CORRECTING THE PUBLIC FINANCES – 7 THOUGHTS ON ARTS DISINVESTMENT IN IRELAND

 

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Politicians – we are watching! Image of Macnas on parade.

This essay was drafted a few days ago, prior to a historic debate in the Irish parliament on arts policy (Fianna Fáil Private Members’ motion, 22nd June 2016).  That debate saw encouraging progress in how politicians across the party spectrum have come around to understanding and outwardly articulating the value of the arts.  But there was a conscious refusal from those in power to make any meaningful move to redress the chronic disinvestment in culture in Ireland which is discussed below.  ‘Funding increases in line with improvements in the economy’ is not remotely helpful – we already anticipate that.  Radical action is needed.  Leadership in other words.  We watch and wait…  

For anyone who may be still struggling to understand just how far things have fallen for arts and culture in Ireland and why it is vital to redress this, here are a few points to consider.

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IRELAND IS A PROUD, CULTURED NATION.  MOST ‘RIGHT-MINDED’ IRISH PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED AND EVEN ASHAMED IF THEY KNEW THAT FAR FROM THE MEDIA MYTH OF AN ARTISTS’ HAVEN, OUR COUNTRY IS BY FAR THE WORST IN EUROPE WHEN IT COMES TO GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT IN ARTS AND CULTURE. 

DID YOU KNOW THAT FOR EVERY ONE EURO OF PUBLIC FINANCE INVESTED ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE, THE IRISH GOVERNMENT INVESTS ONLY 20 CENT (I.E. ONE FIFTH) IN THE PEOPLE’S CULTURE?  WHO LOSES?  NOT ONLY THOSE ARTISTS WHO NO LONGER CAN EARN A FAIR WAGE FOR THEIR DEDICATED WORK, BUT HUGE POCKETS OF IRISH SOCIETY ROBBED OF THEIR RIGHTS TO ENJOY A THRIVING CULTURAL LIFE – A SOCIAL AND HUMAN NEED AS FUNDAMENTAL AS A CLEAN ENVIRONMENT OR SAFE STREETS.

TO BORROW THE GOVERNMENT’S OWN PHRASE – IT IS TIME TO CORRECT THE PUBLIC FINANCES AND INCREASE IRISH ARTS INVESTMENT VERY SPEEDILY – AT LEAST UP TO THE EU AVERAGE.

For decades, the debate about “arts funding” has been riddled with myth and ignorance, much in the same way that deliberate misinformation for a long time stifled reasoned dialogue on Marriage Equality, climate change, parenting rights and other movements towards a perceived ‘softening’ of the dominant macho, hierarchical and profit-driven culture.  Short-changing in state investment in the arts has disinherited a whole society – and denied a right acknowledged worldwide as fundamental.

Here are seven things we might consider when reflecting on the relationship between the State and ‘the Arts’ in Ireland.

  1. Ireland is currently the worst state under the European Cultural Convention when it comes to investing in our culture. Ireland is not the poorest state in Europe by any means, but, of 24 countries studied in the Council of Europe Compendium Project, our Government is the WORST in percentage terms when it comes to the investment of public moneys on arts and culture for the nation.  Why do we pay our artists and maintain our cultural infrastructure at a rate lower than even the poorest peripheral states in Europe when culture is constantly acclaimed as one of our greatest assets?
  2. We claim pride in our cultural achievements and yet disinvest in our culture. Ireland is a proud cultured nation.  We take pleasure in the achievement of our film-makers, singers, dancers and poets when (as very often) they are hailed overseas, just as we do with our sportswomen and men.  We have celebrated when our actors have done well at the Oscars; when Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize; when Riverdance went global and so on.  We are proud of our children when they sing at a Feis, perform in a play, make cool videos on their phones, bring home a beautiful painting from school …  It is plain wrong in a culturally active country that we invest less than 20% of the European average on developing and sustaining the arts in our nation.
  3. Disinvesting in culture is a form of injustice. These statistics – that we are worst in Europe and invest less than one fifth of the European average – are embarrassing, but it they are much more than that.  The failure to invest in the arts represents a deep and hidden injustice in our society.  Why?  Well, two reasons.  It robs us and our children of a healthy, sustainable cultural life – a disenfranchisement as serious as the environmental neglect of lakes or the closing down of playgrounds.  Our museums are allowed to run down; our kids have poorer access to instruments in school; community arts centres around the country cannot replace theatre lamps and so on.  But – a corollary of this – our living artists are shockingly underpaid.  Many live in secret poverty, ashamed to acknowledge it.  State policy has systematically removed livelihood opportunities from honest, hard-working artists all over Ireland while at the same time depriving communities of facilities and young people of creative opportunities.
  4. Public investment in arts benefits society regardless of class. It is sometimes misleadingly argued that the question of “arts funding” is a middle-class preoccupation – and that cutting cultural funding is somehow acceptable because the arts are not perceived as a pressing daily concern of rural or urban working class people.   This is tantamount to saying that some of our citizens are somehow less entitled to abundant cultural lives than others, because they already suffer other forms of economic or educational exclusion.  Quite apart from the obvious class discrimination in this viewpoint, the facts on the ground indicate that it is a dated and inaccurate understanding of what ‘the arts’ is and where cultural activity actually takes place.  Every week of every year since the 1970s, from women’s refuges to rural youth projects to children’s creches in inner-city Dublin, children, women and men of all classes and backgrounds have been taking part in community arts programmes, developing their own creativity, often working collaboratively with dedicated professional artists.  Resources are scarce and not always fairly distributed, but to suggest that working class people are not interested in the arts in simply untrue and indeed insulting.  Do those who claim the arts ‘do not reach’ working class communities not consider – for example – active lone parents’ groups where drama is made, or Youthreach projects with music training, or community creches with dance activities to be part of this working class?  Some people it is true –  in particular men in certain communities – are still statistically proving to be less drawn to traditional (and often narrow) definitions of the arts such as main-stage drama, opera and galleries.  But far more in those communities are intensely creative and engaged in the arts.  We need to campaign for the cultural rights of all citizens and ensure fair and intelligent distribution of improved resources to artists, art providers and local creative projects across all of society.
  5. Investing in the arts does not damage your Health budget. It is also misleadingly (and insidiously) argued that increased investment in the arts somehow means decreased allocation for health or other ‘more vital’ public services.  This is a discredited and cheap argument peddled occasionally by talk radio hosts or more right-wing, monetarist politicians and commentators who are often against any kind of public spending as a general philosophy.  Similar arguments are made against facing our public responsibilities to take in refugees, to protect wildlife or keep up our public parks; and these are rightly rejected by fair-minded people.  Abusing and under-paying artists or allowing the heritage of our nation to fall into disrepair does not relieve the health crisis – in fact it compounds it, as arts and access to heritage are proven to improve mental and physical health.  Why else would busy cancer hospitals avail of artist-in-residence schemes?  Apart from the obvious point that a trebling or quadrupling of the current tiny arts budget would make almost no dent in the overall public finances, including the health budget, there is a more important point which is that this kind of comparison reveals a power mindset that is dismissive of creativity.  The government faces a myriad of choices and responsibilities when it comes to the public finances.  Nobody argues that a quarter of the army should be laid off, or our state-funded litter wardens forced to volunteer in order to provide more cash for an improved A&E unit somewhere, even though far greater sums could be saved this way, and yet they suggest that it is acceptable to underfund the people’s creativity.  Whatever the reason for our low investment in culture, it has nothing to do with hospital beds.
  6. The arts in a modern nation cannot function on amateur volunteering alone. Another outdated argument raises its head occasionally when conversations about cultural investment arise.  The jist of it is this: why would you bother paying professional artists when your town has a perfectly fine amateur musical society?  By the same argument, why bother paying professional gardeners to keep the herbaceous borders in Stephens Green – aren’t there plenty of hobby gardeners in Ireland growing flowers as it is?  Again, the awkward facts come in to play. Most amateur artists when allowed to think about it are the first to see the value of improved arts investment.  Contrary to the cheap talk-radio jibe, professionals are not work-shy ‘hobbyists’ looking for money.  They are often innovators, highly-trained and intensely hard-working, taking the practice of their artform and the reputation of the nation to outstanding levels and places.  Many work directly in and with communities, side-by-side with amateur practitioners: others create work independently that inspires or chronicles the society.  They are a necessary part of a complex cultural ecology; not necessarily more gifted, and certainly no more passionate than the best amateurs in theatre, music, dance and so on – but vocationally drawn to work full-time on their craft. The arts needs its professional pioneers and innovators just like science, education and sport.  And it is a two-way traffic: working artists in turn recognise that their own practice and the society in which they live benefit from wide community participation.  Furthermore, in simple practical terms, even in the current impoverished system, voluntary and amateur arts groups benefit in most counties from subsidised arts centres, cultural festivals, learning environments and public libraries which are managed by arts and literary professionals.  Professionalism and volunteering in the arts, just like in sport, are interconnected parts of a continuum.
  7. Our government appears to be fearful of the implications of investment in the arts. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that our politicians are nervous of an expanded arts and cultural life for the society (while paying lip service to artists at every international opportunity.)  Why?  Perhaps it is a fear of scrutiny, of a widely-educated, enquiring and creative populace, of truly active civic participation which is what the arts engenders?  Or maybe it is a simpler, more crude fiscal matter.  Perhaps the precedent of acknowledging that we need in percentage terms to make a correction of several fold to meet normal European standards in cultural spending is too alarming?  And yet in the past, sudden jumps in spending or a single brave stroke of a pen have seen the introduction of much-needed social reform: free secondary school education; third level grants; a ban on smoking in the workplace; the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

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ADDED 24th JUNE:  Having attended the Dáil debate on June 22nd (a Private Members’ motion tabled by Fianna Fáil’s arts spokesperson Niamh Smyth), it was heartening to note the improved discourse of the politicians, from the Minister to the backbenchers.  Many were more aware than would have been the case 10 years ago of real, quality arts projects in their local constituencies.  NOBODY TALKED ABOUT HOSPITAL BEDS, a clear acknowledgment that that is a different day’s work and a whole separate concern.  It was mature and momentarily uplifting.  They spoke warmly of artists…

But warming words alone are no help.  Whether we take proportion of GDP or percentage of pubic expenditure, we are still Europe’s cultural shame story, when we should and could be its champions.  On the ground it can all appear solid – our culture survives, albeit on crumbs.  Our tourism is built on a magnificent literary and artistic heritage; our poets are no longer only in the garret but on the stages of bars and nightclubs; our dancers are in the studio but also on Grafton Street busking – Ireland is hopelessly cultured and our people are irrepressibly creative, even in desperate times.  But that is neither sustainable nor moral for as long as the people’s money is not reinvested in their culture.  Artists are active citizens: they have families, mortgages, rents, bus fares to pay: they require to be remunerated fairly for the service they give.

We need to match the nation’s remarkable artistic talent and instinct with a structured, sustainable, resources and livelihood-driven investment model (and not just once-off experiments or commemorations however fabulous).  Difficult as it will be for them, our politicians who have now spoken need to act on their fine words with radical new investment and  with mechanisms to distribute cultural funds fairly and intelligently across the nation and into the pay-packets of artists.

 

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