Trouble at the mill for Irish arts and culture organisations
Recent stories about the Abbey Theatre, the Arts Council, Limerick City of Culture and Music Network point to some big picture issues
It reminds you of that great truism from The Wire: everything’s connected. In the last few months, we’ve had a lengthy run of stories emanating from and about the permanent establishment who run things in the Irish arts and culture orbit. They may not seem connected, but there’s a throughline about entitlement and hubris which connects all of them.
There was the whole Limerick City of Culture shambles which provided enough hubbub over the quiet period at the start of January to dominate the general news agenda. While all seems quiet on Shannonside for now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the issue has been settled. Before that, we had the shenanigans involving Music Network which, while a little more low-key, did provide people with an insight into how such bodies dish out their cash (this story appears to have been resolved, but only time will tell).
In fact, it’s always worth poking funding decisions by arts bodies because you’ll never know what you’ll find. That’s what Michael Dervan has done in today’s paper with the Arts Council to uncover some questionable maths around opera and a lack of transparency when it comes to funding decisions. He also helpfully lists some of the misadventurs of Minister for the Arts Jimmy Deenihan of late, including leaving five empty chairs around the Arts Council boardroom table.
Then, of course, there’s the current Abbey Theatre story, a story which, as befits the arts, has featured great drama including references to hand grenades, hot air about conspiracy theories and an (unelected) senator trying to get a government body to hush things up. You couldn’t make this up. Well, you could, but no-one would believe it.
There are a few different sides to this and a line from this paper’s recent editorial about the current mess gets to the nub of one of these: “there has been no shortage of political blather about the value of the arts, and their role in enhancing our international prestige, but every political action relating to culture has been to the detriment of the sector.” The arts and culture are great to talk up and value when you want to appear philanthropic and well-meaning – or want to stick an arts centre in your constituency – but it’s a far different matter when those pesky artists talk back or start to demand things other than honorariums.
You could see this stand-off writ large while the Limerick City of Culture looked as if it was unwinding and coming off the rails. In recent years, we’ve seen culture and arts pressed into use as a means to push tourism numbers. That’s all fine and well – our artists and their work are one significant reason why people come to Ireland – but it quickly became the case that those behind the year-long initiative saw no other use for the artists. As far as they were concerned, the artists were there to sell bed nights. You half expected them to send artists out for photo shoots with sandwich boards flogging cheap January deals in the local NAMA hotel.
Worse, there was a distinct sense that because the City of Culture mandarins were paying the bills that they expected the artistic community to toe the line and play ball. There would be no dissent, no deviation from the message. Their interest in the arts and culture was a financial one where return on investment was the only metric which mattered.
The fact that this whole brouhaha was put together with indecent haste is another example of the disconnect between the two sides. Compare the months spent getting Limerick City of Culture up and running compared to the years which Derry and Hull had and have to ready themselves for their tenures as UK City of Culture. But no, as far as the Limerick lads and lasses were concerned, the arts is something which can be lashed together in a few weeks or months.
But there’s also a converse argument when it comes to funding the arts and we can see this most clearly with the Abbey Theatre at present. Organisations like the Abbey don’t like criticism about how they spend our cash, hence the hue and cry over this paper’s report about an independent panel’s assessment of work at the theatre.
The Abbey gets more than its fair share of cash from the Arts Council – €7.1 million last year – yet it reacts very badly to any inference that the work it is putting on is just not up to scratch. It wants the cash, but it’s not prepared to accept that perhaps the work it is funding with those funds just does meet acceptable standards and needs to be addressed. There needs to be more, not less, clarity and oversight about what exactly is going on at Fiach Mac Conghail’s Abbey Street citadel.
It’s not as if those funds couldn’t be used to better effect elsewhere, though we’re then into a situation of favouring one project over another. Then, there’s the fact that government economics might favour taking the money back and handing it to more worthy contenders like bank bailours or consultants instead of arts administrators.
The problem here is, as always, a big picture one. Funding the arts and artists is a great idea in theory, but creates a ton of problems when it comes to putting it into practice. Despite the fact that there’s no shortage of ideas and notions about how to do it differently, we’ve stuck by and large to the same funding template here for years.
While there are few different ways of getting public money for arts and culture projects, the Arts Council by and large dole out the cash from the big kitty and all involved have got used to this way of working. When things begin to change or serious questions are asked about what is done with this money, as with the Abbey at present, the sound of wounded indignation fills the air.
The problem, though, is that there’s clearly no real will, political or otherwise, to change this situation or even consider a change. All involved have bought into this way of doing things and, for good or bad, are prepared to put up with it. The cash comes in, the cash goes out, some of the arts gets funded, the artists and arts organisation who don’t get funds get bitter and the hunger games for arts funding, to use Gerry Godley’s memorable phrase, go on. It’s only when you have a number of stories within a short space of time pointing to problems that people pause to think about alternatives.
But, as anyone who has seen or weathered such storms before knows all too well, this too will pass and the permanent establishment will roll on to the next set of funding decisions. It’s like a dull, long-running, well-meaning play about the hero’s dysfunctional relationship with his distant father and dying mother in an over-subsidised Irish theatre at this stage.