Monday 26 September 2016

Lip service and neglect - our official arts policy

Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30

Directors Lenny Abrahamson (third from left, front row) and Jim Sheridan (front centre) with James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board, and fellow actors and producers at the launch of the IFB’s 2016 schedule of productions. Abrahamson has taken to the national airwaves this week to argue for the importance of the arts for Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers
Directors Lenny Abrahamson (third from left, front row) and Jim Sheridan (front centre) with James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board, and fellow actors and producers at the launch of the IFB’s 2016 schedule of productions. Abrahamson has taken to the national airwaves this week to argue for the importance of the arts for Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers

When people around the world hear the word 'Ireland', what springs to mind? Chances are that the arts, culture and heritage - and well-known figures associated with them - dominate the list, because our creativity as a nation is one of our hallmarks.

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In literature, film, theatre, art, dance and music - in so many disciplines, we produce premier league artists who magnify Ireland's reputation and influence. And the benefits are tangible: their achievements help to generate revenue and jobs.

Quite rightly, we pride ourselves on being an imaginative people. Indeed, our politicians are quick to use it as a calling card. When gifts were required for Enda Kenny's visit to the White House on St Patrick's Day last year, hand-printed poetry books by WB Yeats were chosen. So it's surely a given that the arts ought to be stimulated and expanded. Any outlay repays dividends exponentially, not just in the economic sphere, but by enhancing our standing.

Our reputation for creativity and our cultural heritage are among the main reasons why tourists flock here. They spent €2.3bn last year, an income that's rising year on year according to the Central Statistics Office. The 2014 figures are €1.8bn. There is a spillover effect in the field of education, with Ireland's cultural reputation attracting overseas students.

The case for investment in the arts, heritage and culture is overwhelming - except in the sterile world of government where the arts continue to be downgraded.

It seems counter-intuitive that an argument must be made for the arts, yet that is the reality. Government after government persists in disrespecting the sector, paying lip service to its worth, but remaining impervious to the need for stimulants to guarantee its health and expansion.

The current administration is excelling itself in that short-sighted devaluation. Despite waving those books of poetry to cite his cultural credentials in US government circles, Enda has reduced the arts to a tacked-on afterthought within a jam-packed portfolio.

Ireland needs a dedicated arts department to ensure funding and growth for the sector, and a minister whose primary brief is to champion the arts. What we have is a minister given the arts as a postscript.

Heather Humphreys now finds herself Minister for Regional Affairs, Rural Development, Arts and the Gaeltacht, where once she had responsibility for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Note the unacceptable elimination of heritage.

An opportunity to appoint a junior minister with responsibility for the arts was overlooked, despite extra juniors being allotted - another signal from Enda that the arts are largely irrelevant to him. Except when he wants to strut a little before American presidents and vice-presidents.

This is Enda's decision, not the minister's: Heather Humphreys hasn't shaped the department's functions, nor tried to ram two portfolios into one. I presume she will do her best for the arts - during a Twitter exchange this week she told 'Room' director Lenny Abrahamson that she would press the case at the Cabinet table.

Realistically, however, there is no other way to read this rejigged brief than as an erosion of arts and heritage. Consider, too, the context: it happens even while culture is used to showcase Ireland in the US via the Ireland 100 three-week arts festival.

At the opening gala in Washington, Enda quoted John F Kennedy, saying: "I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilisation than full recognition of the artist." The disconnect between the Taoiseach's words and deeds is breathtaking.

And how ironic that this undervaluation of the arts should happen during the centenary year, when the Rising is celebrated as a cultural as well as a political phenomenon.

The Celtic Revival helped Irish people to reclaim their identity from the empire in the years preceding the Rising, with writers - including poets - numbering among the signatories of the Proclamation.

This dwindling support for the arts on the part of government has not been lost on the arts community. Nor has the absence of a national cultural policy, or anything approaching a long-term vision.

The fact that Abrahamson had to take to the airwaves and social media this week to argue the importance of the arts serves as an indictment of our political class.

The film-maker advanced the case eloquently that investment leads to net gain. And while he acknowledges that people can create art without government subsidies, he says State investment can stimulate further positive outcomes.

Regrettably, for all our emphasis on Ireland as a creative nation, we have one of the lowest levels of public support in the EU. The average EU funding for arts and culture is 0.6pc of GDP, and it would make sense to align Irish spending to that point.

While there is a financial reason to invest in the arts, there is also an ethical one - the arts feed our souls. A society without the arts is an arid place. Locally, they help communities to fuse. Nationally, they foster a sense of identity and self-worth. Internationally, Irish culture feeds into soft power and gives rise to influence.

In addition, culture is a useful bridge-builder. The arts are a way of developing common ground with communities in the North and Britain.

One example is 'Compass Lines', a cross-border initiative currently under way at the Irish Writers Centre (IWC), where writers from both parts of the island are paired up to collaborate on new work exploring notions of place and identity. (I'm a volunteer on the IWC board.)

"There are ways of defining and redefining our identity through artistic expression," says IWC director Valerie Bistany.

"This year, we have seen artists across all disciplines really make their mark as the centenary has been celebrated peacefully and creatively."

That's something to be proud of, and to encourage. Instead, our new Government seems to be intent on devaluing a valuable asset. Artists are left feeling as though they carry a begging bowl when they ask for support.

It's time political leaders recognised that arts funding is not a donation, a hand-out or a freebie, but an investment in a vibrant sector of the State.

Irish Independent

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