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
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.