Creative Ireland is a huge promise, but can it be kept?

If these ambitions are realised, arts will receive their greatest leap in funding since the foundation of the State

Enda Kenny, Heather Humphreys and Paschal Donohoe at the Creative Ireland launch. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Enda Kenny, Heather Humphreys and Paschal Donohoe at the Creative Ireland launch. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Last week’s announcement of Creative Ireland could be the turning point of the century for arts and culture in this country. In political terms, the announcement united brawn (Taoiseach Enda Kenny), specialist knowledge (Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys) and financial clout (Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe).

Creative Ireland is a five-year plan with lofty ambitions. The highest-profile development is likely to be the new annual Cruinniú na Cásca, a programme “of arts activities and cultural reflection over Easter weekend”, suggesting a loose spring equivalent to the annual Culture Night, which is held in mid-September each year, with local authorities “the primary delivery mechanism”. From 2018 there will also be “an annual County of Culture award” . 

The Department of Arts and the Department of Social Protection are working together to introduce “a new pilot scheme to provide income supports to low-earning artists through the social welfare system”. This is a belated but welcome recognition of the hardship experienced in the artistic community, where earnings are significantly below the national average. All of the research that has been done in this area points to the embarrassing fact that most of the artists working in Ireland are low earners.

Beyond that, each local authority will appoint a new culture team “bringing together arts officers, librarians, heritage officers, archivists and other relevant personnel”. This development is an acknowledgement that the low standing of arts and culture in the work of local authorities needs a radical rethink. 

You only have to look north of the Border, where, to take Belfast as an example, the city council runs both the Waterfront Hall and the Ulster Hall. Look farther – at England, Scotland and Wales – and you’ll find an even deeper connection between local authorities and the arts; the same applies in most other European countries.

There’s to be investment in the country’s creative and cultural infrastructure and also a bid to turn Ireland into a centre of excellence in media production.

But the initiative that leaps out is the “national plan to enable every child in Ireland to access tuition in music, drama, art and coding”. Ireland is rock-bottom when it comes to the place of music in our schools, and also rock-bottom when it comes to the proportion of national expenditure that is devoted to the arts. Even enabling our children to access tuition in music would cost what most politicians would regard as a small fortune. This is a five-year plan, so the stated goal is to be achieved by 2022.

Some 14 years ago I spent a week in Vienna, courtesy of the Austrian embassy in Dublin, visiting major musical and cultural institutions. I was also given the opportunity to have a conversation with the city’s minister of culture. At the time, Vienna’s cultural budget ran to €250 million, a figure that excludes support for major institutions, which receive funding from the national government.

By contrast, the Arts Council today has about a quarter of that amount to disburse.

Vienna’s culture budget is now bracketed together with science and sport, and the total, under all three headings, comes to €498 million. This is for a city with a population of 1.8 million people.

If the ambitions of Creative Ireland are to be realised in anything like the terms that have been set out, arts and culture will receive their greatest leap in funding since the foundation of the State.

There have, of course, been enough debacles over the years to keep the nay- sayers happy – from the John F Kennedy concert hall, announced as the State’s memorial in 1964, that was never built; the protracted shenanigans over the relocation of the Abbey Theatre; the failure of any organ of the State or of Dublin to take ownership of what is now the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre; the ill-fated Irish Academy of the Performing Arts (money was actually allocated, but no academy ever materialised); the new National Concert Hall that was never built; the north Dublin residency of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the Helix; and the Irish National Opera company set up by Martin Cullen when he was minister for arts but later killed off by Jimmy Deenihan. I could go on. All we can do is hope this one will turn out to be different. 

Flight of Concorde

The new-music ensemble Concorde has been around, through thick and thin, for 40 years. Its founder, Jane O’Leary, delights in telling how, when she first approached the Arts Council, in 1976, she had difficulty explaining to them what a contemporary music group was. The concept seems to have been alien to them. 

Concorde has been celebrating at the Hugh Lane Gallery, and last Sunday’s concert included works new and newish that were written specifically for the ensemble, from the textural explorations of O’Leary’s own No 19 for solo viola (Garth Knox), to works by Knox himself (Wild Animals and Air and Ground (for Jane), both playful pieces that make a direct connection with their titles), to David Fennessy’s rather meatier Bridge, Nebenstimme and Five Hofer Photographs – variously inspired by a musician under a bridge in China, an earlier work by Fennessy himself, and photographs of Dublin.

Concorde’s current good health is a credit to all involved.

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