Why the Irish arts sector could benefit from a little of Jude Law’s anger
Last night Elizabeth Price won the Turner prize, Britain’s most prestigious visual-arts award, and with it a cheque for £25,000. Perhaps what was most striking about the ceremony was not her win – although Paul Noble was the bookies’ favourite in a particularly strong year, Price’s work has been lauded by critics.
Rather, it was the tone taken by Jude Law, who presented the award, the Tate’s director Penelope Curtis, and Price herself. All three showed a palpable anger at the British government’s plans to cut arts funding and arts-education funding, and they weren’t afraid to use the Turner prize ceremony to air it.
In an emotive speech, Law accused the British government of “cultural vandalism” over plans to drop art from its central position on the school curriculum. He said the prize represented the “cutting edge” of the UK’s creative output and that downgrading classes in art, design, drama, dance and music would blunt “our leading edge in the arts and jeopardise the future of the UK’s creative industries. Art education should be accessible to all.”
Price also lamented the effect these cuts would have, and said she couldn’t imagine how her career would have worked out without support from the state.
Price with actor Jude Law
Closer to home, the Irish arts scene has its own swingeing cuts to contend with. In an opinion piece in this newspaper earlier in the week, the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan outlined his reforms for saving money in some of Ireland’s national cultural institutions, changes he regards as “long overdue”.
Under the proposals, the National Gallery of Ireland, Imma and the Crawford galleries will share “marketing, procurement, storage, security and retail services”. The number of members on boards and advisory councils has been cut, and all will work without fees.
The minister is also strengthening the independence of the directors of the National Archives, National Museum and National Library, which will allow them to raise funds from private sources to fund their activities.
His vision is for “a robustly independent director at the National Museum and the National Library, assisted by an advisory council for both with a focus on philanthropy”. If this sounds like a somewhat American model, it will come as no surprise that the minister makes a passing reference to the Smithsonian as a model to be admired, comprising as it does “a wide range of diverse institutions, including museums, libraries and zoos, all under one board”.
There is little detail in these plans, but there seems to be a wide-ranging attempt to shoehorn artistic institutions into more business-like models, and demand that they immediately deliver a better return. Without plenty of more specific detail on these plans, it is difficult to judge their merits.
The response from the sector has been largely subdued, which is perhaps unsurprising. The arts is bracing itself for the full brunt of tomorrow’s Budget, so perhaps it seems churlish to complain about changes to cultural institutions, given the critical state of our health and education systems.
But the sector has never been good at protesting too much, and this runs deeper than mere politeness. The relatively small size of the arts scene here, regardless of its vibrancy, makes criticism difficult and potentially awkward – if you criticise an artist or organisation here and you work in the sector, there is a very good chance that at some stage in the future you will end up working with them. And the arts is not famed for its forgiving nature.
Then there are the institutions themselves – with so much of the funding in this country coming from the Arts Council, it is rare to hear a word of protest against it. When organisations or individuals have funding cut, they frequently express their “disappointment” or “regret”, but they are reluctant to tell us what they really think – because they know that some 12 months down the line they will probably be reapplying to the same organisation for that same State-funded lifeline.
We need more honesty in the arts, and we need more constructive criticism of our artistic output, our cultural institutions and how these are administered and funded. We could do with more of the type of anger that led Jude Law, Elizabeth Price and Penelope Curtis to speak out against what they see as critically damaging cuts.
It was refreshing to read Aaron Monaghan’s recent interview in this newspaper when he claimed that a lot of contemporary theatre “is being made for a very particular, young, hip audience; shows about the theatre itself. But I am tired of going to see shows where everyone is playing a version of themselves and there are only 40 people in the audience. We have to do better than that.
“Sometimes it can be hard to have a real open dialogue about these things, because people are just being too polite, but if you can’t be honest, nothing will change.”
Changes are coming for the arts, but the sector needs to sharpen its critical faculties and channel its anger more effectively – tomorrow’s budget is as good a place to start as any.