New Minister, new ideas? 10 priorities for the arts

Heather Humphreys is the new Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Some key people whose work her decisions will affect say where they think she should begin

Spoiled for priorities: Heather Humphreys receives her seal of office from the President. Photograph: Alan Betson

Spoiled for priorities: Heather Humphreys receives her seal of office from the President. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

What do we know about Heather Humphreys, the new Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht? She knows about credit unions, she lives on a farm and she plays the piano. So far so good for Google. Perhaps more importantly, what should Humphreys know about the arts themselves?

It’s easy to say we want things to be different, better, leaner, more excellent (that one comes up a lot), more vibrant – but what should the new Minister make a priority for the rest of the Government’s term? And are there any big ideas for her to latch on to and make a change for the better? People from across the arts have nominated a top 10.

1 Inevitably, priority one is funding. In the words of the Arts Council’s director, Orlaith McBride, “There are two things the Arts Council believes should be prioritised. The first is increased investment in the arts. The sector has endured such significant reductions since 2008 that it has become severely stressed and its ongoing viability is at crisis point. The ideas, creativity and innovation are still there, but the ability to translate them into artistic work is significantly compromised, so increased investment is critical.”


2 Policy was McBride’s second priority, something also taken up by many of the people I spoke to. The feeling is that it would be a tragedy if Jimmy Deenihan’s commitment to the development of a national cultural policy, Culture 2025, were lost in the reshuffle. Surprisingly, it would be the first such policy since the foundation of the State. 

“Policy underpins decision-making. The commitment by the Cabinet to do this has been made. The new Minister can act swiftly to get the process under way, and she will find that a commitment to a clear deadline will draw support widely,” says Valerie Connor, who chairs the National Campaign for the Arts.

3 It seems a no-brainer that art and education should go hand in hand. No one wants another shift for a department that seems to change partners with a worrying degree of promiscuity (from sport to tourism to heritage and the Gaeltacht), but the two sectors need to work together.

“Some progress has been made under Jimmy Deenihan and Ruairí Quinn to entwine arts and education, but this must be accelerated urgently,” says Maureen Kennelly, director of Poetry Ireland. “All talk of audience development takes on a futile air until we start to focus in earnest on arts education in the Irish school system. We need to create truly equal access to the arts from a very early age. We know it works elsewhere.”

Deenihan and Quinn signed a memorandum of understanding on this shortly before the reshuffle.


4 Secure the future of Culture Ireland, the body that supports Irish artists to showcase their work overseas, generating revenue streams and promoting Ireland, and Irish arts and culture, abroad. Since 2009 Culture Ireland funding has been cut from €4.63 million to €2.5 million.

“It needs to be recognised that artists based in Ireland economically and creatively need opportunities to present their work outside of Ireland,” says Mary McCarthy, director of the National Sculpture Factory and chairwoman of Culture Ireland’s expert advisory committee.

“Culture Ireland has witnessed a huge growth in the awareness of, appetite for and interest in the works of Irish artists. Our international showcasing programmes can provide artists and companies with significant touring opportunities, which can have a very beneficial effect on their work, and builds on the support and work of the Arts Council.”


5 Make sure the 2016 commemorations are worth remembering. Various voices from the arts community were keen to stress that celebrations planned for the centenary of the Easter Rising should be more than just parades, and should go beyond the domain of historical narrative to see contemporary culture playing its part.

“Put a cohesive and transparent policy and a realistic timeline in place for commemorations and special events immediately, to ensure that 2016, 2018 and 2021 are not a repeat of the systemic failures surrounding Dublin Contemporary and Limerick City of Culture,” saysthe arts producer and curator Róise Goan.


6 Reform, reform, reform. It’s not just about increasing funding: it’s about how money gets spent, including reassessing some long-term relationships. The Minister should ensure the findings of the recent strategic review of the Arts Council, Inspiring Prospects, are taken on board and implemented, while also looking at how the various arts bodies work together.

The report refers to “a lack of coherence between different agencies, institutions and services all engaged in distinct but broadly similar work” and to a need to relate funding decisions to goals and objectives, “notwithstanding the range of excellent work that is supported”.

“It is time to stop the cuts, stop listening to so-called specialists who have no knowledge of what is what in the art world, and start to show significant support for the day-to-day running of organisations and the careers of individual artists,” says Noel Kelly, director of Visual Artists Ireland.

“To best represent the sector, we continue to ask for the creation of a cultural forum within the department. The heads of the representative bodies from the cultural sector can provide the best information and analysis of the sector and assist in guiding policy.”


7 Don’t ignore a golden opportunity. As discussed in these pages recently, Nama’s imminent sale of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre provides the Minister with an opportunity to demonstrate she is serious about cultural legacy.

“A landmark where future generations will celebrate our musical inheritance in the style it merits [could be] acquired as a municipal asset at a fraction of its original cost,” says Gerry Godley, director of the Improvised Music Company and, from September, principal and managing director of Leeds College of Music.

“Music is among our best intangible assets, but the relentless deterioration in funding, compounded by piecemeal policy, leaves our export capacity seriously debilitated. Consider Iceland, a fraction of our size, economically just as traumatised, but with its own music-export bureau since 2006. Icelandic outcomes speak for themselves.”


8 Be clear about the arguments for the arts. One of the findings from the Arts Council review is that there should be a vision that highlights the intrinsic value of good art. As the arts brief shifted away from tourism in 2011, those promoting the arts changed their arguments from “we attract visitors” to “we generate revenue”. But the idea of the value of the arts as good in itself has become lost along the way.

“The ministry is important in a country with a big artistic reputation. How will the Minister persuade politicians, elected representatives and citizens to regard the arts, culture and heritage more highly?” says Anna Walsh, director of Theatre Forum.

“The arts have a valid funding case, so what is the Minister’s core argument to Cabinet colleagues for arts expenditure, and what interdepartmental initiatives might the Minister champion to promote the value of the arts in developing the emotional intelligence of citizens in their local, national and international communities?”


9 This builds on the previous idea about valuing the arts: valuing the producers of art as well. Artists and writers are historically the most self-exploiting of groups, making huge sacrifices to create their work – a fact that is seldom understood outside the sector.

“A survey in 2009 found that the majority of Irish writers derived less than €5,000 from writing-related income, and just under 10 per cent earned €30,000 or more – no other sector in Irish society would allow this situation to prevail,” says Maureen Kennelly of Poetry Ireland. “Official Ireland invokes the names of Heaney and Yeats endlessly in promoting ourselves abroad, but when you relate it back to the real lives of writers this rings somewhat hollow. The Minister has to help create conditions where the work of writers is properly valued and promoted.”

This view was echoed by others working in different art forms.


10 So what else? Building further film infrastructure, refurbishing the National Concert Hall, addressing the Abbey Theatre report, re-establishing the board of the National Library of Ireland so that it can court philanthropy, recapitalising the national cultural institutions, developing a scheme to support the purchase of work by young and emerging visual artists, recognising the value of arts training in the industrial-design and information-technology sectors ahead of the 2015 Year of Design . . . It’s time to get cracking.

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