The artists who stay outside in the cold

Fri, Feb 1, 2013, 00:00

The Arts Council has more influence than any other organisation on the sector, but what about the people that get by without its financial support, writes GEMMA TIPTON

Do you do your job because you want to, or because of what you get paid for it? This question is essentially about whether money is an end or a means. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I read some of the justifications given when inflated salaries and fees are paid, such as it’s the kind of money you need to pay to get the right person. To those of us in the arts sector, it sounds as if they are speaking a different language.

Once it might have been possible to suggest that bankers played a more important role in society than artists, but few make such an argument now.

How many of those trying to solve the financial crisis see it as something vocational – a job to do because it’s good to do, and crucially needs doing well – rather than a highly lucrative way of passing the working day? Most people in the arts, a largely self-exploiting bunch, see their work as something they want, or need, to do.

Money is the often-inadequate enabler. This operates differently across the various art forms, with the visual arts having the most peculiar relationship to market economics.

There, being seen as a commercial success is detrimental to your cultural status; while being uncommercial, and in receipt of Arts Council support, is an imprimatur, an emblem of merit.

It’s not a question of being unable to do anything else. Artists such as John Gerrard, who works with cutting-edge technologies, could easily opt for higher financial rewards in industry.

Artist and curator Sally Timmons set up Common Place Studios in Dublin ( commonplace.ie) in 2006, receiving seed funding from Dublin City Council, but opting not to apply to the Arts Council because of the scale of the studios and issues relating to the lease on the building.

The studios are self-supporting through rental income, while the eight studio artists apply for Arts Council project support for their work. Timmons says: “If I was working on a large-scale project I would consider seeking support in the form of a once-off award or grant. I haven’t felt the need to do this yet though because the projects have been small and manageable.” For her, the work and the projects are what matter, not who endorses them.

The reason this way of thinking is significant now is that, as funding cuts continue to change the shape and nature of artists’ and arts organisations’ relationships to funding bodies, the idea of money, vital as it is, seems to be altering the ways people think about why it is they do what they do.

Recently, I overheard a group of people who work in the arts discussing a funding meeting. One person said: “They want an awful lot for what they’re paying.”

The thing is, the Arts Council doesn’t “pay” any artist or arts organisation to do anything. Established in 1951, the Irish Arts Council follows the principle of arm’s-length funding set up by the Arts Council of England in 1946. In the aftermath of the second World War, this was to defend against state-sponsored, politically censored art, as had been seen in Nazi Germany.

Today in Ireland, the Arts Council responds to applications, granting funds on the basis of what people say they want to do, and inevitably the money represents more than necessary cash.

Patrick Murphy, the director of the Royal Hibernian Academy, says: “The members of the Arts Council are artistic peers, made up of scholars, artists, writers, dramatists and audience. So to receive a grant is to receive the judgment of your peers. That’s its core; beyond the financial investment of a bursary or a grant, that judgment has value.”

But as the Arts Council’s allocation has decreased from €85 million in 2008, to €59.9 million this year, people are seeing the valuation of their peers being reduced.

Last year there were 3,400 applications for grant aid, totalling a request for €179 million in funding. Only 1,500 grants were made, which makes for 1,900 separate letdowns.

So how should people respond? Arts Council director Orlaith McBride thinks we have to step back from the idea of a seal of approval as cuts bring “a huge level of disappointment, on a human level, as well as artistic disappointment”.

“What I find so heartbreaking is that the funding has reduced so much, we can’t respond to everyone financially, and people may not always have the creative confidence in their own work.”

This is unsurprising as, along with local authorities, a few foundations, and Culture Ireland, the structure of support for the arts in Ireland is small, and not all cutting-edge art is “friendly” to popular acclaim.

American model

Equally, despite calls to follow the American model of sponsorship (even without the commensurate tax allowances), this, like the art market itself, only favours a certain type of art, according to Noel Kelly, the director of Visual Artists Ireland. Not all arts organisations make the type of work that is attractive to sponsors, he says, and the money available to business for sponsorship has diminished, just as it has for government.

Since 2000, the Arts Council has supported the creation of structures; now, it is focusing on projects, to ensure that funds go to the production of work, rather than the organisations that are wrapped around them. Many arts organisations became bloated during the boom.

This strategy brings its casualties, too. Peter FitzGerald was editor of Circa magazine until it ceased printing in 2011, when the Arts Council of Ireland cut its funding entirely (the Arts Council of Northern Ireland still funds recirca.com, an online version of which FitzGerald is a board member).

Arts Council funding “is rarely an initial reason for doing things, but it’s almost always necessary if we want to get beyond the first few years”, he says.

“Most people have only so many resources of their own that they can invest before having to get replenishment from somewhere . . . When funding is cut, some art structures can shrink to cope, but if the cuts are too severe, the structure can’t hold and the operation falls apart.”

Circa’s demise in print form ended a continuous 30-year legacy of arts writing.

Another organisation that operates independently of the Arts Council is Lismore Castle Arts, which opened in 2005 ( lismorecastlearts.ie). Initial applications for Arts Council funding were unsuccessful and the support of the duke and duchess of Devonshire, who own the castle, reduces the financial imperative. There are pros and cons to this, however, says director Eamonn Maxwell.

“We don’t have to play to certain tunes. We’re able to make changes easily, but that’s not to say we exist in an ivory tower with vast amounts of cash to do whatever we want.”

Initially, there was a sense in the art world that the new gallery had to prove itself. Eight years on, it has, but that process could have been quickly circumvented by the addition of Arts Council funding, which carries with it an inherent, notional imprimatur. Lismore Castle Arts holds one major exhibition a year and Monuments, curated by Mark Sladen, opens on April 20th. It also partners with other organisations on events.

In the early days, an Arts Council logo would have helped Lismore, but as cuts continue, the arts will increasingly have to stop focusing on them.

We have to stop measuring respect in financial or institutional terms. There’s more to life than the right logo, and while we all have to afford to live, there are other motivations than money, in all walks of life, not just the arts.

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