Thursday 17 October 2019

Emer O'Kelly: Artists are now starved of any affection

Grants are focused on how works will play to the masses, leaving many of our talents penniless, writes Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly

NOT too many people in Ireland have heard of the Ciste Colmcille. It is a tiny, seldom-used fund available within the Arts Council to assist artists in dire need.

There has only been one application for its benefits in the past two years. I know of only three artists who have ever received funds from it -- in two cases because I know the artists in question, and in the third because, as a member of the Arts Council, it was my unpleasant, embarrassing duty to sit on the tiny sub-committee of three to adjudicate on the degree of urgency and need in a particular claim.

All three cases involved people who are household names to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a play or film. It was horrible to have to interrogate the paperwork supplied by a revered figure in need of urgent major surgery.

But at least the three artists in question were aware of the Ciste's existence -- because they are familiar with the intricacies of arts bureaucracy in Ireland.

Others are not so lucky, because the Arts Council waits for artists to approach it: there is no culture in its headquarters of reaching out to individual artists.

I remember another occasion, even more harrowing, when I chaired an Arts Council panel deciding on the distribution of bursaries to writers who had applied for them. (Such panels are made up of fellow artists, and chaired by a Council member). The applicants have to say how they intend to spend the bursary.

In the case of a visual artist it may be for computer equipment; it can be a backpacking trip to research a far-flung novel for an emerging novelist or short story writer. There are (and were, even in good times) always far more applications than money available.

On the occasion in question, an application came from an elderly writer of international repute, holder of many awards for his contribution to literature. He had not published for some time. He was applying for a bursary and would use it to buy a load of turf because at present his hands were too cold to write. My heart was breaking; it completed the process when the panel decided against a bursary for this eminent man of letters: there were other, more meritorious cases before them, they felt.

That is the background to how artists live, or exist in Ireland, not just at Christmas, but all year round. In 2010, the Arts Council commissioned a report, Living Conditions and Working Conditions of Artists in Ireland, carried out by Dr Claire McAndrew and Cathie McKimm. It produced horrifying facts. But they were all facts which had been detailed and reported upon many times before: artists in Ireland in 2008 on average earned €14,676 from their art. Again on average, "other work" (as varied as teaching or short-order cooking) earned them €10,409. That left most artists with a total income before tax of €25,085 annually.

But that's the average. Fifty per cent of artists earn €8,000 or less from their art. Twenty- five per cent of artists have a total income of €31,000 or less. These are people designated in the census as being artists by occupation. They're not weekend painters or hobby poets, with full incomes from other jobs.

Forty-eight per cent of them qualified for tax exemption: the other 52 per cent paid full tax on every cent. Many of them, again, are household names.

Those kinds of figures were familiar to anyone who wanted to know even before the publication of the report, indeed even before it was commissioned. The chairs of the Arts Councils here and in Northern Ireland, Pat Moylan and Rosemary Kelly OBE, pointed out in their preamble that the figures represented the situation before the profound changes in the economic environment in which artists did their work. And it was "timely", the two chairs said, for the gathering of the data contained in the report.

God alone knows (well, the two Arts Council knows) what it cost to gather this timely data. But it is certain that the sum would have made a hell of a difference directly to artists had it gone, for instance, into one of the bursary funds.

Calling itself an "agency" is the giveaway for the Arts Council, allied to its stated vision of improving access to the arts for all citizens. No wonder its work is heavy with bureaucracy, its sprawl uneven and unfocussed and forgetful of art and artists; without art and artists there will be no "access" to art. It focuses on the recipients of art, reducing art itself to the status of a commodity, and frequently making artists feel that they are expected to make work that matches the social engineering of Arts Council, and therefore government, policy.

The Arts Council has just announced its current round of funding for various festivals around the country. Some of these do indeed concentrate on providing marvellous, exciting, stimulating art, and opening up opportunities for artists across many forms. (Wexford Opera and Galway Arts are only two which spring to mind). Others of them, however, are merely opportunities for local community activity -- which, while worthwhile, have little to do with art, and certainly do nothing to broaden the horizons of those who experience them.

And the subsidiary aim is to improve retail incomes for local businesses. That's not the purpose of art. Art is not, and must not be an adjunct of the social services.

The corollary of the mistaken concentration on community is the creation of a sense of contempt for anything that is not "popular" or "indigenous". There is a sense, as an Arts Council member once said to me that "if the middle classes want fine art, let them look to their rich friends in dicky bows for it". It was a breathtaking insult to hundreds of artists who work endlessly to soar above the commonplace.

And the longer we continue with our current policy of bureaucratisation of the arts, the worse our reverse snobbery will become until we reject all fine art, and leave more and more of our artists living in need and desperation while we hold seminars about the importance of our culture.

Sunday Independent

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