The strange figures and empty chairs of the Arts Council

The Arts Council insists that transparency is important, but it’s sadly lacking in its funding decisions

Jimmy Deenihan: left the National Concert Hall without a chair for a couple of months, and he has allowed the same situation to arise at the Arts Council. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Jimmy Deenihan: left the National Concert Hall without a chair for a couple of months, and he has allowed the same situation to arise at the Arts Council. Photograph: Dave Meehan


You remember those terrible days and weeks when the last Fianna Fáil-led coalition floundered as if it were hell-bent on prompting someone to come up with an acronym to trounce Gubu? Fine Gael’s Minister for the Arts, Jimmy Deenihan, almost seems to want, in his own little way, to trump that old way of managing affairs.

I’m not talking about his eagerness to amalgamate national arts institutions, his enthusiasm for getting public funding off the hook by appearing to think the future lies with private-sector involvement, his emasculation of Culture Ireland, or his publicly declared ignorance of what was going on in the Limerick City of Culture debacle. No, I’m thinking of his failure to fill boards on time. The last time the National Concert Hall’s board was depleted after members had completed their terms, he left it without a chair for a couple of months. He has allowed the same situation to arise at the Arts Council, where only seven of the 12 positions are filled.

Arts Council on my mind
Deenihan is, of course, following the course of his Fianna Fáil predecessor, Martin Cullen, who left the position of chair vacant for a number of months in 2008 before he appointed Pat Moylan to the post. The Arts Council has been on my mind for two reasons, the first to do with a question I brought to it about a particular funding scheme, the second to do with outgoing chair Pat Moylan’s interview on this page last week.

The funding-scheme question came to me from someone who had failed to get support for a monograph on a 20th-century Irish composer. This person contacted the Arts Council, and was advised to submit to the Publications/Title-by-Title Scheme, to be subsequently told the application had been unsuccessful because it did not meet the objectives of the scheme.

I went to the council’s website to see what had been funded, and could find no information. I rang the council’s director of public affairs, Seán Mac Cárthaigh, and asked him to see if he could find it, and he helped me to understand that the application probably failed because it didn’t concern a living artist, and the council tried to avoid funding what it essentially sees as academic work.

Last year’s funding decisions are on its website, and they include €12,000 to the Irish Academic Press (presumably for non-academic works), and the publication of numerous books in Irish whose artform or practice is listed as “Literature (English language)”. This year’s funding decisions are due this week.

It has been my experience over the years that the council is peculiarly protective about information that needs to be in the public domain. The most extreme case I have direct experience of relates to the issuing of misleading information in relation to its October 2004 case to government for a 30 per cent increase in arts funding. There was faulty arithmetic in the way it added and subtracted percentages to show how several of its major clients had fared in relation to inflation between 2001 and 2004. And, I later discovered, the actual inflation figures used were also inaccurate. Although the number-crunching was part of a pitch to government, and the subject of a major press conference, and although I made the council’s senior staff aware of the errors, no correction was ever issued.

It doesn’t add up
The council’s creaky grasp of figures can also be grasped by its reliance on data compiled by Arts Audiences, which publishes an annual report on arts attendances in Ireland. I remember my shock on reading the 2012 report, which estimated the number of attendances at opera at 162,000. This would be a heartening figure, save for the fact that there were not the opportunities for 162,000 to attend opera in that year. If there weren’t 162,000 seats available to be sold, it’s hard to see how 162,000 people attended.

In relation to its own work, the council no longer supplies the press directly with lists of grant decisions, is tardy about presenting decisions already made on its website (this is true not just in relation to publications), and it is difficult to figure out how much money has gone to which artforms. All this is in spite of the fact that outgoing chair Pat Moylan declared that “transparency is important”. By contrast, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland publishes the agendas and minutes of council meetings on its website.

The Arts Council is essentially the only game in town, or, at least, the only game in town with major resources. In Ireland, the role of local government in the arts is very small by comparison with that of the council. And commercial sponsorship dances to its own tune. Anyyone with an artistic project, plan or dream is likely to have to turn to the council sooner or later. Its successes and its failures are those of a monopoly. The reality is that for the vast majority of its clients there is no alternative.

I suspect that those of us who support the Arts Council are likely to be doing so not because we think it is particularly good at what it does, but because realpolitik in Ireland – most ministers’ perceived lack of broadly based arts credentials, the persistence of clientelist politics, and the lack of trust in the civil service – dictates that any politically viable alternative would in all likelihood be worse.

And I’m still trying to figure out, in the context of the very limited number of books on Irish composers, why the council would have a policy that regards a new work on a composer who is dead as being “academic” and therefore of less interest than an academic press’s publications about three living Irish writers whose work has already been well covered.

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