Aosdána. What is it, and what does it do for its €2.7m?
The affiliation of artists has a low profile for such a highly funded cultural organisation.
Annual meeting: Aosdána members at last year’s general assembly, during Ireland’s EU presidency. Photograph: Maxwell
Inaugural meeting: Aosdána’s first assembly, in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan
Artist’s impression: Brian Maguire, chairman of Aosdána’s committee
Founding member: Anthony Cronin, with a portrait of him by Brian Maguire, in 2005. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Most people are probably only vaguely aware of Aosdána, even though the State-funded artists’ organisation is more than 30 years old. That’s partly because its 247 members meet just once a year, at a day-long general assembly. The afternoon session is open to all, but no member of the public has attended one when this reporter has been there.
Aosdána was established in 1981 by the late Charles Haughey, as an organisation of Irish-based artists, some of whom would receive a State-funded stipend. Haughey’s cultural adviser Anthony Cronin, who became a founding member of Aosdána, is credited with the idea of creating an Irish equivalent of the Académie Française. Cronin told this newspaper in 1981 that aosdána “was the old Irish name of the filíochta for men of wisdom . . . I think this tie-up with the Gaelic tradition appealed to the taoiseach very much.”
In 1983 Haughey’s successor Garret FitzGerald formally addressed the first assembly of Aosdána. The organisation was to consist of 150 artists, nominated and elected by their peers. Those who earned less than a certain amount were to be entitled to the cnuas, as the stipend is known; at that time the payment was £4,000 a year.
Since then Aosdána’s membership has risen by 100. One of its highest-profile members at present is the writer Margaretta D’Arcy, who is serving a three-month sentence in Limerick Prison for protesting against the use of Shannon Airport by the US military. Membership is for life, so in recent years the few much sought-after places that have become vacant have usually done so because of a death. Currently, 155 members receive the cnuas, which is now €17,180, and is tax free.
Members of Aosdána can also “join the artists’ pension scheme if they so wish”, according to the Arts Council, through which the State funds the organisation. “In all cases the Arts Council pays half of the premium. In the case of cnuas recipients, the member’s contribution will be deducted from the cnuas.” Last year Aosdána received almost €2.7 million from the Arts Council. It spent nearly all of it on the stipend.
What does it do?
More than three decades on from its establishment, what does Aosdána look like now? What does it do? And to whom is it accountable?
Few Irish arts organisations get such substantial funding. The Abbey Theatre received €6.5 million for 2014, the highest payment to a single organisation. Wexford Festival Opera received the second-highest amount, €1.4 million. Since 2007 nearly every arts organisation has had to contend with cuts in State funding. The cnuas has never been cut.
Aosdána regulates itself, through the toscaireacht, a committee of 10 members elected from within the organisation. They meet at least three times a year. The current toscairí are Cronin, the composers Seóirse Bodley and Jane O’Leary, the poets Theo Dorgan and Mary O’Malley, the architect Shelley McNamara, the novelist Colm Tóibín and the artists Mary FitzGerald, Alice Hanratty and Brian Maguire, the last of whom is the committee’s chairman.
Aosdána’s web pages, which are part of the Arts Council site, list all of the organisation’s members and include minutes of 50 toscaireacht meetings since 2003. Until last month the most recently listed were from February 2013; now they also include minutes from last July. November’s have yet to be posted.
How does Maguire, who has just been appointed to the Arts Council, think people view Aosdána? “I haven’t a clue,” he says initially, before thinking and adding, “Very warmly. Just look at the huge reaction to the death of one of our former members, Seamus Heaney.”
He says that Aosdána is unique, and that it brought together “two seemingly contradictory elements”: honouring achievement and helping artists off the breadline. “When Aosdána was set up there were very senior artists who were living in poverty.” The cnuas now guarantees members a modest income.