Arts funding should never be given the agenda of projecting a positive image of its country of origin, writes Victoria White.
If you’re telling me we’re in for another five years of women in big hats and boys on messenger bikes, a la the 1916 centenary celebrations, I’ll have to emigrate. Creative Ireland, launched last week with much fanfare by the Taoiseach, is a plan for arts and culture to form a centre-point of our discussions and celebrations of the foundation of the State in the next five years, to 2022.
I’m cool with that. As the Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys and the Taoiseach have mentioned, arts and culture were among the main springboards for Irish independence and their centrality to our existence needs to be recognised.
But how? Are we looking at a five-year marketing campaign for this great little country of ours or a serious attempt to redress the appallingly low level of funding for the arts in Ireland?
The part of the programme so far announced which makes me feel very sick is “Pillar Five: Unifying our Global Reputation.” One of the stated aims of Creative Ireland is to “brand” Ireland as a creative place.
Ireland, it laments, doesn’t have a “unified identity”. We need to learn from the “nation-branding” experience of New Zealand and get ourselves a “cohesive national narrative based on an authentic representation of Irish culture and Irish creativity, representing Ireland as a great place to live, invest, visit, study and flourish.” Help. Marketing is not the business of art at all. Not good art, anyway. Marketing Ireland is the business of Fáilte Ireland, the IDA and other agencies. It is true that investment in Irish film and television projects the image of Ireland into the world which creates a back-wash of interest in the country. Creative Ireland has specifically recognised this in one of its “Pillars”, the aim to make Ireland a global centre for film and media production.
But arts funding should never be given the agenda of projecting a positive image of its country of origin. The only way this could be achieved is by controlling what gets created. It does not reassure that this control will not be exercised, that the last government, led by Enda Kenny, exterminated Culture Ireland, which had been established in 2005 to promote Irish art abroad.
With its externally recruited chief executive and its €5m-odd in annual funding, it promoted Irish art based on its merit, not its potential for marketing Ireland, and counted among its successes the “Imagining Ireland” programme in the US in 2011. A year later it fell to a sudden outbreak of “quangocide” and now exists only as a civil service-led advisory committee within the Department of the Arts.
The “arm’s length” principle, by which support for the arts is free of political patronage is as important as a free press. To understand the importance of this you only have to ask yourself what Patrick Pearse’s cultural expression would have looked like if it had played to the agenda of the British government.
The Arts Council was established in 1961 to make a strategy for the arts and disburse funding in accordance with the “arm’s length” principle. What has happened since the financial crash is that the Arts Council has been eviscerated. It would be much easier to take lofty words from the Taoiseach about “unlocking the huge potential of our people in the creative industries” if the last government, which he led, had not taken a slash hook to the council’s budget.
The figures supplied to me by the council are quite staggering. The budget in 2010 was €68.65m. Every year until 2014 it reduced in steps and stairs until it stood at €56.86m. From that grim point there have been small improvements until the 2017 Budget when there was a €5m step up to €65.1m, which is still far short of its funding’s highest point and still short of the 2010 figure by some €3.5m.
Not surprisingly, the council seems to have lost its mojo. A spokesman told me it could not lobby for more funding as it was “on the same side” as the Department of the Arts.
In the past the Arts Council expressed its need for funding clearly by way of sophisticated plans. Today the sophisticated planning seems to be going on in the Department of the Taoiseach and the lobbying has devolved to the National Campaign for the Arts which was set up in response to the Colm McCarthy cost reduction plan in 2009.
I have not been given a funding figure for Creative Ireland’s five year programme but €5m has been mentioned for 2017. Government funding for the 2016 Centenary Programme was €30.8m. The music critic Michael Dervan has made the point that even if this funding had been added to the Arts Council budget, Ireland would have the lowest level of support for the arts in the EU.
But it wasn’t, of course. The money was awarded by Government following its own agenda, which included thousands of women in big hats and hundreds of boys on messenger bikes. That wouldn’t stick in my craw so much if the first act in remembering 1916 hadn’t been to restore Arts Council funding in full and then some. But we’re still not there, for all the noise about the “centrality” of arts and culture.
The Taoiseach, who will chair the Creative Ireland committee, doesn’t know a lot about the arts. I had this from his own mouth in the early 1990s when he was Fine Gael spokesperson on the arts and I was working as an arts journalist. I asked him if he had a strong interest in the arts and he said he didn’t. We’ve both had a lot of time to learn new things in the long interim and I wouldn’t take his honesty from him. But if you’re telling me it’s art that makes the Taoiseach’s pulse quicken I’d have to disagree.
There are some fantastic initiatives among Creative Ireland’s “pillars”. I hope the guarantee of music, art, drama and coding education for every child from next September holds true.
Funding for local authorities to produce plans to promote local arts and culture can’t be bad. And perhaps the most significant announcement of all is the intention to work with the Department of Social Protection to recognise the unpaid work of artists and support it with a form of basic income. My first published article argued this very case way back in 1989.
Artists, arts organisations and the Arts Council have pushed for similar measures for decades but only Government can deliver them. Maybe now it will. What it can’t deliver, however, is authentic artistic expression. If it doesn’t start with artists, Creative Ireland will be an abuse of art.
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