WHAT I MISUNDERSTOOD (or why there is no longer a national policy for theatre in Ireland)

What I Misunderstood

A personal essay on a matter of arts policy

Theatre of the Nation? A community theatre workshop at Creative Spark, Dundalk 2013
Theatre of the Nation? A community theatre workshop at Creative Spark, Dundalk 2013

In 1995 I took up a position for one year with The Arts Council as Coordinator of the “Review of Theatre in Ireland”, a research and consultation process intended to inform future policy in the matter of funding and provision for theatre in Ireland.  It was an intelligently designed and genuinely open process of listening and learning.  The immediate preceding context was a raging debate in the media about the Abbey Theatre: in light of the mushrooming of independent professional theatre organisations and venues all around the country, could the National Theatre continue to lay claim to the lion’s share of state funding with the rest receiving crumbs off the table?  Did the concept of a National Theatre hold up at all?  Were we dealing with a new movement, as important and radical now as the Abbey had been in the founding years of the State, a movement referred to by Prof. Ciaran Benson, the Arts Council Chairman as “Theatre of the Nation”? I was sufficiently fired up by these questions to leave my exciting post as theatre programmer at the City Arts Centre in Dublin and take on the job of facilitating what was shaping up to be a national conversation.

The Abbey board was initially suspicious of the Review and indeed of my own involvement in it.  I had, after all, been a critic of the status quo and also of aspects of the Abbey institution itself.  But such was the open and fair nature of the Review that the board and Artistic Director of the Abbey, once reassured, played a central part in it and indeed, thereafter, through the good offices of Patrick Mason, led the initiative that became Theatre Forum.  They were persuaded that this would not be a simplistic Abbey v. The Rest tussle as some in the media might have wished, but something much more far-reaching.  The early ‘90s was the era of national arts planning.  The State seemed on the point of embracing and supporting the arts as a fundamental staple of national identity and consciousness, rather than a flouncy add-on.  Theatre would be the first artform to enjoy a process of research, international benchmarking, genuine national consultation and in due course a national policy.  Nobody was under any illusion that the resources required to provide in a genuine way for a “theatre of the nation” would suddenly drop from Heaven.  The point was that at least the value of such an ideal would be investigated and costed, and long term strategies would be put in place to move from a position of general ignorance and impoverishment in the matter of contemporary theatre practice in Ireland to one of knowledge and the beginnings of strategic investment.

It was a heady time of hope and genuine change.  The public reports and internal papers of that year stand as the most comprehensive analysis ever assembled of how theatre comes to be produced in Ireland, with chapters on community, youth, amateur, educational and commercial theatre as well as the main spine on how the Abbey and the bulwark of independent professional companies and regional venues might co-exist.  The slim policy document “Going On” which emerged at the end of the Review lacked specifics and was inevitably compromised, but nonetheless represented a massive step forward from the ad-hoc and piecemeal distribution of funding that had preceded it.  I had no  hand personally in the “Going On” document: I had already moved on, the research now done, but I welcomed it.  I understood the new policy to be a blueprint that would guarantee for decades to come that independent companies could settle, grow and receive modest public funding on an annual basis for those aspects of their artistic programming that could be defined as “public” or “civic” – be it producing stimulating new theatre for local audiences; touring; community-engagement; niche specialisation in areas such as clown, physical theatre, translated works, children’s theatre, street spectacle or whatever.

By the end of that year, the Arts Council had embraced the mantle “national development agency for the arts in Ireland” – not quite a national provider but a State agency with a clear and confident sense of national mission.  We appeared to be on the cusp of new era.  And for a period it seemed that the promise of “Going On” was actually falling into place, albeit haphazardly.  Companies in Sligo, Limerick, Waterford and Clonmel found themselves enjoying a new, more secure status and in some cases even saw substantial hikes in annual funding.  (This tended to be the haphazard element!)  Companies in Dublin and Cork became adroit at defining their niche or community value and were funded well or modestly accordingly.  I, myself, undertook research into establishing a community-engaged theatre enterprise in Drogheda and in due course, when a board of directors was appointed, I took up a full-time position as Artistic Director of Upstate Theatre Project, an exemplary model of a regional company which quickly earned funding for its community and artistic programmes in equal measure from the Arts Council and various European and regional bodies.

But in all of this I had profoundly misunderstood one fundamental thing.  Policy is not law: neither is it forever.

To be fair to myself and my peers, we did appreciate that policy is not a fixed entity: it must be fluid, responding to social, cultural and demographic change.  In the subsequent years many of us continued to campaign and advocate for developments and improvements.  As Ireland became a multicultural nation we argued for interculturalism to permeate policy.  As transparency and accountability became increasingly the norm in other sectors, I developed an argument for a radical change in how funding should be sought and distributed, proposing that companies should tender (as distinct from apply) for the funds they received.  This latter argument became central to my thinking.  Theatre organisations were providing a form of public service, it seemed to me.  We were making available to the public at affordable cost, quality artistic events and engagement opportunities that could not be provided commercially and could not be provided directly by any arm of the state itself.  The public value of our work was self-evident: we were helping to define our nation as a cultured society with its own indigenous rhythms, beats and sounds, and not just a remote market for imported mass-produced artefacts.  I believed (and continue to believe) that this service to the nation was as vital as environmental protection, law and order, education and other public services.  I was increasingly uneasy with the cap-in-hand image that still hung over our sector and I contended that a simple inversion of the funding equation would resolve this matter.  The State needs art and cultural diversity to define itself as modern, civilised and mentally healthy.  We are the providers of art.  The State needs us.  The state, via the Arts Council, should therefore invite organisations to tender for contracts of defined duration, renewable or to be terminated by future tender.  We should be fully accountable to the taxpayer, yes, but once shown to be efficient, duly governed and dedicated, we should be left alone to make art in the public realm.

Instead, the public need and value of theatre was never formally acknowledged, and a slight whiff of the old stigma remained, namely that we were “dependent”: self-indulgent artists being helped along to “do our own thing”, simply because art is in some ill-defined way “special” but cannot pay its way.  Far from disabusing the media and public of this view, the Arts Council began to slip back into using terms like “high levels of dependency” in its reports, addressing the sector sometimes as though it were a problem rather than the national asset it had once set out to support and regulate.  We would continue to be required to submit annual applications for the gift of funding.  New personalities came in time to replace those within the Arts Council who had overseen the Theatre Review. A power-play was at work wherein the artist was not seen after all as an equal contributor but rather a dependent.  It was a dynamic which left me increasingly uneasy.

Notwithstanding this regression in attitudes, I continued to believe that the essential principles enshrined in the “Going On” document were now embedded.  I thought that if policy were ever again to change radically, it could only be on foot of a further national consultation and evidence of changed demographics and production patterns.  This was exceptionally naive of me, I can now see.  In 2008-2009 the prevailing theatre policy was suddenly and unilaterally abandoned by the Arts Council.  I and many of my peers were deeply shocked that this could happen, that by decree of a couple of internal Arts Council meetings, everything we had built, all of our investment and – for many – our very livelihoods could be taken away.  Of course the background context was drastic.  The economy had imploded.  Radical responses were needed from every sector of society including the humble theatre.  But we were never asked for our response – not in any meaningful way.  There was no proper consultation, only briefings.  Decisions were handed to us from on high in the form of cuts, closures and resulting redundancies, and in a blinding flash, many of us came to understand the folly of our belief in a system which had remained top-down and had never had statutory or contractual foundation.

Apart from the global financial crisis there was another niggling difficulty at work by 2008.  Even before the economy collapsed, the system of annually-repeating revenue funding to companies was coming under strain.  More and more theatre artists were graduating from college as youth and community art flourished and artistic career paths and training became socially acceptable and no longer exotic.  With no consistent recruitment or intake mechanisms built in to the existing funded organisations, these newly emerging artists did what others before them had always done.  They formed yet more companies and arrived at the same doorstep on Merrion Square with their valid applications also to be funded.  Initially, the Once-Off Projects funding scheme seemed to absorb the best of this new wave, but eventually the twenty-two year old graduates turned thirty and their legitimate claims to sustainable careers and a place in this ‘public service’ of artistic provision could not be met from an already overstretched revenue funding pot.  The absence of a national tendering system combined with the Arts Council’s drift back towards a patronage philosophy exacerbated this problem.  Younger practitioners were left with little option but to call for the unseating of longer serving companies to make room now for them.   There were dark and usually unwarranted mutterings about “dead wood” and “over-funded companies” who had allegedly “reached their sell-by dates”.  In more responsible conversations, Theatre Forum had begun to acknowledge the very real issue of the exclusion of new talent, but nobody as yet had any bright solutions other than the unstructured Darwinian overthrow which would make nonsense of the notion of sustainable provision or personal career paths for which the previous generation had fought so hard.

It was especially galling, therefore, when the economic collapse hit, that this genuine dialogue within the sector was used by the Arts Council as an excuse for some of its miserable funding decisions.  At a Theatre Forum meeting in Limerick, Council representatives insisted that the forthcoming cuts arose from what they called “blue skies thinking” which would see parts of the old guard disinherited in order to make room for the new.  Some months later, at a tense meeting at the National Concert Hall when the first and worst round of cuts had been implemented, the same line was trotted out and I recall having a heated argument with a much-respected younger colleague in the corridor where he argued that the removal of revenue funding from “tired” companies was a good thing.  I did not get into the question of who determines who is “tired” or by what accountable yardstick.  It was too late for that.  I countered simply that the Council’s new approach placed all of us now in a vacuum wherein a career in independent theatre for any individual artist, or a relationship between a town’s population and an indigenous theatre company, could never again be built.  And I predicted that no new organisation would come to be revenue funded to replace the allegedly “tired” ones now dumped overboard.  This of course has been borne out.

So my mistake, my misunderstanding, was to believe that arts policy was a charter that would be referred to in times not only of growth but of contraction; a logical set of rules that would offer protection to those it covered, as laws or contracts do.  The Arts Council tore up the policy.  In fairness, they were under unimaginable pressure from Government to find savings overnight.  And in truth, they did nothing wrong (in the legal sense) in tearing up the policy.  It was written on sand.  It was already fraying anyway as new personalities with new ideologies and preferences took up position on the politically appointed council.  It was their entitlement.  The mistake was on our side, my side – to believe that just because a thing had been written down based on consultation, vision and logic it had any real standing when a gale would blow.

So where are we left now, five years on from those traumatic days of cuts and redundancies?  The 1995-96 Theatre Review appeared for a time to promise an infrastructure along the lines eloquently proposed by playwright John McArdle at one of its public meetings; one where each catchment population might have a serviced venue; an embedded professional production company; access to educational and children’s theatre, participative youth and community drama of quality and a nurturing environment for the amateur sector.  In my more optimistic moments back then, I imagined that the “hard” (buildings) and “soft” (people and ideas) infrastructure of the performing arts would come in time to be funded like schools and health centres within communities in every corner of the land.  There would be permanence on one hand but constant innovation on another.  That dream has died.  Also dead is my long held understanding that the Arts Council is a national agency for the arts in Ireland, for without a national infrastructure and concomitant investment, there can be no truly ‘national’ agency.  Rather, the Arts Council nowadays provides limited amounts of ongoing funding to a restricted number of solid institutions, mainly concentrated in the capital with a few scattered sporadically elsewhere around the country.  It has expressed the desire to reduce further the number of these funded bodies.  It otherwise runs prize-giving competitions in the form of once-off award schemes and talks constantly about ‘a highly competitive environment’ and the need for artists to ‘make a compelling case’ in order to be “deserving” of funding.  A far cry from a provision agency for a nation.

For all of this disappointment, I do not and we should not despair.  The State is less than one hundred years old and is part of a global financial system in which it is beholden to banks, bondholders, the IMF and other external masters.  We have not quite emerged yet as a true republic.  It is less than fifty years since free secondary education was introduced in Ireland and less than two decades since the grip of the Catholic Church was loosened on public affairs generally. The State has had an ambivalent relationship with the arts from Day 1.  We were the first in the world to fund a national theatre and our founding parliament had a cabinet minister for the arts.  This early open-mindedness gave way quickly to the censorship of publications era which ended only in the 1980s.  If the State seemed on the brink of a radical embracing of the arts in the early ‘90s with the restoration of an arts ministry, the first national arts plan and then a working policy for theatre provision across the country, we should not be surprised that it rowed back when the banks collapsed and our sovereignty was conceded.

On our side of the table, artists have neither died out nor gone away.  The soul, drive, imagination and courage of the artist are powerful forces that can survive bruised hopes or governments which continue to pay lipservice to art and public but fail adequately to provide for either.  Artists will continue to make great art and to connect with communities.  The most enterprising among them will find new side-routes to funding and earned income until such time as intelligence and courage return at government and Arts Council level and the idea of a citizen-centred arts provision on a national basis is revisited.  New campaigns will ignite in the future and succeed at the very least in realigning and improving the current inadequate system of theatre funding, even if the dream of a sustainable national infrastructure has melted away for now.  Next time, however, I would hope to see the livelihoods of artists and their families as well as the cultural growth of communities protected in something more robust than a flimsy policy paper that is subject to the whims of the changing personalities appointed to passing Arts Councils.

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