Artistic Apathy

picIreland has long neglected the creative industries. It is time to recognise what they do for this country

What is Ireland most famous for across the globe? Unquestionably it is the country’s rich tradition of arts and culture.

In music, writing, theatre, film and to a lesser extent, design, Ireland has punched well above its weight. Look at the (almost) unequalled number of Irish Nobel laureates in the field of literature; the phenomenal success of U2; the wonderful legacy of the Abbey Theatre; the acclaim Irish films and actors attract across the world and do not forget the genius of Eileen Gray.

We rightly pride ourselves on our rich literary past and our current successes as a cultural powerhouse, but do we really value the arts in Ireland? How much of our success has come despite, rather than because, of official policy in this area?

It speaks volumes that for a period earlier this year, however brief, the “Arts” portfolio was going to be lumped into the Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht. In that scenario, it appeared that arts was going to be an afterthought, or an add on, with “heritage” completely out in the cold. It was adjusted after public criticism with Arts taking the lead in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

But even the fact that the arts portfolio is lumped in with four other portfolios speaks volumes. It strongly suggests that the arts are seen as a nicety — a pleasant add-on rather than an essential, vital sector. Being arts minister is generally considered a job for those ministers just in the door of the cabinet or possibly on the way out. It would not be thought of as a serious ministry.

This was obvious during the austerity cutbacks. No department could have emerged unscathed when the budget deficit reached €20 billion, but the arts took a particular hammering. The department’s budget was slashed by 18 per cent between 2011 and 2014, with the arts section enduring the biggest cuts. The budget of the Arts Council was 28 per cent lower in 2016 than in 2007.

The arts are seen as a political soft touch, the first budget to be cut in tough times and the last to get investment during better days.

Heather Humphreys, the arts minister, recently dismissed claims in the Dail that Ireland’s spending on the arts was about one sixth of the EU average — 0.1 per cent of GDP compared to 0.6 per cent across Europe. She said these figures did not take account of the money spent by local authorities, the outlay on public sector broadcasting and the Irish language and the artists’ tax exemption.

But even allowing for that — and the reality that our GDP tends to be overstated relative to GNP — it seems clear that we spend far less than our European counterparts in this area and there is little political appetite for changing that.

For that, we must all take responsibility because the arts is a hugely important area for any country, particularly one which prides itself on its artistic and cultural tradition.

There are huge societal benefits from having a thriving arts scene. It helps promote a national identity, enriches everyday life and creates a more cohesive society. There are also economic benefits. Look at the positive impact, and the renewed sense of optimism, generated by the “Cool Britannia” period in the UK in the 1990s.

Putting arts at the centre, rather than the periphery, of government would help generate tourism from within and outside the country and we know the wider economic benefits that can accrue from providing incentives and marketing Ireland as a destination for filmmaking.

We are also constantly told of the need to build a knowledge economy based on innovation. The kind of creative capital generated by a vibrant arts sector could be a powerful driver of that. Concentrating creativity by locating artistic and cultural ventures together could also generate a powerful multiplier effect.

It is time we stopped paying lip service to being a centre for arts and culture in this country and actually invested properly in the sector. Enda Kenny likes to talk about making Ireland the best small country in the world to do business. We should be talking about making it the best small country for the arts also.

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