Saturday 7 December 2019

David McWilliams: Artists and entrepreneurs are the key to our recovery

David McWilliams

On St Patrick's Day two years ago, while nudging my way up a crammed Fifth Avenue, the idea of the Farmleigh Global Irish Forum came to me. I'd thought about it before and I had seen how other countries cultivated relationships with their global tribes -- particularly the Jewish tribe and Israel -- but it was only after seeing the unique outpouring of Irish America on March 17 that I knew we should do this. We should tap into the power of the tribe and see where it takes us.

Like many initiatives, the real power of something like Farmleigh can never be dictated in advance. There is an element of chaos in putting people together who don't know each other and are bonded by something as fluid as having an "interest" in Ireland and allowing the conversations and ideas to flow.

But Ireland has never been short of ideas, if anything we have loads of ideas and not enough people who can execute them. The hardest part about ideas is getting them to fulfil their potential. This is what any entrepreneur will tell you. It is also what any artist or writer will tell you. It's easy to have an idea for a book, the hard part is having the discipline to write it.

Similarly, had the officials and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin not been open to the idea, Farmleigh would have remained an idea thrown out in a bar on St Patrick's Day -- how many of these do we have? So it's all about execution and no matter how amenable the diaspora or tribe is, we still have to translate an emotion into a reality.

Out of Farmleigh have come a number of concrete initiatives and only time will tell how many others are bubbling away under the surface. Dermot Desmond's University of the Arts, the Farmleigh Graduate Programme, the latest tourism campaign 'Home', the 'Gateway Ireland' portal as well as the many regional Farmleighs which are taking place today -- all these are tangible. Sure, Farmleigh had its critics, and some of the points made are valid and apposite -- but you have to try, you have start somewhere and the connections made are likely to throw up more initiatives.

This is the beauty of setting up networks and bringing people together, you simply have to stand back and let human curiosity, ingenuity and love of risk run its course.

These are the sort of characteristics which join two of the most interesting types of people in our world -- the artists and the entrepreneurs. One of the most gratifying and unexpected developments to come out of Farmleigh has been the realisation that artists and entrepreneurs are on the same side.

For many years this natural alliance has been obscured, often by arts administrators who, as bureaucrats, are more risk averse than either artists or entrepreneurs. Some academics play this role too, a sort of false bohemia cosseted by the protection of a State salary.

These folk like to hang with artists but would never risk their own creature comforts and live like artists. It is natural -- no in fact it is essential -- therefore, to create an enemy that is inimical to the artistic temperament so that the artists never see who their real kindred spirits are and the entrepreneur never sees that the artist gets up every day.

The fat-cat businessman image is a type of Dickensian caricature, counting his swag and scoffing at artistic effort. But this is far from the truth.

Take James Joyce for example. Joyce was an entrepreneur before he was an artist.

In September 1909, on a visit to Trieste, Eva Joyce, James's younger sister, suggested to Jim that there was money in cinemas. For a city of 400,000, Trieste had loads of cinemas. In contrast, there wasn't even one in Ireland.

Joyce was sold and he put together four venture capitalists to back him. Joyce negotiated 10pc for himself. Today, this capital would have been known in the jargon as "sweat equity".

Joyce set off in October 1909. By December the Volta cinema was open on Mary Street in Dublin, with Joyce as proprietor. The 'Evening Telegraph' covered the Volta's opening night on December 20: "James Joyce, who is in charge, has worked apparently indefatigably and deserves to be congratulated on the success of the inaugural exhibition."

Two other ventures captivated Joyce. The first was a plan to import skyrockets into Trieste, and the second was to import Irish tweeds into Italy. Both projects were dropped and the Volta folded, but all three episodes reveal a portrait of the artist as a young entrepreneur.

Joyce, arguably our finest and definitely our most celebrated writer, saw no contradiction between artist and the entrepreneur. Rather they are complementary and at their root the artist and the entrepreneur are similar. A fine business brain is as interested, irreverent, creative and alert as a fine artistic mind. The artist sees himself as outside the mainstream. So too does the entrepreneur. Both celebrate the individual over the collective. Both regard security with a certain distance.

There is a striking similarity about their worldview. Both regard most of society's obsession with certainty and security as bizarre. Neither can bear the idea of working for someone else for a wage.

The very thought of taking orders from a bureaucrat strikes fear in both. Working is about creating, beating the competition and expressing themselves, not about pointless committees, political games and promotion.

In the end, artists and entrepreneurs are the only people in society who do not retire. They rarely become jaded or washed up. Of course, many artists and entrepreneurs become part of the establishment, feted by politicians, the media and corporates alike, but most remain beyond the pale.

What binds these two apparently contradictory groups? Risk. Risk and a love of risk, originality and freedom, distinguish the entrepreneur and the artist from others.

Both groups live on their wits, not from the type of corporate arse-kissing that dominates many "successful" career structures in corporate and public sector Ireland. They make things happen by displaying enormous self-belief, hard work and attitude.

An interesting way of looking at the similarities is to remember your schooldays and examine the subsequent careers of friends. In many cases those who ploughed their own furrow either artistically or in business were remarkably similar.

It wasn't really that surprising, therefore, that when I got up to chair the final session at Farmleigh, there was a little knot of some of Ireland's and the diaspora's finest entrepreneurs and artists huddled together excitedly.

These people understood each other. They are spiritual bedfellows and unlike others they -- artists, writers and entrepreneurs -- realise that the idea isn't the end, it's the beginning. The hard part is the hours spent on your own -- writing, tearing up, getting up when you've been knocked down and taking the flack from the critics, who tell you that idea will never fly. This St Patrick Day, let's celebrate these doers.

www.davidmcwilliams.ie

Irish Independent

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