In this centenary year, let’s get behind the arts in Ireland

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in 'Room'. Picture: StudioCanal/PA

Sheila Pratschke says we need to restore confidence in our cultural community to realise art is important in creating a society first and not economy first

Hollywood awards nominations have been heaped on Irish film this year, honouring talent, making us proud.

At the roll-out of the red carpet, we crowd-cluster around Irish arts and culture. However, for artists in film and other disciplines, crowds and red carpet are an exception. Being an artist is a vocation. It defines who you are as much as what you do. And yes, success is sweet when it comes and should be celebrated.

The Oscars, like the 1916 centenary commemorations, focus on specific projects. They are laboriously created highlights. It is the labour, the long commitment, the underlying infrastructure, the support of people and organisations that is too often overlooked and now, too long neglected.

Great art does not fall from a glitter ball, ready-made. It first exists in a creative mind. It is progressed and nourished in an ecosystem where ideas can be tested, rehearsed, and developed.

But in Ireland our arts ecosystem is malnourished. Too many cuts over too long a period have not just reduced creative organisations to a brittle breaking point, they have stripped away the confidence of our cultural community.

We know the circumstances of boom and bust. We understand what happened in our country. But as one community among others, whose resources were modest if not marginal to begin with, the brunt has been harder to bear.

In the arts, we are people of ideas. We are confident of our place in our community. We know, because we march to the beat of a different drum and insist to our better selves that, as dancers, singers, painters, actors, and directors, we occupy an irreplaceable position in Irish life.

Some say the divide in our country is between those who believe we are either an economy first or a society first. The real debate, one we have almost lost the language to articulate, is whether as a country we still have a spirit. Art is the expression of what we cannot articulate, it is redress for what has been done to us. It is more than an aid to comprehension.

It is language without which we can neither speak nor sing, mourn or celebrate. It is essential for human life.

The nourishing infrastructure, from local government, to the Arts Council which I chair, to the Film Board, the Heritage Council and national cultural institutions is a now strained web of supports unequal to supporting Ireland’s art, its scholarship, or heritage.

This is an inherited accumulation of events. Successive ministers have been unable to do as much as they would wish. Our parent department has lacked the means to meet the potential of the sectors it is responsible for. The first support required, the essential step I call for, is that this is recognised and called-out.

As we get ready to go to the apogee of the Hollywood awards season, or to the equally brilliant Irish Theatre Awards, a general election is unfolding. As the chair of a State agency, let me make a non-political point.

The cultural call of the country, the call of the Irish people who are more than either economy or society, is to hear from parties and politicians what they plan and imagine for Irish arts.

There is empathy and interest in politics for the arts. Strangely, politicians also are people who march to the beat of a different drum.

However, they are beset by competing powerful interests. Now, in the centenary of the Rising, an accumulated attrition has diminished the centrality and importance of cultural vision within the State. It is administrative, political, and financial; a slow leak of energy, resources, and vision over many years.

This election campaign coinciding with the 1916 commemoration demands a response. Too much debate is cynical. If denuded, our cultural infrastructure is still intact; but only just. Talented artists across the board, if sometimes discouraged, remain determined.

Being artists is what they are, not just what they do. The opportunity for the State now, as we elect a new Dáil, is to respond with the same energy and imagination which artists so generously supply in season and out.

The arts, our culture, and heritage have a greater role to play. By being pigeon-holed for performance on festival days, the energy that artists and culture in its widest sense can bring is diminished, under-unexplored.

I purposely champion not just the specific interest of the Arts Council alone, but the wider, interlayered play of light and ideas between our heritage, our national collections, and cultural institutions.

The roles of local authorities and the Department of Education and Skills are also critical. Yet, as currently configured, almost all are inevitably destined to under-deliver.

There is an opportunity for the Government we elect not only to commemorate 1916 but to vindicate a vision which was as cultural as it was political, by putting cultural policy centre stage politically, by bringing art, culture, and heritage in from the margins.

This would be the most fitting, lasting legacy of the decade of commemoration.

Sheila Pratschke is chairwoman of the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon


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