GUEST COLUMNIST: A portrait of the artist as childish, reckless and dangerously subversive

ARTISTS cannot be trusted. They are politically subversive, financially illiterate, and their management skills are commensurate with their chaotic lives.

Not disliked per se, but distrusted and undependable, artists are like unruly children. They are seldom recognised as adults by a society that cannot understand, and never forgives, their repeated exposure of our banality.

Living banally in safe crevices, people, and politicians and bureaucrats, fantasise through artists’ escapades and genius about that which their own mediocrity and timidity safely barricades them from. The artist, like direct sunlight, is the insight we cannot look in the eye. Attracted and appalled, we celebrate with loose change the achievements of people we clap and cheer, but ultimately fear. The furore in Limerick is a symptom, but only that, of a profound dysfunction in attitudes towards artists. Limerick is not a local row; it is a national scandal.

Limerick as national City of Culture is a policy centrepiece of the Arts Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, and the Department of the Arts. They arranged it so that artists were almost absent from the board. The board acted through a CEO, and only at the end of the chain of command was there an artistic collaboration. Big decisions, money, and transparent appointment processes were judged to be areas for which artists and arts administrators were unfit, and, in any event, they were unwanted. No, the heavy-lifting, the serious stuff, could not be left to them, and so the suits were called in.

Artists may work miracles of management by producing provocative works of art in organisations held together with shoestrings. Their work may, at its finest, create epiphanies through which we finally see ourselves and our condition. Most moving, for me, is neither the ingenuity nor the genius of artists. Instead, it is their perseverance in the face of failure, living for moments of occasional triumph. Life, for most Irish artists, is one of little reward. Fame and gold are rare indeed.

If the story of all power in Ireland is largely one of insecurity and inadequacy, power in the Irish arts is a toxic combination of both. At its centre are an arts department and minister bureaucratically predatory and institutionally bullying. Limerick is not a once-off. It is the latest in a long line.

The haste and haphazardness we see are not the impatience of greatness, they are the insecurity of mediocrity. The flawed structures, and impossibly short timelines unravelling in Limerick, are an example of an institutional outlook that is now normal.

The political impetus to get projects going and harvest a reward now, at the expense of a legacy, is married to a bureaucratic agenda of control for its own sake. Imagine Ireland, an apparently successful initiative to showcase Irish art in the US in 2011, was fatally undermined before it concluded. The remit of Culture Ireland, the thitherto autonomous body sponsoring it, would, Jimmy Deenihan announced that autumn, be merged into his department. When the term of its then CEO expired, and in eerie anticipation of the rumpus last weekend in Limerick, the post was not externally advertised. It was filled internally. Expertise and credibility were lost. More importantly, so too was the legacy that should have been garnered from the €4m invested in Imagine Ireland. With Imagine Ireland, when the show was over, the circus left town and the agenda moved on.

Dublin Contemporary, in September and October 2011, was another showcase initiative, this time of visual art, sponsored by the department.

If Imagine Ireland was at least a success when in progress, Dublin Contemporary was not. Project leadership was changed, sentiment in the visual arts community was alienated. It was not a critical success, either, and it gained little popular traction. Crucially, a long-awaited report on the project remains unpublished. An estimated €2m was spent, no account has been given, and little that is apparent is left as a legacy.

The lack of transparency around how Limerick was chosen as City of Culture, and the structural failings, are part of a deeper malaise. If the normal channel to access arts funding is the Arts Council or Culture Ireland, significant funds are disbursed directly by the minister. Parliamentary questions, last year, revealed an astonishing opaqueness about the criteria and processes by which this money is disbursed. Simple materials, like an application form or detailed criteria, are apparently unavailable under many funding headings. There is little or no outside expertise involved in decision-making.

There is certainly no appeals process, if an application is unsuccessful, and the amount involved in 2012 exceeded €8m. Working out, from information in the public domain, how to access many of these funds is nigh impossible.

The agenda of control — of funds, of patronage and, critically, of information — by the Department, underpins a creeping, but deeply determined, bureaucratic agenda to extend reach over previously independent agencies.

Culture Ireland’s autonomy is already culled. Now, controversially, this agenda includes plans to abolish the independent boards of the National Museum and Library and bring these independent institutions under the direct control of the minister and the Department.

ORIGINALLY posited on the basis of savings, no cost-benefit analysis was ever commissioned. That argument has anyway been abandoned behind unbelievable blather about undefined synergies. Against opposition across the arts and academia, a concerted control agenda is being implemented.

Having no idea what its own, overarching policy role for the arts might be, an intellectually illiterate agenda, which fails to understand that art is about opening up horizons not controlling organisations, is substituted. Married to a lack of any cogent policy is the absence of the necessary restraint that should always underpin power, especially state power in the arts.

Deenihan is the seventh, though not the first, undistinguished Minister for the Arts. He inherited from the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government the original proposal to abolish the independent boards of the National Museum and Library. The mess in the making that became Dublin Contemporary was well-advanced before his appointment.

Deenihan’s own contribution has been to accentuate an agenda perhaps entrenched before he arrived. Opinion polls show he is the minister of whom the public have the least knowledge or opinion. He has failed to initiate, either with that public or among his colleagues in government, a convincing conversation around the arts and why they truly matter.

He is a policy-taker, not a policy-maker. He is a passenger in a policy direction that is not just condescending, but corrosive of the arts. The Department implementing that policy is now distrusted and disregarded by large swathes of the arts community it was established to enable.


Making the most of Irish strawberries - Michelle Darmody shares her recipes

Making Cents: Help protect the planet and occupy the kids

Review: Game of Thrones, Series Finale

Time for a red revolution: Breaking the cycle of unsustainable feminine hygiene products

More From The Irish Examiner