Defiance and contempt at Aosdána’s annual meeting

The mood was combative, with some members appearing to claim that the nature of the organisation’s work puts it beyond accountability

Fri, May 2, 2014, 16:59

On Tuesday, Aosdána, an Irish association of artists, met for its annual general assembly at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. It is the only time the organisation meets during the year, and of its 247 members, 125 were in attendance.

The morning session of the meeting was closed to the public, but The Irish Times obtained a copy of the agenda. New members are elected at the annual assembly, and this year, 16 people were nominated. They are: composers Elaine Agnew, Ciaran Farrell and Daniel Figgis; architect Tom de Paor; artists Rita Duffy, Marie Hanlon, Mary Kelly, Abigail O’Brien, Geraldine O’Neill and Joe Walker; poet James Harpur; playwright Sean McCarthy; writers Mary Morrissy, Michael O’Loughlin and Sean O’Reilly; and Irish-language actor and playwright Joe Steve Ó Neachtain.

There were three available spaces this year, as the quota for membership is 250. Ó Neachtain was the sole successful candidate.

One of the morning’s three motions was in reference to the voting system for new members. “The assembly believes that is it important that the voting in relation to new members be as broad and inclusive as possible and that it should not be seen that withholding of support from other candidates is advantageous to a member’s favoured candidate or candidates.

“The assembly therefore requests An Toscaireacht to consider, consult on and report to next year’s assembly on the desirability of using transferable preference for the election of new members.”

It is clear from this motion that nothing happens quickly in Aosdána, and any proposed change to the peer-elected process of voting will be at least two years away.

Aosdána received €2.7 million from the Arts Council this year, most of it supporting the €17,180 stipend, or cnuas, that is received by 155 of its members.

The Toscaireacht is the committee that represents Aosdána’s members. At the public afternoon session, an outgoing member of that committee, artist Alice Hanratty, addressed several members of the media who were then present.

Hanratty declared that she had “nothing but contempt for these people who criticise Aosdána and for what they write about us. I regard them all as being people who have nothing better to do, so I personally never worry about their opinions.” (Several recent articles have been published in this newspaper and others discussing the level of funding it receives.)

It seems strange that any State-funded organisation should consider itself above scrutiny or criticism. From Tuesday’s assembly, it is evident that some members of Aosdána believe the nature of their work makes them exempt from accountability.

As a former member of the Toscaireacht, Hanratty is one of the people who represented Aosdána members and met regularly with the Arts Council. If her publicly declared blanket contempt for critics of Aosdána is even partially representative of the other 247 members’ views, then Aosdána would appear to be alarmingly out-of-touch with reality. No organisation funded by taxpayers’ money can be immune from criticism. Hanratty’s comments will have done little to engender public respect for Aosdána.

The poet and critic Bill McCormack, who uses the pseudonym of Hugh Maxton, gave a well-received address during the public session. This was described in the agenda as: “The relationship of the individual artist to contemporary Irish society . . . Naturally, the valuable role of Aosdána will feature, together with that of the Arts Council.”

Maxton also took umbrage with the media, delivering statements such as, “recent commentators find Aosdána particularly undeserving. After all, what have we done for road safety? Can we promise to be productive, like water meters?” and “the cnuas payments to circa 150 members are regularly held up to hostile scrutiny”.

As part of his presentation in outlining what he considered to be Aosdána’s “valuable role”, Maxton referenced events from several decades ago. “Two of Aosdána’s saoithe [given to members for ‘singular and sustained distinction in the arts’] were sponsors of the Irish anti-apartheid movement at times when the Department of Foreign Affairs were less than unambiguous on the issue of trade with South Africa. When the fatwa was proclaimed against Salman Rushdie in February 1989, the toscaireacht of the day, led by Anthony Cronin, met the press to express outrage and solidarity. This was not a gesture without risks.”

He also mentioned the “Temple Bar experiment”, developed in the early 1990s, and “launched by the initial work of many volunteers, including members of Aosdána”.

When it came to the present day, there were no examples of similar involvement, other than the comment, “there is a world outside Aosdána and every member is actively aware of it”.

The artist James Hanley responded to Maxton’s presentation by saying that he had artist friends outside Aosdána, and that he was “sometimes embarrassed” by their questions as to how the organisation functioned. “People do have questions about Aosdána, and what it is for. The public don’t always understand what we do, because we don’t communicate it properly.” He suggested that they be more pro-active as an organisation.

His contribution was followed by writer Theo Dorgan, who stated: “There is a malaise in any country that only considers the cost of something.”

After the floor had spoken in response to Maxton, the media were asked to leave, while private Aosdána business continued behind closed doors.

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