A new script for the Irish Writers’ Centre
The organisation has had a tough few years since losing Arts Council funding in 2009. New director Valerie Bistany is hoping to draw a line under its past and to establish a fresh identity
Valerie Bistany at the Irish Writers’ Centre: ‘The board’s vision is that we are for writers.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
The Irish Writers’ Centre on Dublin’s Parnell Square, which opened in 1991, has had a troubled recent past. In 2008, it received €200,000 in annual funding from the Arts Council. The following year, it received nothing. Although the decision was appealed by the writers’ centre, it stood.
As this newspaper reported at the time, the Arts Council cited its reasons for entirely cutting funding due to concern “about the quality of the service it offered writers, and about the high proportion of its income that was spent on staff salaries”.
The then director, Cathal McCabe, left in February 2009. Although it has stayed open – largely due to the collective efforts of dedicated volunteers – until this year it has remained without a director.
Valerie Bistany was appointed to that role in March last year, and took up the job in July. We meet in one of the gracious Georgian rooms of the Irish Writers’ Centre that overlook Parnell Square to talk about her first months in the job.
One of the first things Bistany is anxious to talk about are the hours she works. “I was employed as a part-time director originally,” she explains. “I came in originally at 20 hours a week, and now I’m at 30 hours, but officially I’m still part-time. The reality is quite different.”
So now the job is for 30 hours and her salary has increased accordingly? “That’s what I’m being paid for,” she answers. “I think there was always a recognition that it would be very hard to have a part-time director. How can you be the part-time director of anything?”
So does she work more than 30 hours? “Oh yes,” she says, laughing.
This year, the centre has applied to the Arts Council for funding of €100,000 for 2014. Should the application be successful, it will be the first annual funding tranche it will have received since 2008. For 2013, its Arts Council grant was €48,000. However, that was for annual programming.
As Bistany explains, “annual funding means that the Arts Council recognises that you have running and operational costs, such as staff costs, building costs, overheads. Annual programming funding is strictly for the events that are put on by the organisation.”
The centre is hopeful of receiving the full €100,000. Even if it does, that will be still only be half of what it got in 2008.
So what is her view of the centre’s past problems? “I know there was an issue over salaries and that the Arts Council felt that their money was going towards salaries rather than programme, and perhaps there was an issue of governance as well, and the board should have maybe been more proactive in all of this. But I’m speaking through my own research through the files, and my understanding of the situation, because obviously I wasn’t there.”
Loss of funding
Has the fact that the centre lost all its funding under the watch of a former director been discussed between her and the current board?
“Yes, we would have discussed it in different ways,” she says. “But not with the board, at a board meeting. I think I’ve had various discussions with the chairperson, the deputy chairperson over that period of time. I’ve also talked to various people who are around, or who have knowledge of that period of time. I’ve gone through the files myself, so I’ve seen some correspondence from that time, so I’ve gained a picture through various different means.