Clodagh Finn: Why we need to invest in the arts even more in a crisis

Even before Covid, every artist needed to have a “side-hustle”, as artist Jesse Jones put it, just to make ends meet, writes Clodagh Finn
Clodagh Finn: Why we need to invest in the arts even more in a crisis

When it all gets a little too much, as it frequently does in these Covid-lashed days, I turn up the music and do a not-fit-for-public-consumption dance across the kitchen floor.

I shake off the week in politics with the help of a potent mix of Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Coughlan, and Patsy Cline. The volume goes indecently high for Patsy’s heartfelt classic Crazy, but instead of singing (after a fashion) the line “I’m crazy for feeling so lonely”, I imagine a heartfelt, soul-wringing version that goes: “I’m crazy for feeling sooo left-out”.

It’s a fitting anthem for the 33rd Dail. It reflects not the hurt felt by the unappointed ministers and their disappointed constituents but half the population (the female half) who have seen just four of their number make Cabinet. That’s down from seven in the last Government.

What harm, the music plays on. Mary Coughlan this time, the singer who, last month, was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Mayor of Galway to recognise her contribution to the artistic, musical and cultural life of her home city.

What a shock, then, to see her on the Six One News on Tuesday explaining that her pandemic payment of €350 was cut to €203 a week based on her earnings in 2018.If a woman who has released over

10 albums and performed in concert venues across the world is finding it difficult, how will other less well-known artists survive?

They may not, as musician and composer Laura Walsh made startlingly clear on the same news item when she said she may have to move back in with her parents or retrain in a different sector.

“It’s very up in the air,” she said, capturing a feeling shared by the 110,000-plus people who had their Covid benefit cut this week but by the hundreds of thousands of us wondering what lies ahead.

It was a little depressing then to see some of the reaction to the announcement by newly elected Lord Mayor Hazel Chu that Dublin City Council is to spend €600,000 commissioning six new sculptures for parks and public across the city.

There was a rush, online at least, to question the measure and suggest the money would be better spent on more ‘worthy’ projects such as housing or job initiatives.

But is the work of a sculptor not a worthy job? Don’t they have to pay the bills too?

While online comments are hardly a scientific measure, they do reflect a kind of unspoken view that the first casualty of an economic crisis is the arts. Why do we see the arts as some kind of luxury when, as former taoiseach Leo Varadkar said, they have helped keep us buoyant through a pandemic?

It’s worth repeating what he said because it continues to be true on a daily basis: “Over the last few months, we have had many days of sorrow and suffering. In times like this, we see the true value of culture to society — the books, the films, the songs, the plays — all the different forms of culture that entertain as well as enlighten.” 

He announced a very welcome package of €25m to help the arts and culture sector but that does not mean that we should see the arts as a burden. On the contrary, they are an asset, not a liability. For every euro invested in the arts and culture, almost €2 is returned in direct taxation. Cultural tourism brings in an estimated €5.1bn.

More than that, we love our artists. More people attend paid arts events in Ireland every year than attend GAA championship matches, according to Theatre Forum figures.

It’s been an exceptionally challenging time for everyone but the arts world has been particularly badly hit. Like so many others, though, they have shown that imagination and creativity can make a tangible difference in our day-to-day lives.

For instance, the organisers of Carlow Arts Festival put their heads together to “rethink, reset, and reinvent” a festival they didn’t think could happen.

This weekend, the same is happening in Kinsale with a series of drive-in outdoor theatre-style events that will allow everyone to enjoy theatre, music, comedy, visual art, crafts, dance, literature, and film while adhering to Covid-19 restrictions.

Kinsale Arts Weekend chairperson Anna Mulcahy said the organisers decided to pay special attention to events for local children this year because children are the artists of the future.

Let’s make sure that they have a future in Ireland. 

Even before the Covid-19 virus upended our economy, it was nigh impossible to make a full-time living as an artist here.

The Paying the Artist campaign, launched by the Arts Council in February, highlighted the ongoing freebie culture that means artists are often expected to work for little or no payment because it somehow boosts their profile.

As several artists said at the time, public exposure does not pay the bills.

Even before Covid, every artist needed to have a “side-hustle”, as artist Jesse Jones put it, just to make ends meet. If the Irish artistic community is so highly valued, why do an estimated 72% of artists working in Ireland earn less than the national minimum wage?

Our global reputation for creativity is of little use if it doesn’t translate into a living wage for artists at home.

Across every single sector, people are facing enormous challenges but let’s not revert to the flawed idea that the arts are some kind of luxury. They are at our very core and are helping us to keep our heads above water right now. Not to mention helping us to survive the new government’s, let’s be kind, stuttering start.

It’s all right, though, I’m back out on the (kitchen) tiles with Ella Fitzgerald’s Too Marvellous For Words. Here’s hoping it sets the tone for the week ahead.

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