Are local authorities neglecting the arts?

Structural problems and shortcomings seem endemic in the system so why aren’t more people in the arts speaking up?

Wed, May 21, 2014, 01:00

According to the latest Red C research, two thirds of the public think local authorities should support the arts financially. Ahead of the local elections, the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) is stepping up its call to make Ireland a “Republic of Culture” and encouraging us to lobby candidates to make the arts matter more. Amid all this, key questions remain, namely: what exactly do local authority arts officers do, how is their work accountable, and are councils obliged to provide support for the arts?

In the layers of institutional support for the arts, the Arts Council has the national remit, while local authorities focus more closely on their own parts of the country, supporting artists, performers and arts activities across the spectrum. As well as city or county income, the Arts Council also gives funds to local authority arts offices annually, to the tune of just over €2 million this year. Grants range from €26,110 to Kerry County Council to the €75,820 that went to each of Mayo, Sligo and Wexford. These figures don’t include additional support to festivals and venues within the different regions.


Positions unfilled
So far so good – except, to take one example, Sligo doesn’t have an arts officer in place. When Mary McAuliffe retired in March, the position wasn’t advertised. Sligo County Council says “there is still an arts function within the council, but [there are] no plans to reappoint”. The arts office is staffed, mornings only, by a public-arts officer.

Things are worse in Roscommon, where there hasn’t been an arts officer in place for some time. Ring the number listed for the arts office, and the recorded message tells you the mailbox is full. Its online calendar of events is empty. When asked if there is an arts officer in place, the council initially declines to comment before emailing this response: “Roscommon County Council has an extensive arts programme which is managed by the arts team consisting of five people and is co-ordinated by Mary Mullins.”

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the availability of arts officers from a straw poll of phone calls made in an afternoon; after all, they could be on the road to any number of events on their beat. Nevertheless, there is substantial anecdotal evidence from artists, arts organisers, and performers that in many cases it is nearly impossible to get hold of their local arts officer. Because of the grant-giving power of the people in question, no one is prepared to make a complaint.

After a trawl of numerous local authority websites, some of which appear to have been last updated in 2009, I call 10 at random, leaving voicemails when there is no reply. I get through to just four. At Waterford, the voicemail says not to leave a message, but instead to try the mobile number – but no mobile number is provided.

Getting to the bottom of how well the system works is complicated by the fact that everything exists in a connected network of patronage. So just as artists and performers will only speak privately about their frustrations of trying to connect with arts officers, it is equally difficult to get the arts officers to speak on the record about difficulties working within their own council structures, and about any anxieties over an influx of new local councillors following the elections.

Clare arts officer Siobhán Mulcahy is also chair of the Association of Local Authority Arts Officers. “It’s a time of huge change,” she says. “Local authorities are restructuring, and though difficulties do arise, we look for opportunities. The challenge and the skill is to get the local authorities to view the arts as integral.”

Obvious problems include small staff numbers, and varying levels of commitment across the sector.

There are, of course, some extremely good arts officers. Some local-authority arts offices have responded to cuts in funding by applying to the EU, and running partnerships with businesses, such as Leitrim’s Spark project, which arranges artist residencies in companies (The Hive and the Leitrim Observer in 2014).

In Mayo, the Fake Public Arts Panel, set up by public arts co-ordinator Gaynor Seville, helps artists to make better proposals for projects, widening the field of participants. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Dublin City Council’s arts offices are also hugely active.


Excellent venues
Then there are the excellent regional arts venues, supported by local authorities (as well as the Arts Council), including Leitrim’s The Dock, Dublin’s The Lab, and Drogheda’s Highlanes Gallery. Since the Arts Act 2003, all local authorities are obliged to have an arts plan, although as far as the Department of Local Government is concerned, whether there’s actually an arts officer in place is discretionary.

According to the NCFA, local authority arts spending in 2013 totalled just under €30 million, or, as it puts it, an average of €0.13 per person per week. It is lobbying for more arts spending, but that has to be well administered, well targeted and well spent. The energy at grassroots level is evident across the arts and yes, the arts need more support. But the structures in place need to work hard to deserve to administer it, too.


A breakdown of local authority spending is available at localauthorityfinances.com. Arts spending is incorporated into the Recreation and Amenity heading


WHEN IT WORKS: LOCAL AUTHORITY PROJECTS TO CELEBRATE


Changing Tracks (Mayo County Council). This project picked up €400,000 in EU support, with art works in Ireland, Catalonia and the UK. Irish artist Aideen Barry’s work on the old Westport to Achill railway line will be on view from July. changingtracks.eu
West Cork Arts for Health (Cork County Council). Working with partners to provide arts programmes for older people in five community hospitals and five day-care centres in west Cork, as well as in Bantry General Hospital’s care of the elderly unit.
Living Arts Project (Wexford County Council). Works with Wexford Arts Centre to offer an artist-in-residence programme to primary schools in the county, and a curatorial residency for transition year in one secondary school. Plus an end of year exhibition. wexfordartscentre.ie
LOCIS (Leitrim County Council). Provides international artist exchange and residencies with Polish and Swedish partners, and works with emerging artists in each country. Awarded €161,000 in EU Culture Programme support. locis.eu


IN NUMBERS: LOCAL AUTHORITY SPENDING

Overall arts spending in 2013 by local authorities: €29,900,000


On average, each local authority spent €879,412 on the arts in 2013


That’s €6.52 per person per year and just €0.13 per person per week in 2013
(source: The Arts Council, via National Campaign for the Arts)


Changes in local authority arts spending (figures from the Arts Council)

2010 €39.2 million or €0.16 per person per week
2011 €29.9 million or €0.13 per person per week
2012 €26 million or €0.11 per person per week
2013 €29.9 million or €0.13 per person per week


Source: localauthorityfinances.com. Note these figures are for all spending on recreation and amenity services, including leisure services and libraries

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