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Sunday 20 August 2017

Tóibín likens Arts Council to North Korea in row over Aosdána funding

Angered by Arts Council: Writer Colm Tóibín Picture: Collins
Angered by Arts Council: Writer Colm Tóibín Picture: Collins

John Spain

Writer Colm Tóibín has likened the approach of the Arts Council to Stalin or North Korea in a furious row over the future of Aosdána.

The Arts Council has sent a lengthy Review Document to Aosdana, the body which supports Irish artists, demanding major changes in the way the organisation operates.  The proposed changes are so fundamental and drastic they have been likened to what would happen in North Korea by leading author and Aosdana member Colm Toibin. 

The changes would give the Arts Council a more direct involvement in the running of Aosdana, in the selection method for new members and in the way current members are financially supported, if at all. Up to now these functions have been carried out exclusively by Aosdana itself which is a self governing body.    

Aosdana was set up in 1981 by the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey at the suggestion of his cultural advisor Anthony Cronin.  It is limited to 250 artists.   Membership, which is for life, is by peer election among the existing members.  Many of the members claim the "cnuas", the annual tax-free stipend of €17,180 designed to allow artists to devote themselves full time to their art. 

This takes up almost all of the annual €2.7million funding Aosdana gets via the Arts Council.  It is because the Council holds the purse strings that it is in a position to now demand what it says are necessary changes aimed at making Aosdana more effective. 

One major point at issue is that the cnuas is paid for life, although payment is reviewed every five years and artists have to report their activity every year.  To continue getting the cnuas members have to show they have produced a "work of merit" within the previous five years.   

This has become a problem because of the high age profile of Aosdana members.  The Arts Council is proposing a tighter definition of what being an active artist is and it appears likely that some older, less productive members will be denied payment of the cnuas in the future.   The majority of Aosdana members are over 60 and a significant number are in their 70s and 80s. 

Recently the renowned painter Patrick Pye, who is 89, was refused a renewal of his cnuas despite producing evidence of continuing artistic activity.  His family have protested strongly to the Council and are making his case public. 

The Council is proposing a new definition for eligibility for the cnuas.   At present to get the cnuas one has to be a  "full-time practising artist."  The Arts Council has now decided that this definition will be changed to "working artists engaged in productive practice".  

The change may seem minor, but it puts the emphasis on artistic productivity.  The Arts Council has also decided that  sample audits will be undertaken annually to confirm the ‘productive practice’ aspect of the artists planned work as reported in cnuas applications and annual artistic activity reports. 

Among other changes to be introduced are the phasing out of the Aosdána pension scheme and the ending of the inclusion of Aosdána members in the Arts Council’s Employee VHI scheme.

The Arts Council also wants changes in the entry procedures for new members of Aosdána.    In the future this would involve an external panel comprising high profile national and international individuals nominated by both the Arts Council and Aosdana which would review the new member nominations. 

The Arts Council also said that Aosdana members of pensionable age should be encouraged to claim their full entitlements from the state.

In an angry six page letter to the Arts Council in response to the Review Document, Colm Toibin objects to the new definition of those eligible for the cnuas as "working artists engaged in productive practice."

 "The first problem with this, as I'm sure you will agree, is that the phrase ‘working artists engaged in productive practice’ sounds oddly North Korean, or is like a phrase that could have been used by Stalin about recalcitrant farmers in the Soviet Union." 

Toibin's letter goes on to point out that many artists go on working into their 80s, producing valuable work; he mentions Picasso as an example and various writers. 

Toibin is scathing about the Arts Council proposal that the cnuas would be suspended if an artist is "temporarily incapacitated due to ill-health."  He points out that W.B.Yeats was incapacitated at the end of his life with heart disease but that days before he died he wrote his poem Cuchulain Comforted, "one of the greatest poems in the English language."

He alos say that many artists have periods in which they produce very little, even though they continue to work.  "In the case of James Joyce, who ‘produced’ nothing between 1922 and 1939, what would you have done?" he asks the Arts Council. 

"I draw your attention to the fact that John McGahern published no novel between 1979 and 1990. I know, because I was in regular touch with him during some of those years, how much he struggled, but he ‘produced’ no novel.

"If he had been in receipt of a cnuas, would you really have sent ‘auditors’ down to Leitrim to do ‘a sample audit’ of what he was doing?"

The annual general meeting of Aosdana involving all the members takes place next Monday and is likely to be the most stormy gathering of its kind since the organisation was set up over 30 years ago.

Irish Independent

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