Do arts cuts hit the right note?

 

The conviction that the arts yield a good return for a relatively small investment, and that they are a vital component in Ireland’s international image, possibly saved the sector from more severe cuts in this week’s austerity Budget

WHILE STATE support for the arts was cut in this week’s Budget, the reduction was nothing like the recent British budget which saw the British Arts Council lose a third of its funding. Our Government has clearly avoided what distinguished British theatre director Sir Peter Hall called the “insane” direction of British policy with regard to the arts.

In general, most recipients of arts funding here are relieved that the cut has not, as some expected, gone much deeper. It could be said that the “Farmleigh factor”, and perhaps the recent National Campaign for the Arts, had some effect – the conviction and argument that the arts yield a good return for a relatively small investment and that they, at least, continue to send out a badly needed affirmative image of Ireland at a time when most of the other news from these shores suggests misery, misfortune and downright mismanagement.

The allocation for the Arts Council is down 5 per cent and overall, the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport has been left with a day-to-day budget of just over €118 million for cultural activity – down €4.5 million from this year’s €123 million. That this was probably achieved through the championing of the reputational value of the arts and their economic potential, as well as the hopes that are pinned on future growth in “cultural tourism”, is neither here nor there, particularly if viewed against the British situation.

In 2011, the arts spend will be boosted by a carry-over of €3 million which has been ring-fenced for Culture Ireland’s major programme of events planned for the US next year under the title Imagine Ireland.

As well as this one-off tranche of funding, Culture Ireland’s normal grant remains untouched at €4 million, a signal of support for the notion of using the arts as a way for Ireland to connect more positively with an international audience.

In only a few years Culture Ireland has become something of cornerstone of arts policy and it would appear that into the future, the potential for a company or artist to represent Ireland abroad could become a consideration in how well they are funded.

If such a criterion were to be cast in stone, the danger is the formation of an elite with advantaged access to State support and a loss of the risk-taking that is needed in the case of those who are only beginning their careers.

Of course the real impact of the Budget on the sector won’t be known until the Arts Council makes its individual funding decisions over the coming weeks and it will face hard choices in that process, which will not be complete until late in February.

Prior to the Budget announcement, it had already warned its “clients” to expect cuts in the new year, and Arts Council chairwoman, Pat Moylan, responding to the Budget gave no comfort, saying “all cuts have implications”. However, she hoped that “arts organisations will be able to manage their budgets to ensure employment and productivity can be maintained”.

In how it manages its own budget, the council should be anxious to avoid the perception that still hangs over last year’s decisions and cuts: lack of proportionality, with total withdrawal from almost 30 organisations.

The council’s State funding drops from €69 million this year to €65.4 million – in 2008 it had almost €85 million to dispense. There can be no guarantee any cuts it hands on will be in line with the council’s own 5 per cent reduction; over two years it has lost almost €15 million, and while it has taken steps to reduce its own administrative costs, this amounts to a significant reduction in investment and further cuts to some organisations could cast a shadow over their viability.

The demand on the council’s financial resources has grown considerably in recent years – under more favourable circumstances the traditional arts and circus were added to its funding responsibilities. It is clear, too, that the department has its own priorities: a press release from the Minister setting out cultural funding as part of the four-year plan emphasised that “day-to-day expenditure will be concentrated on national and regional venues”. To achieve this the council has to devote more of its resources to touring. It is also likely that the many festivals around the country stand protected in view of their role in generating visitor numbers to local economies.

The Irish Film Board – which, like Culture Ireland, was on the McCarthy Report chopping board — is set to receive €16 million to invest in film production (€18.4 million if you add on the generous administrative costs) – an overall reduction of 4.4 per cent on its current budget. Although several tax relief schemes were brought to an end in Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan’s Budget, the Section 481 investment tax relief for film was retained.

The department as a whole has €96 million for capital spending which is expected to be distributed equally across tourism, sport and the cultural sector where plans remain to invest in the refurbishment of both the National Gallery and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. The Department of Arts is also committed to Dublin Contemporary, a major showcase of Irish and international art planned for the capital in the autumn and which has been in preparation over the past few years at a cost of €2 million, with about €900,000 set aside for 2011.

One major casualty of the country’s economic collapse has been the redevelopment of the National Concert Hall. The ambition to bring Dublin into line with other European cities with a multivenue development on the Earlsfort Terrace site has foundered on the plan to achieve this through a public-private partnership, an arrangement that had little chance in the economic reversal of fortunes. Having acquired the site around the NCH from UCD, the opportunity remains to develop some time into the future, but there is unlikely to be any further talk of a new auditorium for many years.

What still remains uncertain is the establishment of the promised National Opera Company, largely an initiative of the department itself and the previous minister, Martin Cullen. In reply to a Dáil question last December, the minister envisaged that the department would be funding the new company – a replacement for Opera Ireland and Opera Theatre Company – for the 2011 season. Meanwhile, Opera Ireland performed its swansong last month and Opera Theatre Company was, deservedly, granted a reprieve and is set to continue performing in its present form for at least one year.

The National Museum is to receive €14.2 million, which includes €2 million for renovations to the Treasury in the Kildare Street building and its collections resource centre. The museum will be down 6 per cent on its 2010 allocation. The National Gallery will have to contend with a small reduction of 3 per cent (an allocation of €9.85 million), while the National Library has a much bigger gap in funding with a cut of 14 per cent (€9.3 million to €8 million).

This week’s Budget, of course, represents the Coalition Government’s thinking on the role of the arts. Both Fine Gael and Labour, who are likely to form the next government, are due to issue cultural policy documents in coming weeks. The fact that they are putting the arts on their pre-election agenda indicates that both parties have taken note of the case that has been made for the relevance of the arts in any recovery programme – both economically and in the re-establishment of national identity.