Culture Shock: Why it’s time for Irish artists to go on strike

In this column from last year, Fintan O'Toole argues that artists need to go on strike to be taking seriously by the Government, and imagines what that would look and sound like

Illustration: Oscar Scotellaro/Getty

Illustration: Oscar Scotellaro/Getty

 

Here is a modest proposal for something Irish artists should do in 2015: shut up, go dark, get off the stage. It is time for a national arts strike – not a week of action but a week of inaction. Pick a week far enough ahead to allow for proper co-ordinated planning, and do nothing. Close the theatres, the galleries, the museums, the arts centres, the concert halls, the music venues. Publish no Irish books, hold no poetry readings. Launch no films. Broadcast no soaps. Play no sessions in pubs. Maintain radio silence.

Why? Because artists need to stand up for themselves. Artists and cultural institutions have been under prolonged attack since the beginning of the crisis in 2008. Most national cultural institutions have taken cuts of around 40 per cent to their annual budgets, leaving some of them on the brink of collapse. Under the current Government, funding for arts, culture and film has fallen from €92.3 million in 2011 to €75.9 million in 2014. These cuts are worse than the general effects of so-called austerity. Even within the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG), arts funding has been hit harder than any other sector. Non-pay funding for each of the department’s other three briefs – heritage, Gaeltacht and the islands, and north-south co-operation – has been broadly static. Arts spending has gone down by 18 per cent in the same period.

The DAHG’s own budget submission for 2014 noted that “services are already at a bare minimum level” and suggested that further cuts would be “devastating” to the arts sector, forcing regional venues to close and leading to “restricted access” to national cultural institutions. Those further cuts were avoided but the reality of funding the sector to a “bare minimum” level of mere survival has not altered. And if nothing much happens, it won’t alter in the foreseeable future.

There is no intention to restore arts funding even as the fiscal arithmetic improves. The 2015 budget allocation for the DAHG shows an increase of €4 million on the current side and a decrease of €4 million on the capital side – which means no overall gain. This is actually worse than it seems, since the extra €4 million that has been allocated for arts spending is entirely dedicated to specific events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising. In effect, the overall budget is static but €4 million of it has been taken out of capital investment for one-off events.

It is made quite explicit in the Government’s expenditure review that the intention in 2015 is that nothing new will be funded except for centenary commemorations: “The additional current expenditure funding in 2015 will be utilised to support existing services and fund initiatives to commemorate the foundation of the State.” It is important to realise that static funding is built in to Government policy for the next three years – the allocation for DAHG is exactly the same for 2015, 2016 and 2017. Private reservations The official rhetoric about all of this suggests that the gap in public funding can be made up by fundraising and sponsorship. But there is no evidence that private funding can ever reach levels that will compensate for public cutbacks. The Arts Council’s recent report on this area has detailed figures for 2012. It shows that private funding amounted to €6.6 million in all, with less than half of this coming from sponsorship. Even for large cultural organisations, which are best placed to draw in funders, sponsorship made up 2.9 per cent of their annual income.

Why have the arts been disproportionately affected by austerity? Because they’re a soft touch. Individual artists get on with it as best they can. Arts and cultural institutions, meanwhile, are frankly scared that if they speak up they will be punished. Governments can thus make two working assumptions. One is that there will always be a photo-op international prize that will allow for the usual vaporising about how much we love culture. The other is that the public doesn’t really care – who needs arts centres when hospitals are falling apart?

These assumptions have to challenged. The public has to be reminded that it really does care, that artistic and cultural activities are part of its everyday life. And the Government has to be convinced that artists and cultural institutions have gone beyond the politics of keeping their heads down. If the cultural sector wants to be respected, it has to show self-respect. It has to prove that it cares enough about what it does – that it sufficiently values the cultural rights of the citizens it serves – to stand up for itself.

It’s not that hard – if such a thing as an arts community exists, it should be possible to co-ordinate a week’s strike. What better way to draw the public’s attention to what it takes for granted? What better way to expose on the international stage the embarrassing gap between rhetoric and reality in Irish culture? fotoole@irishtimes.com

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