News Analysis

Saturday 30 August 2014

Arts Council must look beyond crowd-pleasers

In times of financial crisis, it may be that only good art should be supported.

Emer O'Kelly

Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30

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Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre

THE Arts Council is about to undertake a consultation process which will be carried out by a 12-member expert group independently chaired by Terence O'Rourke, the chair of Enterprise Ireland. The group's remit will be to report on a way forward for both the council and the arts themselves in the "current financial climate". That climate has provided a total of €57m for all of the arts nationwide this year. Rehab's funding was almost twice that.

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"Breadth and balance" has been a self-declared strategy of the way the council spends taxpayers' money. It may be interpreted either as the more populist forms and institutions deserving the larger slice of the cake; others may think the lion's share would be better spent on programmes, institutions and people of recognised artistic achievement and reputation.

Inevitably, the issue of accountability must also arise. A balance must be struck: the council has a right to demand, and should demand, on behalf of the taxpayer a copy of full audited annual accounts; without them, there is a case for all funding to be withdrawn. Equally, freedom of artistic choice should not involve the council being "prescriptive" in anything other than actual standard of work.

The Arts Council funds 230 organisations on a "recurring" annual basis (although almost all have seen a massive reduction in recent years). Eighty per cent of the council's total grant from Government goes to those organisations, with another 12 per cent going on other grants and awards.

If a breakdown is looked at just in the performing arts, as an example, Wexford Festival Opera received €1.4m this year (almost the only organisation with an increase ... from €1.3m last year). The Abbey Theatre received €6.5m, down from €7.1m last year. The Gate received €908,000, a cut of €68,000 on the previous year.

That's nearly €9m of a total budget of €57m going to three performing organisations out of a total of 230. The percentage explains in part why tensions have always existed to one degree or another between the council and all three organisations; they gobble a lot of the available monies. And small companies going to the wall when funding is withdrawn, as well as individual artists struggling with finances, are permanently snapping at the council's heels demanding what they see as "better balance".

The Abbey, as our national theatre, underwent a review recently in co-operation with the Arts Council as to its performance standards in relation to being "world class". The incomplete results, when revealed under FoI, in fact gave the company a very good rating. The review is not dealing with the rest of the national theatre's remit, which includes the commission of new writing; a new playwrights' programme; the duty of giving Irish audiences some international work; master classes and workshopping; the mentoring and development of young directors; and also the provision of a national theatre archive, and the performance of the national repertoire. In other words, the duties of any national theatre.

Fiach Mac Conghail's salary for developing and overseeing all of these areas is just over €107,000, which is frozen. (He took an 11 per cent cut in 2011.) The Abbey also contributes almost €13,000 annually to his pension fund. Mac Conghail is also one of the Taoiseach's appointees to the Seanad. He does not take that salary, but pays the tax on it, contributing the remainder to arts organisations.

David Agler, as artistic director of Wexford Festival Opera, holds a part-time post. He also has an eminent international conducting career, and carries the brief for Wexford wherever he goes, an "added value" benefit for Ireland and the festival. Last Monday in London at the International Opera Awards, (the 'Operas', which are the Oscars of opera) Wexford was nominated in four categories, taking the Opera for the "best rediscovered work" with last year's production of Foroni's Cristina, Regina di Svezia. That's a record of very good value for the taxpayers' money in reputational terms alone.

The Gate Theatre is a commercial theatre, with no requirement for mentoring of talent or to stage innovative, uncommercial work. Its choice of plays is aimed at, and usually satisfies, well-heeled middle-class audiences with conservative tastes and frequently a dislike of art that is "disturbing". Mysteriously, it seems not to be criticised by the Arts Council for its lack of daring in its use of nearly a million of taxpayers' money.

Certainly the Gate can point to extraordinary achievements with its Pinter and Beckett Festivals, but they were a long time ago. Yet the Gate artistic director Michael Colgan received almost a quarter of his company's Arts Council subvention as salary in 2012: his board decided on €120,000 as basic salary, with a "touring bonus" of €50,000 (one production at the Edinburgh Festival, and Krapp's Last Tape revived in Los Angeles for one month). In addition, there was a pension contribution of €69,000: a total of €230,000 for the year. That is almost double what the Abbey director receives.

Good art is supposed to be uncomfortable and provocative as well as beautiful and pleasing; it is also supposed to be technically excellent. And it is for the Arts Council, charged with the furtherance of the arts, to ensure that the taxpayer supports such work ... in times of financial crisis this may mean supporting only such work. Not for the sake of its disturbance value; but in realisation that the comfortable and instantly popular has an easy audience and can by definition look after itself financially. Just as community and voluntary art is entirely sociologically worthwhile and necessary, but belongs in the arena of education and social service. It should not be a drain on the scarce resources available for supporting and encouraging those who live by making art.

So in instigating a consultation process for the arts in the context of five propositions which include staying with the current model of funding, the Arts Council is asking if its future should be as an advocacy and developmental agency rather than having the current structure in which 92 per cent of its subvention goes to grants and awards.

In a country where the majority of professional artists across all art forms do not even earn enough to pay tax (and therefore do not benefit from the much-vaunted artists' tax-free status), grants and awards are the lifeblood of art. Without pre-empting the results of the consultation process, realising this is essential. And if art is to survive, progress, and soar (which is what it is supposed to be about), the focus, sadly, will have to become even more narrow, with tough decisions being made whatever the complaints. It is the council's job to explain and market the genuine accessibility of soaring work, rather than allowing it to be parked with a shrug that says "elitist".

That is what value for money in art is about.

Sunday Independent

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