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
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.