Taken for granted

The bundling of arts with heritage, regional development, rural affairs and the Gaeltacht has infuriated artists

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Following weeks of petition- ing, campaigning and getting itself riled up, the arts community finally had its hour in the sun — or a couple of hours in the Dail chamber, at least.

It was a Wednesday in late June, seven weeks after Enda Kenny had announced that the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht would be replaced by the Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht.

In the immediate aftermath of that announcement, theatre-makers, writers and film-makers criticised the downgrading of the arts. They accused the government of using culture for photo opportunities, while never investing in it.

“It’s clearly a backwards step,” said Lenny Abrahamson, director of last year’s Room, an Irish co-production nominated for four Oscars. “To have the status of the arts at the cabinet table further reduced is just really depressing at a time when we have a real opportunity to build on the investment of the past. Instead, we’re going in the entirely other direction.”

Arts activists pointed out that the European average for investment in the arts is 0.6% of GDP, but in Ireland it is a fifth of that, at 0.11%. The National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA), a lobby group formed in 2009 which has gone through varying degrees of activity, began to mobilise and speak out. A petition calling for a dedicated Department of Arts was circulated and signed by more than 15,000 people, including Abrahamson and the actors Chris O’Dowd, Cillian Murphy and Sharon Horgan.

Heather Humphreys, who has moved from being arts minister to leading the new all-encompassing department, did her best to ease concerns but the culture crusaders continued the campaign, petitioning other Fine Gael TDs and opposition parties. Finally, on that Wednesday in late June, Fianna Fail tabled a motion and the Dail allocated two hours to debating the arts.

Gina O’Kelly, of the Irish Museums Association, was one of many spectators crammed into the Dail viewing gallery. She estimated there were three times as many people watching as there were TDs in the chamber.

“When I arrived, the people at the front gate were just saying, ‘Follow the crowd.’ That really underlines the coming together and support of the sector. People were genuinely delighted to be there.”

Niamh Smyth, the Fianna Fail spokeswoman on arts and heritage, began proceedings by tabling an extensive motion asking the Dail to accept the importance of the arts; to commit to general ideas around education, funding and autonomy; and to support “the restoration of the arts as a distinct and clearly defined cabinet portfolio, providing leadership and state support to the sector”.

The discussion went around the houses, with most politicians citing arts events in their communities or local causes that needed funding. The independent TD Danny Healy-Rae even managed to bring the subject round to rural characters who used to go to public houses and are now “trapped because they cannot come to the pub and drive home after having two or three pints”.

I’m not convinced the staff in there, at a very basic level, understand the difference between arts, Culture and heritage

Richard Boyd Barrett, a People Before Profit TD, put forward an amendment to the motion proposing concrete improvements, such as increasing funding to the European average, and opening buildings controlled by the state’s bad bank Nama to arts groups. It was voted down.

Humphreys set out the government’s commitment to arts and culture. She agreed “wholeheartedly with much of the sentiment of the motion”, but argued that the department’s new title did not mean the arts would be forgotten.

“On the contrary,” she said, “a larger department with wider responsibilities will bring greater weight to bear in promoting the importance of arts and culture right across government.”

Then, just as the debate was coming to an end, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy — a Fine Gael minister of state at the Department of Health — announced something that nobody, not even Humphreys, seemed to be expecting.

“The title of the department has been bandied about,” she said. “I will read into the record the actual title, namely the Department of Arts, Heritage and Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Development. That is it — there is no downgrading of the arts and I am satisfied this will not be the case.”

The relevant department — it’s unclear what exactly it is currently called — has confirmed to The Sunday Times that Corcoran Kennedy was correct. It said the new name, in which the arts is back in first position, has been agreed by Humphreys and the taoiseach Enda Kenny, and will be put before the government for final approval in the coming weeks.

“Putting ‘arts’ at the start of the title reflects the fact that the arts section is the largest of the department in budgetary terms,” said the department. “Arts, culture and film currently account for 49% of the expanded department’s expenditure for 2016.

“Before the name of the department can be brought to cabinet, a number of other matters must be dealt with; functions must be transferred from other departments and responsibilities allocated to junior ministers.

An order in relation to the final name is expected to be brought to cabinet in the coming weeks. It should be added that the name has no impact on the minister’s functions.”

Indeed, as the world’s greatest playwright once asked, what’s in a name? Is it enough merely to put “arts” at the beginning of a department that has five distinct briefs? Will the arts community be appeased?

It’s not a major step,” said Eugene Downes, the director of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and a member of the NCFA, of the realignment of the department’s title. “There’s a certain symbolism in it, which is a sign that the campaigning over the past couple of months has perhaps made an impact. Now, is it enough? I would say no.

“There’s a much bigger issue, which is not just about the title of the department. Nearly every country in Europe has a culture ministry, a department of state dedicated to the broad cultural realm as a part of national life. When the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht was set up in 1993, and Michael D Higgins was the first minister and really forged that department, it was actually serving as a ‘culture ministry’ in the European sense. “They had a real opportunity in 1993 to call it the Department of Culture, in the sense that culture embraces arts, heritage, language and indeed broadcasting. If it had been called the Department of Culture, it would have been that much harder to break up.

“The fact that it has never had less than three [remits in its title] has almost been an open invitation to subsequent governments to chop and change and break it up and send it, in some cases, in five different directions.”

The NCFA is campaigning for the creation of a coherent, focused Department of Culture. It also wants Ireland’s arts funding to be brought in line with what it says is the European average, and for a cross-party consensus on Culture 2025, a 10-year strategy in development for the past year.

John O’Brien, a part-time lecturer in arts policy who started the petition for a dedicated arts department, agrees that a change of name is not enough. “In my opinion, the legislation, the agencies, the processes, the vision, the research, everything [within the department] is not fit for purpose,” he said.

“They haven’t commissioned a piece of research in an awful long time. I’m not convinced the staff in there actually understand, at a very basic level, the difference between arts, culture and heritage. You need to review all of the legislation impacting the arts.”

O’Brien presented the petition and its 15,200 signatures to Humphreys last week. Novelist Joseph O’Connor, singer-songwriter Sineád O’Connor and theatre director Garry Hynes were among the other high-profile artists to lend their names, while O’Brien estimated almost half the signatories were members of the public.

“She’s an intelligent, courteous woman,” he said of Humphreys. “She understands the concepts that are at play. That was evident in the conversation. But there is a party line and that is not necessarily drawn by her. [Our] conversation ended with the party line and it was the same one put forward in the Dail debate, which is, ‘The department is fine as it is: we love the arts; we’ll get more money to the arts when and if the economy improves.’ ”

State funding for the arts has fallen considerably since 2008, yet its economic benefits are frequently acknowledged by politicians. An economic evaluation carried out by Indecon in 2011 found that for every euro given by the Arts Council, the funded organisations put €2.50 back into the economy through expenditure. It also estimated that more than 13,000 people were employed in the arts sector. This estimate did not take into account the tourism and reputational benefits.

“I’m not sure if it’s apathy as much as an actual lack of understanding,” said O’Brien. “It’s like two religions facing each other. [The politicians] really don’t believe what we believe.

“The classic example is that a number of ministers in the Dail debate cited the famous 2.5 multiplier effect. If it is true that for every euro the state invests, €2.50 is created, why wouldn’t you invest?

“They do understand that it has a certain value, but they just don’t seem to believe it’s anything other than a really posh hobby. [They think,] ‘Isn’t it great that we have these photo opportunities?’ But there’s a belief they’re provided by people who have no need to pay hospital bills or rent; that it’s just people producing nice stuff occasionally and it’s not really a job.”

The political will to prioritise the arts has generally been lacking in Ireland, but Downes believes there has been a shift in recent weeks. He says the fragmented make-up of the new Dail means that no single party or coalition is in control, and this has incentivised the political parties to compete with each other in taking ownership of the arts.

“We saw some early signs of that in the private members’ debate,” said Downes. “The NCFA has had a whole range of meetings with party leaders and spokesmen and -women, deputies and senators. In some cases we have seen quite striking levels of engagement. That was surprising and it’s new.”

The arts sector, too, has rediscovered a political passion that had been forgotten. The NCFA has not always been an effective lobby group, but it is now aiming for greater public engagement, and learning about how it can improve.

The organisation is holding weekly meetings and taking advice from other groups that have successfully taken grassroots campaigns mainstream, such as the organisers of last year’s marriage-equality movement.

O’Kelly, who has attended several Dail discussions, said there was something different about the recent private members’ debate. “The speakers who were there actively contributed,” she said. “The actions of the representative groups, such as the NCFA, have created a certain impetus. It’s probably the first time in years that there has been that drive [in the arts sector]. Even just bringing that conversation into the Dail is so important.”

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