Aosdána is not perfect, but does anybody have a better idea?
If Aosdána is a broken tool, the situation it was set up to remedy is still a broken situation
In 1983, Colm Ó Briain, then director of the Arts Council, said: ‘The danger is that in 30 years’ time [Aosdána] may be a stagnant establishment, a clique-ridden operation.’ Photograph: Jimmy McCormack
Aosdána is in the news again. And if you’re in Aosdána, or a great fan of Aosdána, that’s not good news. Aosdána is a self-electing, self-governing elite, a group of just under 250 artists whose membership entitles them to a means-tested but tax-free annual stipend of €17,180, which is funded through the Arts Council.
There are few stipulations attached to the receipt of this stipend, which is called the Cnuas. It is easy to see why people are so divided and get so agitated about the issue.
Aosdána was first announced in 1981, and it was controversial from the start. Was it Charlie Haughey’s baby, another clever stroke for creative artists, like his earlier exemption of artistic earnings from income tax? Or was it a creature of the Arts Council, a creative solution reached after years of dogged research and number-crunching? Was it set up to provide Ireland with a system of public honour for artists? Or was it set up as a kind of alternative dole, so that well-respected, self-employed but poor creative types would be spared having to deal with the social-welfare system?
Even the discussion of Aosdána in Brian Kennedy’s book Dreams and Responsibilities, The State and the Arts in Independent Ireland, published by the Arts Council in 1990, became a matter of controversy. Copies of the book were shredded by the Arts Council, allegedly under pressure arising from Kennedy’s representation of Haughey’s role in the creation of Aosdána.
It became the subject of a rancorous exchange in the Dáil. One of Labour TD Ruairí Quinn’s questions to Haughey, then taoiseach, in December 1991, gives a flavour: “May I ask the taoiseach if he agrees that when a transaction of conversations takes place between his artistic adviser and the director of the Arts Council, which ultimately leads to the shredding of 200 books and the resignation in protest at that act of vandalism by one of the officers of the Arts Council, that something is seriously wrong and that he has an obligation to investigate the exchanges which took place?”
Arts Council clients in the 1990s lived in what they called a climate of fear, and the book-shredding was a contributing factor.
But things don’t have to be either/or. They can be both. Aosdána required the inputs of Haughey, his special adviser Anthony Cronin and the director of the Arts Council, Colm Ó Briain. It is about honour and support. It does a good job in some respects and a dreadful one in others.
Ó Briain liked to talk about Aosdána as a collective. In 1983 he told me, “We had always felt that the bursaries, which were the only vehicle for support to the individual artist, were not the solution – bursaries meant putting artists through the hoop each year for a diminishing number of individual awards. We were now talking, not about a replacement for our bursaries but about a concept that would address the question of honour and achievement, and would create a context in which pension arrangements could be considered and, by virtue of having dealt with the whole question of standards, achievement and status of the individuals, construct a support programme which wouldn’t have the element of competition and annual rat race.”
The original membership was restricted to 150. It is now capped at 250. In 1983, Ó Briain foresaw this as a flaw. “The danger of this, which may be very exciting and innovative now, is that in 30 years’ time it may be a stagnant establishment, a clique-ridden operation. All we can do is hope that those dangers can be avoided. They are inherent in any sort of selection of a group of distinction: once you’ve selected some, you’ve automatically excluded others.”
He added that, “given the size of our population, given the size of our artistic community, if you go to 200, 250, 300 . . . in the words of Pooh-Bah: if everybody’s somebody then nobody’s anybody. You dilute the whole thrust and purpose of your initiative by trying to address all the problems.”
Putting the size in context
It is useful to put the size issue in context. If France were to have an equivalent, allowing for its greater population, the membership would be more than 3,000. In Germany it would be more than 4,000, in Russia more than 7,000, in the US more than 16,000 and in China more than 700,000.
At 250 in Ireland, honour is clearly no longer the primary concern. Most people who want to get into Aosdána are interested in the money. And that is not their failing or their greed, it’s a failing of the system. Because the system for artist support in Ireland is not good. And Aosdána has become a patch for one of its worst problems, that artists, even quite “successful” ones, find it very difficult to get by.
If Aosdána is a broken tool, the situation it was set up to remedy is still what you would have to call a broken situation. Dig under the surface in most European countries and you will find better infrastructure and support for the arts than you will find in Ireland. This is true at national level, at regional level and at local level.
Here in Ireland, funding is concentrated in the Arts Council, whose 2014 grant-in-aid from Government is just under €57 million. If you would like context for that – and I’m grateful to Martin Drury for drawing this comparison to my attention many years ago – the 2013 budget for Dublin City Council’s Library and Archive Service was just over €25 million. This means the public library spend in the capital amounts to about 44 per cent of what the Government sees fit to provide to the Arts Council to support the arts over the entire country.
This extraordinary situation should not prevent us having a full debate over the merits and demerits of Aosdána. In terms of intellectual leadership, it has not lived up to early expectations. Getting in is an ugly process. Its PR sensitivity is that of a society of anarchists. And with membership nearly full, a crisis debate about expansion is surely imminent. The main reason to support it is not because it’s a wonderful scheme. It is not. But, in terms of giving some kind of financial security to around half of its members, it is, warts and all, the best thing we have. Unless, of course, you have something better to propose.