, or as part of the National Concert Hall, and funded by the Government.

It, and the smaller concert orchestra in RTÉ, are in a state of chassis. The status quo is unsustainable, and if there is a future for classical music on a symphonic scale in Ireland, change and investment must come.

Madigan says she supports the report’s recommendations. So there are balls in the air for the arts. There is some traction, too. A modest increase in actual Arts Council funding is one; the creative schools initiative is another.

I mentioned Varadkar made a second significant speech on Monday. He presented the European of the Year award to his predecessor, Enda Kenny. I’ll come back to that. But first, there was one significant detail on page 42 of the document published on the Global Footprint. It referenced “the stated objective of doubling current expenditure on the arts”. This is the nub of the issue. It’s about money for artists, without which there is no art and nothing to showcase.

Governments come and go, but what politics loves is the showcase event. Ministers want to open buildings and love a big marquee and a marching band. They are in showbusiness themselves and work hard for very little applause. They also know about the years of knocking on doors to get elected, and slipperiness of the greasy pole they must climb. What government, and I speak of it generically, has never demonstrated is an understanding that years of training, failure, and experimentation are behind all art.

In science and technology, R&D are buzzwords. Ongoing current funding for artists and arts organisations has traditionally been considered dole, for those who, having opted out of the economic mainstream, but will, of course, be delighted to perform for us. If Irish art is to be showcased abroad, it must first be supported at home.

Using arts to support Ireland is fine. Ireland supporting the arts is different.

Ambitious capital development is welcome, and the cultural institutions foster access and art in important ways. But there is one thing before any other, and that is effective ongoing support for artists here, now. That requires current funding, and it must mean support that goes directly to artists and arts organisations.

The Arts Council has €68.4m this year. Last year it gave €10m in bursaries to individual artists. The demand was for more than four times that amount. Festivals around the country received nearly €14m, meeting less than half the demand. I don’t suggest demand for public money be met automatically, but state support is modest compared with any European comparison, or with the level of artistic activity.

Culture Ireland, the State’s shipping company for the arts, helps showcase work abroad. Relatively little of its money supports artists directly. They get you there and that’s welcome. Artists’ fees are subsidiary and sometimes non-existent.

There are bigger issues, too. There is now a cluster of arts agencies, and the institutional architecture is the result of events, not strategic planning. If current funding is doubled, where is it going and for what? We haven’t heard. Frustratingly the Oireachtas committee has been tardy and hasn’t teased it out.

Who exactly are the decision-makers deciding what project receives public funding? Arts funding is a form of editorial control, if only insidiously exercised through self-censorship. This Government deserves to be applauded for significant new commitments if they are delivered on.

There is, however, a palpable disregard for an essential, statutory based, arm’s length principle of decision-making on funding for the arts, and arts organisations. Up close you sense real resentment about being reminded of it. Significant new money, flowing through different channels, will bring issues of control and influence into sharp relief. It will become deeply contentious, which is a pity and entirely avoidable.

BACK in the Shelbourne Hotel on Monday, Leo gave Enda his European award. There was a lot about Brexit, and about the ever-optimistic Enda. I thought of an extraordinary play called Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland. It was staged in the round in the small Peacock Theatre. Stephen Rae was stunning as the Belfast loyalist Eric who, in the blackest of black comedy, saw Fenians everywhere destroying his culture. Gerry Adams had been reincarnated as his granddaughter. It is the full flowering of murderous paranoia and one of the finest pieces of theatre I have seen in years. That was in 2016.

Since then life has imitated art. Ireland called out, in outrageous improbability, what, in the humdrum of real life, became hunkered down politics in a cornered community.

That play with Rae is now at the New York’s Public Theater as a co-production between the Abbey and the Royal Court in London. There was no overnight success for Ireland from a deeply loyalist background himself. There are decades of experience on stage, and off, supporting the work. It’s not soft diplomacy in the style of Vera Lynn or Riverdance. But it is work that needed to be made. We need to ask how much we are missing out on and, should more support come, who will make critical artistic choices in the future.

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