Creative Ireland :: investing in the future of the arts while constraining the present

Creative Ireland :: investing in the future of the arts while constraining the present
December 10, 2016 Rob Farhat

On Thursday the Government, The Arts Council, and other related bodies announced the “Creative Ireland Programme” – a 5 year plan for how they intend to support the arts over the coming years. You can read all about it here.

For the most part, the programme is quite good. Although if you read the details a lot of it is really just a vague plan to make more plans – but that’s generally how these programmes work and so long as those plans are actually made, are good, and are executed well, that’s ok.

The Positives

There are 5 main “pillars” to the programme, of which 3 are unquestionably important and sound, those being ::

  1. “Enabling the Creativity of Every Child”

  2. “Enabling Creativity in Every Community”

  3. “Investing in our Creative and Cultural Infrastructure”

You can’t really argue with how essential each of those are, as they have been under-funded and under-resourced for decades – especially since the recession – and will have long term benefits for the arts, artists, and audiences. So fair play on those ones.

One of the other pillars – “Ireland as a Centre of Excellence in Media Production” – is understandable given Ireland’s recent successes in the film industry. But this does not mean we should prioritise extra funding or attention to this art form above all others. Film has undoubtedly been our most successful artistic export over the last few years, but these things come in waves and who is to say that another medium – say dance – could not take its place in the coming years? If anything, Irish film’s recent success shows how solid investment and specialised attention (i.e. the Irish Film Board) can help it rise above others internationally, and we should be applying the same principle to other art forms.

Prescribing Creativity

The 5th and final pillar – “Unifying Our Global Reputation” – is troubling. The programme’s website states that “Amid increasingly fierce global competition for investment, tourism and export markets, a clear articulation of a country’s values, capabilities and beliefs about itself is increasingly important.” Who exactly is going to articulate these values? Heather Humphreys? The Arts Council? John Concannon (the director of the programme)? Niall Harbison?

The website says “This pillar will involve many Government Departments, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Tourism, Transport and Sport, IDA Ireland, and relevant State agencies that operate at international level.” How on earth would any of these people know how Irish art and culture can and should be “unified”?

This is prescriptive and will inevitably lead to constraints on what kind of art, artists, and projects will be supported. It should not be up to these decision makers what sort of art should define Ireland, that’s the artists’ job. They’re the ones creating it, and they should be given the freedom, space, and support to do so as they see fit, otherwise they will not fulfil their, and hence Ireland’s artistic potential.

If any sort of “unifying” is to take place, it should happen organically rather than being manufactured by people who mostly know very little about the arts and are fairly disconnected from what Irish artists are really up to (which I should add is a two way problem). But so what if it doesn’t? Art is by nature diverse, as are Irish artists despite what a small country it is. We should cherish and celebrate that diversity, not try to homogenise it.

What’s Missing

We still don’t know much about how these plans, and presumably funding, will be distributed within the arts community. But we are told that “Creative Ireland as a 2016 legacy project is inspired by the extraordinary public response to the Centenary”, and it is being led by same people behind the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme.

While much of that programme was very good and was undoubtedly a great success, its programming was heavily dominated by the same old faces that have been knocking around for years and whose heyday has passed. I’m sorry guys – and it is mostly guys – but it’s time to step aside and make room for a younger, more diverse, brave, and exciting crop of artists to shine.

I hope that’s what we begin to see over the coming years, because other than a handful of limited bursaries (e.g. the Arts Council’s Next Generation Bursary, which is limited to 15 recipients each year) and a couple of seed programmes which can only take on very small numbers (e.g. Rough Magic’s excellent Seeds Programme, which only has space for a half dozen or so theatre makers every 2 years), there is currently virtually nothing for emerging artists in terms of funding, support, or mentorship. Instead they have to make do with the dole, unpaid work/internships, and emigration.

That’s not to mention the artists whose genres are largely ignored by the funding system, e.g. hip-hop, street art, fashion design, and many other relatively new art forms that our decision makers don’t seem to realise exist or consider to be “worthy” of funding just yet. If arts funding is to increase significantly over the coming years, this major imbalance must be redressed.

Continuing the debate

I have focused on the negative and the unanswered questions here, and I do think there is much to celebrate in this programme – as I said 3 out of 5 of its pillars are to be applauded, maybe even 4. But we shouldn’t just settle for that – and even its positives still need to be implemented, and implemented well.

Some people may question why I would criticise what is broadly a step in the right direction. We have an unfortunate tendency in the arts community, and in Ireland in general, to take a black or white stance towards our institutions and policies – either agreeing/supporting things wholeheartedly or lambasting them completely, when the truth usually lies somewhere in between.

The programme and the institutions behind it – like anything – have their flaws, and even if they’re headed in the right direction those flaws still need to be addressed so that we can ultimately strive for a (near) perfect system. Just because I’m pointing those out doesn’t mean I think they’re all bad, or am trying to viciously attack the people behind it.

So all of us in the arts community – who care deeply about the arts in Ireland but see the flaws in how it is funded and supported – need to make our voices heard and hold our decision makers to account on these issues. With all due respect, I know there are plenty who agree with these sentiments – who either smile and nod publicly while tearing their hair out in private, or else who refuse to engage with the arts establishment in exasperation and just do their own thing. Both are understandable, but I’m sorry to say that neither of these attitudes or approaches will result in any sort of improvement or real change in how funding, opportunities, and resources are allocated.

Jo Mangan and The National Campaign For The Arts have done great work over the last couple of years to push the government in the right direction, but their work is not done. I’d urge anyone who cares about these issues to get involved with them and speak out about both the positives and flaws in how the arts are supported. I realise many don’t because they fear it might affect their own opportunities in future, but we need to have these discussions and the more we all do it – in a constructive, thoughtful way – the more normalised these conversations will become.

It doesn’t need to be a vicious argument or an attack on the system, it’s called a debate. And this isn’t a debate between whether or not to fund the arts, it’s on how best to fund them. Debates can have multiple voices, and this one is just beginning, so don’t be afraid to make your voice heard. Nice one.

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