Arts Council's row with Aosdána moves up the political food chain

Opinion: Aosdána is part of a sticking-plaster remedy that masks shortcomings in support

Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys: has plenty of options when it comes to funding Aosdána. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys: has plenty of options when it comes to funding Aosdána. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Arts Council versus Aosdána conflict has moved up the political food chain. The council’s plans to rein in the costs of providing a living to needy members of the country’s artistic elite has stirred up many arguments both for and against. It’s a bit like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. What you see depends very much on where you’re coming from. 

On May 2nd, former Labour Party leader Joan Burton raised the issue in the Dáil with the Minister for Arts, Heather Humphreys. Burton pressed for details of the Minister’s position and for a statement. “The scheme,” the Minister said, “is the responsibility of the Arts Council and not my department. It should be noted that under section 24(2) of the Arts Act 2003, the council is independent of the Minister in its funding decisions.”

But the council only gets to spend within the annual allocations it is given by the Government. That’s a pretty stringent limitation on its decisions. If successive governments had not squeezed the council so thoroughly over the past decade or so, the whole issue of putting the heat on Aosdána might never have arisen in the first place.

But beyond that the Minister still has plenty of options. Has she forgotten the way the council’s Deis scheme, “a flexible fund for the traditional arts”, was prioritised by an extra, mid-year injection of €500,000 from one of her predecessors, John O’Donoghue, in 2005? Or the way she was able to announce the allocation of extra funds to the Abbey Theatre in her budget for 2016? The Abbey Theatre is an Arts Council client, and this announcement was made on the very day the Arts Council got word of its own allocation, and before it had independently made up its mind about how much would be allocated to individual clients. 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The overall funding of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme showed that, as did the establishment of Creative Ireland at the end of last year. There’s nothing to stop the Minister from ring-fencing funding for Aosdána or finding another mechanism to ensure that any unforeseen surge in its cost would not force the council into diverting funds from other schemes. 

Stipend for full-timers

I’ve pointed out before that the costs associated with Aosdána are not huge. The most contentious issue is the means-tested, tax-free, €17,180 stipend, which is available to Aosdána members who devote their time fully to their art. Ministerial travel expenses at the Department of Arts, which are in the public domain, would comfortably cover more than a Cnuas or two. 

Whatever way you look at it, Aosdána is part of a sticking-plaster remedy that serves to mask the wider shortcomings of public support for the arts and culture in Ireland. The other major part of the sticking-plaster is the income tax exemption for artists. It’s a very cheap gesture to exempt a group of people when a majority of them do not earn enough to pay income tax in the first place. And, like Aosdána, it sends out a positive message to people at home and abroad who are unaware of the reality.

A Council of Europe study showed that in 2013 Ireland spent just a 0.1 per cent of GDP on culture. (The Department of Arts has previously disputed the accuracy of these figures.) This grand gesture amounted to just 0.3 per cent of public expenditure. The average across a basket of mostly western European countries (but embracing also Ukraine, Georgia and Ukraine) is more than five times the Irish level on both of these measures. The only country that performs worse than Ireland, according to the Council of Europe, is the Continent’s poorest, Moldova. However, unlike Ireland, Moldova somehow manages to have a national opera house and to support a national opera and ballet company. 

To reach the European average without altering the existing structures, the grant-in-aid to the Arts Council would have to rise from its current level of €65.1 million to somewhere well north of €300 million.

Composers’ fates

To make the real sticking-plaster nature of Aosdána obvious all you have to do is look at the fate of composers within it and outside of it. Of the 32 composers in Aosdána, 17 claim a cnuas, at a full-year cost of €292,060. The Arts Council’s music commissioning scheme, which has a maximum award of €12,000, made 19 grants in 2016, some of them to members of Aosdána. The total spend was €130,350. Since two of the grants were spread among 15 composers – that gives an average of €4,073.

These are the lucky ones. Ireland has more than 200 composers, most of whom will get by in any given year without either a whiff of an Arts Council-funded commission or a hope in hell of becoming a member of Aosdána. The wonder of it all is that so many of them continue to compose in the face of such adversity. 

The statistics that will improve their prospects are not those affecting the terms and conditions of Aosdána that the Arts Council so desperately wants to change. The much-needed change will come when the Minister finally gets Ireland up and away from the bottom of the table when it comes to public expenditure on the arts. 

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