Patricia Quinn: The show will go on again. Until then, the arts need help

As Culture Night gets going, mostly online, Patricia Quinn says Covid-19 has dealt a hard blow to the entertainment and arts sectors — and we need to ensure they are not wiped out, writes Patricia Quinn
Patricia Quinn: The show will go on again. Until then, the arts need help

Theatres and arts centres all over Ireland, not to mention some 100 festivals, make an enormous contribution to Irish life. Anti-Covid-19 measures are hurting the performing arts, making many events practically impossible to run. Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty

MORE on the stage than in the audience — that was the phrase used by people working in theatre to describe the circumstances under which a show might not go on — although surely most artists have experienced poor houses at some time in their working lives.

Thanks to the coronavirus, what was the exception has become the norm. 

Venue managers, festivals, and promoters all over Ireland are coming to terms with the 50-person rule for indoor gatherings, with all the anomalies this entails.

A concert hall in Limerick University with a capacity for 1,038 is allowed to put on a concert by a 30-strong chamber orchestra for an audience of 20. 

A 450-seat theatre in a regional town could put on a show by a youth theatre with a cast of 20 and an audience of 30 — that’s one mammy or daddy for each cast member but not both, and almost nobody else. 

A choir of 50 (always assuming they were even allowed to rehearse) would be singing to itself.

These are small numbers compared to the scale of big open-air festivals, the major gigs and arenas that have attracted most attention when people talk about the impact of the pandemic on live performance.

And yet, they are numbers we should all care about.

Thanks to far-sighted if relatively modest capital investment by successive administrations in the 1990s and the 2000s — take a bow former arts ministers Michael D Higgins and Síle de Valera – Ireland now has a rich national infrastructure for arts performance and exhibition. 

It’s not perfect, but it has transformed the landscape for our creative artists. 

The lockdown has indiscriminately decimated not just their livelihoods — it has taken away the lifeblood which is their opportunity for creative expression.

A quick look into Benefacts' database of Irish nonprofits shows that we have at least 86 venues for performing and visual arts run by non-governmental organisations around the country. 

These range from the long-established theatres and galleries in the bigger towns and cities — the Abbey and the Gate, the Douglas Hyde in Dublin, the Opera House and Everyman Palace in Cork, An Taibhdhearc in Galway, Siamsa Tíre in Tralee — to the many newer venues established all over the place in the 1980s (such as Triskel in Cork, Hawk’s Well in Sligo, St John’s in Listowel), the 1990s (Garter Lane in Waterford, the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Linenhall in Castlebar, the Courthouse in Tinahely, An Grianán in Letterkenny) and the noughties (the Mermaid in Wicklow, the Mill in Dundrum, and Kildare's Riverbank).

Anybody who has stepped inside any of these arts spaces knows that one size does not fit all. Some are big, most are small. Some are “wet” and some are (very) dry. 

Social distancing — a concept that is the opposite of what happens in the theatre — is hard to pull off, impossible if your eye wanders anywhere near the bottom line.

One hundred arts festivals have even greater challenges, because so many of them adapt other kinds of spaces for performance or exhibition — church halls, town halls, and sports halls, as well as professionally-run venues and public spaces. 

Besides the big theatre, film, dance and multidisciplinary festivals, in Ireland we have festivals for chamber music, comedy, choral music, and curiosity — and that’s just the Cs. 

Culture Night — tonight — is normally a celebration of the arts in all kinds of spaces, but this year it has to take place largely online.

Nobody envies the public authorities who trying to come to terms with the question of how to operate this plethora of cultural facilities and events in a safe way. 

Principles, as well as rules, must have a part to play, and cooperation between the policymakers and the many small nonprofit businesses working to keep them open.

It will be interesting to discover how the new guidelines that permit “up to 100 people to participate in events in larger venues where 2m distancing rules can be observed” will work in practice. 

There are certainly thousands of people straining to find out, and it is welcome to see that the new roadmap for living with the virus recognises that art is, for many people, what they do for a living, not just a source of recreation. 

It is also encouraging to learn of the dialogue between arts campaigners and Government, and the announcement by Catherine Martin, the arts minister, of an arts and culture recovery task force.

In economic terms, this may not seem a significant cohort of about 200 organisations. 

Their aggregate annual turnover is about €100m but they have 1,500 employees, not counting the thousands of artists and casual employees who rely on them for opportunities to make and perform work. 

But it is an infrastructure that took decades to put together, and it could be obliterated in no time, without care and attention.

  • Patricia Quinn is the founder and managing director of Benefacts, Ireland’s only comprehensive and publicly-available database of civil society, nonprofit and voluntary organisations in Ireland. 
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