GERARD HOWLIN: There should be no impulse by State to suffocate artistic freedom

ARTS Minister Heather Humphreys is reputationally dead-on-arrival. Her demise is less about dastardly deeds than the damning belief she was led by the nose. That impression was confirmed by her near incoherence when questioned by the media and her refusal to answer questions since. There is nothing so debilitating for a minister as a fool’s pardon.

The prior appointment of Fine Gael Seanad candidate John McNulty, to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) to bolster his candidature on the cultural panel, speaks volumes about unreformed politics. Less has been said about what is means for our arts policy; ultimately that is as important. Contempt is at the core of all this. Just as the lack of intent to reform politics is obvious, so too is the deep disregard for Irish culture and artists by the State. If Humphreys first showcased that disregard for McNulty, it was starkly underlined again yesterday. Except then, there was no carelessness — only calculation — and the minister had no excuse. She may have been blindsided over McNulty, but she is fully responsible for the general scheme of legislation to establish the National Concert Hall on a statutory basis.

This is the first full, considered policy initiative from this minister. A general scheme for a bill results from lengthy consideration, including consideration by government. If McNulty is an unintended consequence, the attitude to the arts which he is a poster boy for is thought through. It pervaded the draft legislation presented on the minster’s behalf by officials, to the joint committee on the environment, culture, and the Gaeltacht yesterday afternoon.

Enda Kenny’s passing-over of qualified women in favour of the now-withdrawn McNulty to replace Deirdre Clune in the Seanad is a prominent part of this story. Disregard for gender equality recurs outrageously in the National Concert Hall legislation.

There have been two major pieces of arts legislation since 1997. Then, the National Cultural Institutions Act was drafted by Minister Michael D Higgins. In 2003 the Arts Act was passed, overhauling the legislative basis of the Arts Council. The first act regarding the National Museum and Library, the second for the Arts Council, provided for strict gender equality. In a row back, this legislation merely requires the minister “endeavour” “to the greatest extent practicable” achieve an “equal balance between men and women” on the Concert Hall board. The legislative meaning of “the greatest extent practicable” is precisely nothing. The most insidious element of the proposed legislation is the extraordinary control over the business of the National Concert Hall it places in the minister’s hands. The recent unhappy history, is the extant proposal to abolish the independent boards of the National Library and Museum and merge their governance into the arts department.

That smash and grab was a proposal inherited by Humphrey’s predecessor Jimmy Deenihan from the Fianna Fáil–Green government. Whether from principle or pragmatism, they backtracked in opposition, but Deenihan ploughed on. Long before the shambles around Limerick City of Culture emerged, his plans for the National Cultural Institutions cost his credibility dearly. Disturbingly it knitted with the subsequent Limerick debacle. Both were based on a premise that the department should suffer the ignominy of outside independence or oversight as little as possible. No need then for independent boards for national culture institutions, no need for consultation or criteria on how our first-ever national City of Culture was chosen.

In a department with no national arts policy — a press statement about initiating one was issued by Deenihan on the eve of the reshuffle that shuffled him out — there is an unsated appetite for control. It is founded on a lack of respect and a lack of understanding of the arts, institutionalised in a department where successive ministers have either bought into or been suborned by it. The lack of vision retells the Irish relationship with power, in parables of insecurity and mediocrity. Because art ultimately cannot be controlled, the urge to do so is intensified all the more. We can’t do policy; but we do police! Control, the purpose of abolishing the boards of the National Museum and Library, is through the National Concert Hall legislation pursued insidiously by other means. The pantomime like give-away is the repeated assertion, that the sweeping powers conferred on the minister exclude “functions relating to cultural and curatorial matters”. This is supposedly a central pillar of arts policy. Neither Government nor its civil servants should arbitrate culture or taste. In a society with sufficient oxygen to breathe, there should be no impulse by power to suffocate artistic freedom. That basic principle is subverted, however, in meticulous detail by a series of unprecedented requirements for the National Concert Hall to answer to the minister via its strategy and business plan. All public institutions must properly account for public money. By hog-tying the administrative and financial freedom of the National Concert Hall, its director and board are caught in the department’s grip by the short follicles’.

What is independence if the institution must report to the minister “in its annual report” but more insidiously “in such other manner and at such intervals at the Minister may direct” and amend its position as required? These powers are so broadly worded in the text they effectively neuter the independence of the institution.

This level of administrative control was considered unnecessary in previous legislation. The option to continue in this bill the formula used previously, which provided for both effective accountability and independence, was ignored. It was ignored for a purpose, and that purpose is to exercise effective control. No director of a national cultural institution, so closely controlled administratively, has real artistic or curatorial independence worthy of the name. Neither will we the public have effective oversight. Unprecedentedly in cultural legislation, any draft plan or strategy is exempt from FoI for five years. The poison pill in the bill is not only that the minister can ostensibly alter any plan, but that a board or director will be effectively inhibited from bringing forward one, not destined to meet with ministerial or departmental approval. This bill is designed to ensure that they won’t dare and we won’t know.

The minister is entitled to propose taking total charge of our national cultural institutions, but she should make her case in day light. Instead she pleads one course, while embarking on a diametrically opposite one.

This bill if enacted, will become the new template for governance, and control, of all our national cultural institutions. McNulty’s Seanad candidacy is a symptom — and now that McNulty has withdrawn his name from the Seanad race, Humphreys should withdraw her flawed bill. The substance is an ingrained resentment of independent institutions and a deep seated condescension and contempt for the arts.

This bill if enacted, will become the new template for of our national cultural institutions


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