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Emer O'Kelly: State boards should be a labour of love

When the recession began to bite deeply in 2008, there was a detailed proposal made within the Department of Arts to amalgamate a number of our cultural institutions.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), the National Gallery of Ireland and the Crawford Gallery in Cork were to be amalgamated. So were the National Library, the National Archives, and the Irish Manuscripts Commission.

This was before the Farmleigh Forum where major international figures from around the world who had Ireland's interests at heart pleaded passionately for us to remember that culture was what Ireland was known for. We couldn't compete on an industrial level, but we had our literature with its poets and novelists; we had our drama with playwrights such as Murphy and Friel, we had a national theatre, the Abbey, which was known worldwide and pre-dated the State; we had a regional theatre, Druid, with a huge international reputation. We had our visual arts with painters such as Francis Bacon and Sean Scully acknowledging Irish roots, and Louis le Brocquy was still alive and working here, and Shaw, that giant of the past, cared enough about the National Gallery to endow it in his will.

This, these well-wishers told us, would be our salvation. And pretty well every politician who could string a sentence together, and a few who couldn't, jumped on the bandwagon to agree. The promotion and cultivation of the arts would put us on the road back to salvation, and we waited to see massive investment in them.

The arts and artists had managed to survive during the dismaying years when prosperity equalled mindless vulgarity, and dumbing down in the name of "community" and "access" was the rule of the day, even in the Arts Council, the body charged on behalf of the citizens with the protection and development of the arts. That was bad enough, but now when we really needed them, instead of investment, we saw contraction.

Where IMMA, the National Gallery and the Crawford were concerned, the proposal to amalgamate under a "Grand Master" overall supremo to whom the actual directors of the institutions would be subject, reached the stage of published Heads of Bill. The then director of IMMA, Enrique Juncosa, the extraordinary driver of IMMA's newly attained and recognised international reputation, admitted privately that under such a structure, he would never have applied for a job here.

A study was carried out in countries where such amalgamations had taken place: Australia had done it, only to find that their institutions were culturally devastated, so they had to de-amalgamate. Scotland had done it: the amalgamation stands; the result has been hugely detrimental. The professed aim, of saving money, was a joke: no money was saved.

The unpaid, voluntary board of IMMA dedicated itself to persuading government against something which would damage artistic integrity and corporate identity. In the face of the undeniable evidence, the then government dropped the idea.

Fast forward to 2012, a new government, but the same personnel and structure within the civil service at departmental level. The proposal was dusted down and presented as a new idea to save money in our straitened circumstances. The Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan said in the Dail last Wednesday he hopes to have "proposals" from "officials" in a couple of weeks concerning the amalgamation of the literary institutions.

They will then go to Cabinet. But, the minister added, "the implications ... will be considered fully. I will have to accept them when they do happen." So who's running things? If the minister is acting under pressure from the civil service, as his unwary remark seems to suggest, and every expert in the cultural field is producing passionate and informed arguments against amalgamation (as well as proof of the fact that the financial savings will be non-existent) it looks as though the mandarins, the men and women who switch arbitrarily between expertise on pig-producing through tram timetables to offshore oil exploration, depending on the department they're assigned to, are calling the shots.

The historian Diarmaid Ferriter has resigned from the board of the National Library in disgust over the issue. Interviewed about this last week, he suggested that the board members there would probably be willing to serve free of charge, if savings were the issue. Actually, the fees for board members of the cultural institutions, where they exist, are not even a drop in the financial ocean.

Where the Government actually values the commodity concerned, it pays hefty fees, usually to people who already earn massive salaries elsewhere, and indeed have jobs which may well keep them far too busy to do the "voluntary service" they have undertaken on the State board in question. It has not been unknown for such people to add the board membership complacently to their CVs, and do little else, other, of course, than collect the fee.

Arts boards, on the other hand, are frequently genuinely voluntary: you get no fee, not even attendance money. Where fees do exist, they would be regarded as contemptible by business high-flyers. I have just completed 15 years' unbroken service on the Arts Council and the board of IMMA (two terms on each) without any kind of payment, and a sacrifice of considerable amounts of time (in the case of the Arts Council, it amounted to an average of 20 hours a week over seven-and- a-half years.) That is what public service is supposed to be about: giving something back ... without payment, even without an attendance fee as a sweetener.

The board of the National Gallery receive fees (although I understand several members of the current board have volunteered to waive them since the recession started to bite.) The chair of IMMA receives a fee, although for several years the current incumbent Eoin McGonigal, whose time-consuming dedication I can personally vouch for, has refused his.

On the other hand, it must be admitted there are people who have never held down jobs, are without visible expertise in any area, but have incomes that approach three times the average industrial wage through membership of numerous "public service" boards. I know one person who has chaired more than one board who says he/she has never given any service without payment, and never will.

If we are to call it "public service", fees should be abolished for all State boards, even in times of prosperity, particularly since the kind of people unwilling to give the gift of citizenship to their country can well be done without on any board. It has led to all boards being labelled "quangos", an unfair and insulting accusation against many public-minded people of expertise and integrity.

And if there is no fee involved, there will be far less likelihood of appointments being made as a political favour. And we might get State board membership which speaks and votes objectively for the good of the institution and of the nation, rather than acting as party political hacks who see themselves seamlessly connected to government.

Sunday Independent