New Government should invest in culture as it will provide much bigger return

Heather Humphreys TD arriving for the 32nd Dail at Leinster House. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

With news that the Cork Film Festival is shy €200,000 in funding despite the €2.5m it pulls in for the local economy, Clodagh Finn wonders if arts is unwisely being pushed to one side by the incoming government

THE prize for most cumbersome departmental initials has to go to Heather Humphreys who now presides over a behemoth called RDRAAG. Or might we just say Red Rag for ease of pronunciation?

Certainly the mish-mash ministry that brings together — hold your breath now — Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht has been something of a red rag to those of us who happen to think that culture is not an optional extra, but a vital thing that helps us to live life in colour.

But let’s leave colour out of it for a moment and deal in hard currency and concrete figures. Last year, tourist numbers here hit a record high. Total earnings from the 8 million or so people visiting the country exceeded €7bn for the first time.

When they came, those people sought out the things that have made Ireland famous. They visited the Book of Kells, Dublin (650,476 visitors); the National Gallery of Ireland (593,183 visitors); the National Museum of Archaeology (447,137) and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (306,662) to mention a few examples from Fáilte Ireland stats.

The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells

Those figures look likely to rise this year and yet when we look at how those money-making, visitor-attracting cultural institutions are represented at national level, you’ll find just four tiny letters (‘Arts’) among a grotesque hybrid that contains 50 letters – that’s not even a tenth.

In fact, there were no letters at all about culture in Minister Humphrey’s initial 425-word post about her new beefed-up department. She did not mention the arts once. Not a peep.

She has spoken out since to respond to a petition, signed by more than 6,000 people, calling on the Government to give our culture and heritage the recognition it deserves. She insisted the arts had not been demoted and that she would seek more funding in 2017. Time will tell.

To be fair to Minister Humphreys, she spoke about the rural affairs aspect of her portfolio with a real passion and enthusiasm that hasn’t emerged too often in her arts role.

New Government should invest in culture as it will provide much bigger return

She said she had lived all her life in rural Ireland, understood the challenges and opportunities and couldn’t wait to get on with the job. That will give hope to the many outside Dublin who, like Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, believe the Government stops at the Red Cow roundabout.

The rollout of high-speed broadband, now a priority, can’t happen fast enough for those living in our towns and villages, though, the maximum wait of five years is far too long for many.

But we’re getting distracted from culture here — but then that’s the problem with a department that has so many plates in the air.

Part of the problem may well be our attitude to the term, “the arts”. Some like to call it ‘the Orts’ and dismiss it as a hoity-toity thing relevant only to a pretentious few who move in rarefied circles.

Others see it as a frivolous extra that must be abandoned to deal with more pressing needs such as housing and health. Both views could not be further from the truth.

Let’s go back again to the hard facts because the benefits of culture – which is probably a better word for it – are often seen as unquantifiable. That, however, is absolutely not the case. In 2014, the UK Arts Council published a wide-ranging report giving concrete examples of how the arts and culture benefitted health and well-being, education, society and the economy.

In terms of health, for instance, it found that arts and culture intervention had a positive impact on conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s and depression.

In education, the review found that children from low-income families who took part in art activities at school were three times more likely to get a degree.

In the community, art and culture helped reduce social isolation and exclusion. But here’s the showstopper: culture makes money. In 2008, for example, Liverpool’s Capital of Culture generated a staggering £753.8 million.

Looking at the long-term gain of short-term investment is something that will be much on the minds of those behind the Cork Film Festival, which needs a €200,000 loan to keep its excellent show on the road. To put that figure into context, the festival is worth over €2.5m to Cork city.

The launch of last yers Cork Film Festival
The launch of last yers Cork Film Festival

Two days ago, Minister Humphreys said this: “I remain committed to working with all stakeholders in the arts and culture sector so that we can continue to build on the progress made and ensure the arts in this country continue to thrive.” What, exactly, does she mean by ‘continue to thrive’?

Has the Minister read what lecturer in Cultural Policy at UCD Emily Mark-FitzGerald has had to say about the forthcoming Irish Museums Survey?

Dr Mark-FitzGerald is compiling the final results of a survey, funded by the Irish Research Council, that looked at how eight years of budget cuts affected 100-plus museums around the country.

In her blog on artsmanagement.ie, she writes: “In 2015, 300,000 visited the Natural History Museum of Ireland (ah, the Dead Zoo! Beloved of generations everywhere, and annually in the top ten most visited free attractions in Ireland). It had no dedicated education staff, and only two curators (one of whom is the Director).

Here’s another less-than-thriving example: “40% of the budget of the National Museum of Ireland system has been slashed since 2008. Let that figure sink in.” The report also tells how our well-visited and much-loved museums have coped with cuts by turning the heating off, getting rid of staff and putting roof and flood-damage repairs on the long finger.

National Museum of Ireland
National Museum of Ireland

Yet, as Dr Mark-FitzGerald and many others have pointed out, those in power have been making a point of celebrating our rich cultural heritage, past and present, in this wondrous centenary year. No wonder people are annoyed. Hmmm, the Department of Red Rag is a name that might well stick.


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