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

Valerie Bistany at the Irish Writers’ Centre: ‘The board’s vision is that we are for writers.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Wed, Jan 8, 2014, 01:00

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.

“I suppose we’re trying to move on from that period of time. I was employed to put a structure on the place; an organisational structure, to consolidate its funding base, to devise an artistic programme that fitted in with the vision that the board had for it, but also that I would bring to it.”

One of the things Bistany hopes to achieve is to solidify the centre’s identity.

“I’d like to develop a strong branding for ourselves; that people know what we do,” she says. “What we do is support writers at all stages of their development, and we work hard to be relevant to all writers. That’s a really major point. Heretofore I don’t know how relevant we’ve been to mid-career and professional writers, and I’d like to correct that. I’d like writers to be comfortable to come here, to have something to come here for, to be able to contribute to us, and vice versa.”

At present, anyone who pays an annual membership fee of €50 can become a member of the centre and avail of the free wifi on the premises from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Given that the centre has mainly been associated with courses, what does Bistany consider it could offer established writers who presumably have no need of such courses?

“Even established writers need support,” she says. “There is a belief that when some people [achieve] a public presence, they are then set up for life, and I don’t think it’s necessarily so. There are established writers who have fallow periods.”


The landlord
Fáilte Ireland owns the building that houses the Irish Writers’ Centre, as well as the building housing the Dublin Writers’ Museum next door. However, unlike the Dublin Writers’ Museum, the Irish Writers’ Centre pays rent to Fáilte Ireland.

The centre had a turnover of €250,000 in 2013. “We broke even, with about €2,000 or €3,000 in the black.” Along with the €48,000 programming funding from the Arts Council, it also received some smaller grants. “We got €5,000 from Dublin City Council. We got other pockets of money from other organisations on a once-off basis, like Fáilte Ireland, and Unesco City of World Literature.”

The rest of the shortfall comes from “the earned income from running courses”, says Bistany.

The centre will be running several new courses in the spring. She believes past courses “didn’t have a shape or direction. What I’m doing is trying to introduce strata of courses: courses for beginners, specialised courses, and finally professional development courses. Those last will be really important to reach out to more established writers, people who have published, so we can ask them: what can we do for you? How can we support you better? What are your needs as writers?”

Along with establishing the Irish Writers’ Centre as a brand, Bistany and the board now want to make it clear who the centre is for.

“The board’s vision is that we are for writers, and that seems like a simple thing. But for the longest time, I think there was a debate on this board and on previous boards that we were for writers and readers. So now for them to come up and say we’re for writers is a great thing for me, because it gives me a clear direction for the job ahead.”

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