Given the financial problems caused to theatre by the pandemic, it is generally acknowledged globally that the industry could suffer a fatal wound unless there are significant moves by governments to further support it. Even the normally robust and self-sufficient commercial sector is on its knees. The entire eco-system for performing art is under threat.
Ireland, despite its small size and colonised history, has led the way in this area. The Abbey Theatre was the first state-subsidised theatre in the English speaking world when it received an £850 subvention in 1925, rising to £1,000 the following year. This was a bold move by the fledgling Free State administration. Some powerful members of the Executive Council, including Minister for Education Eoin MacNeill and Minister for External Affairs Desmond FitzGerald, were keen Abbey patrons; WB Yeats winning the Nobel prize in 1922 would have underpinned government confidence in the importance of the aesthetic in nation-building. But the position of theatre-enthusiast (and later Abbey managing director) Ernest Blythe as Minister for Finance was crucial.
The National Theatre grant had incalculable advantages, including funding the establishment of the smaller, experimental Peacock stage, which opened in 1927. The money relieved the Abbey, somewhat, of its dependence on box-office, but also on philanthropy. This dependence had caused serious problems in its early years as the directors steered diplomatically around patron Annie Horniman's royalist sympathies. Horniman was much aggrieved when the Abbey didn't close as a mark of respect on the death of King Edward VII in 1910; the letter seeking instructions about the matter from the theatre's manager Lennox Robinson arrived too late to Lady Gregory in Gort, Co Galway, because the telegram boy stopped off to round up some stray cows; Horniman, affronted, withdrew her subsidy.
This state investment in theatre has had an incalculable payout in the Abbey's role in developing Irish writing, acting and technical talent. And these talents feed out into other art forms like film and television.
The Gate Theatre received its first subvention in 1970, including a £68,000 grant for refurbishment of the building and a £30,000 annual subsidy. Gate supporters including playwright/activist Sybil Le Brocquy and Terence de Vere White, lawyer and literary editor of The Irish Times, brought a charm offensive to bear on Taoiseach Jack Lynch and also on Charles Haughey, then Minister for Finance. Haughey was always a staunch supporter of state subsidy for art and artists.
This continuing state investment has paid off well over the decades since, with the Gate providing a home for talents like Brian Friel and Conor McPherson; popular Christmas shows at the Gate have been many people's first experience of theatre. Its new era, with a more tuned-in contemporary vision under director Selina Cartmell, was just getting into its stride.
The personal inclinations of government members played a major role in taking these bold historic steps. In each case, the Minister for Finance, the man with the money, was a theatre and/or arts enthusiast. The Irish government has had a specific Minister for Arts, or minister that includes arts in their brief, since 1993. The €25m additional Covid support for the arts in 2020 announced by the outgoing executive was a welcome stopgap, but it was the least that can be expected, and a tiny scrap in the context of the billions being flung at the pandemic. It remains to be seen if Micheál Martin's new government will have the creative vision of either the WT Cosgrave Free State administration in the 1920s, or the Jack Lynch cabinet in 1969. Catherine Martin of the Green Party is the new Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, a department with a lot of sub-sections. However, it doesn't matter that the brief is broad, if the vision is deep; the stage is hers.