Pat Moylan: ‘If we cut the arts, we’re really cutting ourselves’

Having finished as chair of the Arts Council after five years, Moylan answers criticism of the funding process, says the council has no role to play in Limerick and looks forward to producing theatre again

Pat Moylan, outgoing chair of the Arts Council, in the council’s offices on Dublin’s Merrion Square. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Pat Moylan, outgoing chair of the Arts Council, in the council’s offices on Dublin’s Merrion Square. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 01:00

Pat Moylan is in the unusual position of sitting at nearly all the seats at the artistic table. On the one hand, she is an expert on what theatre audiences want. For almost 20 years, she was artistic director of Andrews Lane Theatre, and founded Lane Productions. Few Irish theatre producers can match a record for popular hits that includes Stones in His Pockets; I, Keano; Alone it Stands; and Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer.

On the other hand, she is an expert on what artists want, and on negotiating the rarefied upper echelons of Ireland’s arts community, having spent the past five years as chair of the Arts Council. Moylan says this role has been “challenging, but rewarding in the sense that we made progress on many issues despite the economic situation”.

Recent events have proven stormy. There was the recent debate over Music Network’s administration of its recording scheme, the National Gallery’s appearance before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, and the ongoing controversy in Limerick. Does or should the Arts Council intervene in these situations?

“The Arts Council shouldn’t step in in Limerick, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment further,” says Moylan. “There is a board there, and the Arts Council has no role in the day-to-day running of the events. Each of the arts bodies you mention do fantastic jobs. Transparency is important, and all of these organisations have to work enormously hard to continue in this climate.”

As the main funder of the arts in Ireland, the Arts Council is a lightning rod for criticism from a sector that loves to grumble, but Moylan is adamant that the funding process is rigorous and fair. When making its decisions, Moylan says, the council asks, “Is the organisation sustainable? Has their funding reduced so much that we are just paying for the light and the heat, and we’re not paying for the art? In many cases where we had to withdraw funding from organisations that had been regularly funded, I’ve seen people [council members] cry, with tears rolling down their faces, because the decisions are so hard.”


Room for self-criticism?
Plenty of people will decry the Arts Council, and indeed defend it, in the relative comfort of private Facebook postings or in the back room of a bar. But most artists are fearful of biting the hand that might occasionally feed them. So how does the Arts Council get a dispassionate, critical view of itself?

“I don’t know if there’s an answer to that,” says Moylan after some consideration. “One of the things I have always said is: this door is always open. And anyone can come and talk to us, even though we’re very busy – and they have done. Anyone who has done that, I think, has been greeted with open arms.”

Outside of the arts industry, there are several canards that Moylan is well used to dealing with. “I’m always getting the argument of, how can you justify looking for more money for the arts when there are people on hospital trolleys,” she says. “When the HSE get their budget, by 12 o’clock on January 2nd they have spent [the equivalent of] our allocation for the year. It’s not going to impact in that kind of way on those kind of issues.”

Funding arts is a complicated business, and there will always be those who will wonder why a particular project or piece has had taxpayers’ money spent on it. This, Moylan argues, is an essential part of the process.

“I feel really strongly that art should be allowed to fail. Just because some artists’ pursuits don’t always work out as one would have hoped or perceived by the audience or the critics – you have to have space to do that. If we don’t nourish the soil at this stage, we could end up with a desert in years to come.”

Ever the theatre producer, Moylan is enthusiastic about touring work around the country, and driving energy into the ample existing infrastructure.

“We have over 60 theatres and art spaces around the country, the majority built between 2000 and 2008. Communities now don’t think that the urban [centres] are the be-all and end-all in terms of finding opportunities to go to the theatre or to hear music – they have it in their own locality. That’s why we are spending a considerable amount of money on touring to service these venues. They are little industries on their own. It’s not just the four people who are paid by the centre, it’s also the restaurant nearby, or the bar on the night, the van that’s bringing in the props.

“If you’re a taxpayer in Longford, you should be able to see the best art there as well as a taxpayer in Dublin 4.”


In defence of Aosdána
One of the favourite targets for critics of the Arts Council is Aosdána, an organisation with a membership of up to 250 artists who receive a stipend from the council called the Cnuas (not all members avail of it). Membership is by peer nomination and election, and lasts for life.

Moylan is firm in its defence. “There have so many artists who are unemployed or underemployed. These people are diamonds in our tapestry of art, and they are getting so little money. We fund 175 of them. It costs us less than €3 million; they get €17,000 a year because they are earning less than €26,000.”

Many, as Moylan says, are household names and “artists’ incomes can go through peaks and troughs”, so the Cnuas threshold is calculated over a three-year period. “In cases where an artist’s income exceeds the threshold, they will suspend the Cnuas until such time as their income falls below the threshold again.”

Moylan has praise for the ministers and taoisigh she has worked with in the past five years, but says what is missing is “a prioritisation of the arts in the same way as enterprise or inward investment. It angers me that there is so much international recognition of the unique place of the Irish arts in the world but under-recognition and underinvestment at home relative to technology or other sectors.

“At the end of the day we talk about inward investment, tourism, jobs – all of the things the arts do to help our economy, but really the arts are for ourselves, they are part of who we are. It’s part of our tradition, our culture; it’s inherent in us, this need to tell stories, so if we cut the arts, we’re really cutting ourselves.

“I don’t think any economy should be judged on euro and cent alone. Artists’ contribution has to be the health of the nation. In money and arts there has to be a balance, and the balance is people.”

The Arts Council is about to undergo a fundamental change, with six vacancies including the chair to be filled in “the near future” according to the Department (see panel).

Among the projects that Moylan will be “following from the sidelines to fruition” are the Arts Audiences project – which helps organisations finesse their marketing in order to maximise sales – the Laureate for Irish Fiction (worth €150,000) and the Raise initiative. Raise focuses on helping organisations to develop corporate and philanthropic support, an area the Arts Council sees potential in.

“I think this is a vital issue, as things aren’t looking like they will upturn quickly. This is only income that will supplement what they get from the government. It can’t be used as displacement funding in any respect.”

For now, Moylan is looking forward to getting back to producing theatre. Her upcoming shows include revivals of Stones in His Pockets in the Gaiety in March and Beowulf: The Blockbuster in Carlow, Dublin, New York and Edinburgh. “I have missed this terribly over the past five years.”


A NEW-LOOK ARTS COUNCIL: CHANGE AT THE TOP

There have been six vacancies on the Arts Council, including the chair, since December 16th, 2013, and the Department of the Arts says these will be filled “in the near future”. The vacancies were advertised, and 30 people expressed an interest. It is up to the Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan, to appoint individuals, however, and they do not have to be drawn from this pool.

Appointments are for five years, and membership of the board is not a full-time position. The maximum payment is €8,978 per annum for the chair and €5,985 for members. There is no set limit on expenses.

Of the outgoing council, Pat Moylan says, “I have a wonderful council and I don’t say that lightly. They are all experts and are all totally devoted to doing the best they possibly can do for the arts. It’s really time-consuming and they spend six hours a week – minimum – working with the Arts Council.”

Details on council membership are laid down in the Arts Act 2003: irishstatutebook.ie/2003/en/act/pub/0024/print.html

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