Aosdána is far from perfect but it costs peanuts

Water charges refunds would pay the total annual cost of Aosdána for more than 30 years. So why is the Arts Council attacking it

Film-maker George Morrison with artist Imogen Stuart, left, and film producer Lelia Doolan at the Arts Council of Ireland where he was bestowed the honour of Saoi in Aosdana by President Michael D Higgins. Morrison’s films include Mise Éire and Saoirse. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Film-maker George Morrison with artist Imogen Stuart, left, and film producer Lelia Doolan at the Arts Council of Ireland where he was bestowed the honour of Saoi in Aosdana by President Michael D Higgins. Morrison’s films include Mise Éire and Saoirse. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Artists are once again in the firing line. The targets are members of Aosdána, the organisation set up in 1981 to honour artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland.

Aosdána helps those artists to devote their energies fully to their art through an annual stipend, the means-tested Cnuas, which is currently valued at €17,180. Aosdána members have to relinquish non-creative positions in order to be eligible for a Cnuas.

The gunners are not some cranks or radical extremists, but the Arts Council, the statutory body for the funding, promotion and development of the arts.     It was the Arts Council that set up Aosdána and which has always provided its funding and administration. The strangest aspect of Aosdána is that its annual slice of the council’s budget cannot be predicted or curtailed. It is of no matter whether government arts funding goes up or down, or the number of Cnuas recipients rises or falls. The annual funding needs of Aosdána have to be met before the council can decide how to spend the rest of its money.

The effects of this arrangement, during a period when the council’s government grant-in-aid fell sharply, were quite stark. The cost of Aosdána rose from 1.8 per cent of the council’s funding in 2007 to 4.43 per cent in 2013. Part of the rise was accounted for by an increase in the value of a Cnuas, though, in the circumstances the council did not deliver the full increase it had planned.

The purpose of the Cnuas has always been to provide security of income for leading lights in an area of endeavour that’s notoriously badly remunerated. This is a concern that’s as valid today as it was back in 1981. Artists’ earnings amount to less than 70 per cent of the national average, and for the vast majority of artists that level is only achieved by also engaging in non-artistic work.

So, as a protection mechanism, the Cnuas served its purpose well when times became bad. Between 2007 and 2012, when the country was in a most difficult economic situation, the number of Cnuas recipients rose by 27, from 130 to 157. The percentage of members receiving a Cnuas also rose from 59 per cent to 64 per cent. Aosdána’s current membership is 244, 146 of whom draw down a Cnuas.

The Cnuas helped protect the activity and livelihoods of Ireland’s top artists in a difficult time. It clicked in rather like social welfare. It’s inevitable that when times are bad and work is scarce the demand for a Cnuas will rise just as demand for social welfare does.

Much like the Arts Council, Aosdána is anything but a perfect organisation. It’s an Irish solution to an Irish problem – chronic underfunding of the arts. Both the Government and the Arts Council take pride in the fact that international observers are impressed by a scheme like Aosdána. But those international observers rarely have any idea how poorly funded the arts in Ireland actually are.

I made some funding comparison in relation to opera recently. I calculated that the building cost of the Bastille Opera in Paris in 1990 – the equivalent of €396 million – was more than the Irish government had at that time spent on the Arts Council since it was established in 1951.   The public subsidy of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich was €65.8 million in 2015. That same year the Irish government’s funding of the Arts Council came to €58.6 million. None of Bavarian opera money, by the way, came from Germany’s federal government. It came from the State of Bavaria and the City of Munich.

When you’re talking big numbers, the annual cost of Aosdána is peanuts. The Arts Council’s most recent annual report, for 2015, put it at €2.6 million. But the Arts Council now wants to engage in Scrooge-like measurements of artists’ outputs. This is so that it will be able to terminate Cnuas payments for underperforming creative individuals. It wants to remove Aosdána’s self-electing autonomy. (Membership of Aosdána is by peer nomination and election, not by application.)

This will only replace one set of biases with another, though, understandably, the council prefers its own biases to anyone else’s. And it wants to muck up the pension scheme and health insurance arrangements of a community that actually includes a lot of under-privileged individuals.   Whatever savings the council might make will be a tiny fraction of the overall cost. To gauge the scale, just put the matter in a wider political funding context. The notorious refunds of water charges would pay the total annual cost of Aosdána for more than 30 years.

Back in 2005, the council argued fiercely that the artists’ tax exemption scheme should remain uncapped, and expressed disappointment at the imposition of a €250,000 cap. In a public statement the council argued that the capping suggested “an incomplete understanding of the inconsistent nature of artists earnings, with even the most commercially successful of artists having very lean years when earnings are close to zero. €250,000 earned in a very successful year may be the only income an artist has for five, eight or 10 years.”

The council is now conveniently forgetting its own arguments. Its current high-handed proposals have all the signs of a Trump-like flip-flop and a mother-of-all-bombs grasp of the issues involved.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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