We need artists — but artists need to be able to live

An Arts Council conference tomorrow highlights the importance of the arts to society and the issue of funding, says Sheila Pratschke

We need artists — but artists need to be able to live

LAST year, the centenary of 1916, the discussion of the role of the arts in our country had a new focus.

The artists of Ireland worked with imagination, integrity and subtlety, excavating and addressing difficult issues with great seriousness.

All of us who are part of this community begin 2017 with a deep, calm confidence about what we do and its importance to our own society. We feel a new reassurance that our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has committed “to mainstream culture and creativity in the life of the nation, so that, individually and collectively, we can realise our full creative potential.”

And the Arts Council is full of ideas. Our plan, ‘Making Great Art Work’, runs right up to 2025, and will, we believe, evolve within the National Cultural Policy for the same period.

We place the artist at the heart of things, and the artist and the public are the core elements of wide-ranging and nuanced strategies. Our plan emerges from an extensive review of the arts and best practice for developing them: we know that management, marketing, and public communications are valuable only if they work in support of this interlocking relationship between artists and people.

One of our roles is to develop partnerships, both within and outside government, and we launch 2017 with a key conference in Dublin Castle tomorrow, hosted jointly with our long-term partners in local government, under the terms of a new, collaborative agreement.

‘Making Places Matter’ takes a fresh look at demographics, geography, and access to new technologies, as well as the changing role of the artist in the light of new practices: each of these changes can, and will, impact on people, no matter where they live.

The conference is the first in a series of fresh, joint interventions, which will support closer and more meaningful connections between communities, schools, hospitals, libraries, arts centres, and the artists who work in them.

Our funding decisions for 2017 increase investment in individual artists and in small festivals, where their work reaches a wide audience; in our work with children and young people; and in our all-important partnership with local government.

Following publication of our ground-breaking research, conducted by the ESRI, on the importance of early exposure to the arts for children, we have made €4m available in 2017 for related programmes.

We want our young people to grow in confidence, in social skills, and in talent, to better develop both intellectually and emotionally. This is not a soft-focus, idealised notion, but something proactive: think of the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect life, but a hammer to shape it’.

But resources must follow. It is our responsibility to speak truth to power, to remind government of its promises.

The Arts Council received €5m of the €10m it sought, in extra support, in 2016. It made a big difference to our funding decisions and was much-appreciated by artists and the organisations which will bring their work to the public.

However, we need that other €5m and take comfort from Arts Minister Heather Humphreys’ recent Dáil statement that the arts would benefit even as the economy grew.

The Arts Council’s position and history means that it understands the stresses and breaking points which still define too much of this sector: theatre companies, including our National Theatre, are seriously underfunded; the future of opera and dance in Ireland depends on increased financial support; the livelihoods of all those artists who work tirelessly in so many public and private arenas must be raised to a realistic, survival level, the least they can rightfully expect.

As an expert agency at a remove from government and politics, the Arts Council, for over 60 years, has built up an intelligence and knowledge which informs our decisions on how we invest public monies in the arts in Ireland.

Because of this long-term vision, we can make the case, publicly and privately, for how the arts provide the soundtrack and background to both our special occasions and our everyday interactions with one another.

We welcome the new public policy initiative, Creative Ireland, which begins in 2017 to build on the legacy of 2016.

Unlike our many other partners, such as national cultural institutions, third-level and research institutes and local authorities, Creative Ireland will work from within government.

It is at the heart of politics and the public service and, as such, can have a unique influence on the shaping of public cultural policy over the next five years. We look to it with great expectations of what it can achieve in this area and anticipate a rewarding, supportive working relationship with John Concannon and his team.

We hope that, at the end of those five years, culture and the arts will be integrated into all aspects of public policy in Ireland, with significant resources signifying, at last, the real value that our Irish Republic places on its culture.

* Sheila Pratschke is chair of The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon

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