Sunday 18 March 2018

Paying lip service to art for art's sake

A grilling at the hands of concerned organisations saw the political parties say all the right things, writes Hilary A White

A woman walks apologetically down the long queue outside the Project Arts Centre in Dublin's Temple Bar. She explains to the hundred or so people standing in the Monday morning cool that there is simply no room and regretfully she must turn them away.

Those who made it past the door last week and into the large upstairs theatre space had secured a seat at a meeting of the arts community and those political hopefuls who will seek to form the next government. Organised by the vocal and proactive National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA), the hustings was one of four such meetings held around the country that day. The idea was for the five parties to outline their commitment to the arts and field questions and concerns from a community that is understandably concerned about what the impending years of austerity will mean for them.

The NCFA's message is simple -- the arts not only enrich our lives, they promote tourism and economic growth and strengthen our reputation overseas. We need it to function and propagate more than ever now.

In attendance were Mary Hanafin (Fianna Fail); Jimmy Deenihan (Fine Gael); Alex White (Labour, standing in for Ruari Quinn); Aengus O Snodaigh (Sinn Fein); and Paul Gogarty (Green Party). After each gave charm-laden outlines of their manifestos by way of introduction, the first issue to the panel was raised by broadcaster and chairman Myles Dungan. "Will your party keep the arts as a full ministerial portfolio at the cabinet table?" he asked each representative.

This was followed by four firm "yeses" and a "certainly" before the audience responded with applause and relieved laughter. Another topic on everybody's lips was that of funding, which has seen a 24 per cent reduction since 2008. The consensus was that the parties would of course strive to maintain current levels (which stand at €65m per annum for the Arts Council and €18.4m for the Irish Film Board).

Mr O Snodaigh said preferably the aim would be to increase it, while Mr Gogarty said that while no promises could be made, the Greens would aim to keep current levels of expenditure.

While elaborating on the subject, Mr White had to temporarily put aside the reassuring tone that had prevailed so far. "We can sit up here and say yes to these questions but we have to be conscious of the fact that there's a limitation to the resources that are available, and if we clobber the economy even further in the next three budgets, as some of the parties are proposing, that will inevitably mean that the money that people are in good faith pledging to you simply won't be there."

Ms Hanafin brought her experience to bear on the proceedings, keen to emphasise Fianna Fail's admittedly good track record with its handling of the arts under trying economic circumstances. She explained about Screen Ireland, a new development agency for the audio visual industry that she had touted to "bring together the work of the Irish Film Board, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland in relation to film and media", but that she never got the opportunity to publish the strategy report "because somebody pulled the plug on the Government".

Discussions followed about a new home for the Abbey Theatre and the future of the National Concert Hall before prominent spokespersons from arts organisations were given a chance to pose questions.

This was momentarily interrupted by independent candidate Mannix Flynn, who stridently left the auditorium, calling the panel "self-serving" and the meeting in general "the dullest thing I've ever been to". Wexford Opera chairman Peter Scallon spoke about a need to invest in the fit-for-purpose but underfunded or unused buildings around the country. In response, Mr Deenihan outlined his proposal to use an existing Nama building, possibly the Anglo Irish Bank on Stephen's Green, to develop a "centre of literary excellence" to coincide with Dublin's recent Unesco City of Literature status.

"A chamber of horrors," quipped Dungan. "This would be after the exorcism, I presume?"

Speaking after the event, NCFA Secretary Tania Banotti was pleased that this election was engaging with the arts on a serious level. "Everyone has a section on the arts and culture in their manifesto -- that wasn't the case at the last election," she explained.

The next step, she said, will be to utilise this profile to liaise with the next cabinet.

Sunday Independent

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