Tuesday 27 September 2016

Multi-tasking minister at art of the matter

Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30

Minister Heather Humphreys is now responsible for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, the Gaeltacht and the Arts Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Minister Heather Humphreys is now responsible for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, the Gaeltacht and the Arts Photo: Kyran O'Brien

There's been a good deal of mud-slinging, name-calling and general uproar in the arts community of late.

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Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson dissed Enda, 'Game of Thrones' star Liam Cunningham slagged off Heather, and actor/writer/director Mark O'Halloran claimed that the Irish arts were "doomed" with the current Government in situ.

What on earth can have caused this uproar? It seems that there were several straws that have broken the arts community's back.

Let's begin with Enda Kenny's ham-fisted and clichéd rhetoric about the importance of the arts while on his recent whistle-stop tour of Washington.

With his chest puffed out, the Taoiseach reiterated JFK's opinion that he saw "little of more importance to the future of civilisation than full recognition of the artist".

Oh Enda, did you really think anyone would fall for that old guff? For artists who have had to deal with the reality of decimated arts funding, Enda's words were particularly galling.

"He borrows the lustre and sheen of the arts," award-winning theatre producer Anne Clarke said, "while failing to invest money in the arts. It's unbelievably frustrating - not to mention exploitative."

Michael Colgan of the Gate Theatre agreed.

"It's sickening," he said, flatly. "Whenever Obama or Clinton or whoever comes over, we're rolled out and asked to perform. And then the funding is reduced."

On top of this, Heather Humphreys was appointed head of a "Frankenstein Department" that will combine Regional Development, Rural Affairs and the Gaeltacht. Oh yes - and the Arts.

The word 'culture' has been ditched altogether.

For many, this has huge symbolic implications - indicating a serious demotion of the role of the arts.

It also seems utterly bizarre that, after the plethora of 1916 centenary celebrations - when the Government never stopped talking about our unique cultural heritage - the word should be dropped like a sack of spuds.

Finally, we come to the subject of cold, hard cash - or, rather, the lack thereof.

Like the rest of the country, artists have struggled through the recession and want to see some monetary evidence of the fabled recovery Enda keeps banging on about.

So far, there's been very little of that.

Ireland remains well at the bottom of the European league for government investment in culture and the arts.

In 2012, Ireland spent just 0.11pc of GDP on the arts and culture, compared to a European average of 0.6pc of GDP.

The general feeling seems to be that Enda only wants to keep using the arts as a convenient soundbite and photo opportunity on his trips abroad.

"Words are cheap, it's actions that speak," Anne Clarke says. "And artists will leave Ireland if the arts aren't invested in."

This would be a blow, given how much we like to peddle our "creative minds" as Ireland's unique gift to the world.

We've already lost our pole position in the Eurovision - the arts could be the next to go.

A lump sum of €60m is earmarked for the arts this year. That may sound like a lot, but in reality it has to stretch a long, long way.

The Abbey gets €5.8m; some €1.4m goes towards touring productions; €2.6m is distributed to various literary, theatre, and film festivals around the country.

Aosdána - aka the Luvvies Parliament - costs €2.6m. Some would say this money is badly spent; others disagree.

"We are a lean sector," Willie White of the Dublin Theatre Festival says. "The primary problem is not the allocation of funding; it's the amount of funding itself."

But it's not just a case of "give us more dosh" - politicians' basic attitude towards art and culture in general may need to change.

The successive governments' lack of understanding of the arts was typified in the nineties and noughties, when a rake of arts centres were thrown up around the country.

TDs elbowed to get a picture of themselves cutting ribbons in their local papers.

Having arts centres available to communities around the country may be a good thing, but little if any thinking went into the long-term creative infrastructure for these sites.

In other words, money was invested in the hardware but not the software of the arts.

Today, many of these arts centres act as shells for touring shows, rather than pulsating centres of local creativity.

"Politicians like bricks and mortar, and opening buildings," said Willie White.

"The arts, such as theatre, are by their nature transient.

"Throwing money or a building up is not the solution - it's more complicated. We need a financial and a conceptual shift. We need people with vision and creativity."

Unfortunately, those are traits politicians in Ireland aren't exactly known for.

There may be another reason why there can seem to be a lack of sympathy for people working in the arts - the perceived pretension.

Spending public money on theatre and dance may seem like an indulgence, and it can be hard to believe that it's an investment that works to everyone's benefit.

Especially when there are issues like hospital waiting lists, the homeless crisis and failing broadband all across the front pages.

The arts can, and often do, get bumped down to the bottom of the list of priorities.

"But it's not comparable," Michael Colgan said. "The arts are not a problem. They are also not a luxury. It's an investment.

"TDs seem to think the funding is some sort of gift they are bestowing on us, that we should be eternally grateful for this money.

"It's like going round to someone's house for a dinner party and expecting them to endlessly thank you for the one bottle of wine you brought.

"You're getting a greater return. The money is coming back into the economy."

In fact, for every €1 invested by the Arts Council, more than €0.70 returns directly to the exchequer in taxes.

"For a net cost of 30 cents, Arts Council investment generates €2.50 in turnover," Eugene Downes from the National Campaign for the Arts explains. "That's more than an eight-fold return on investment."

Perhaps the tide is turning, and perhaps the publication of Culture 2025 - the first cultural policy in the history of the State - will provide more assurance for the arts community.

"There has been constant shuffling and shifting, we need joined-up thinking and a long-term strategy," Eugene Downes says.

Most of all we need a government that listens to the creative community, and a Taoiseach who knows his arts from his elbow.

Irish Independent

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