Never mind slashed budgets: mindless mergers are the arts' big problem


CULTURE SHOCK:Either some genius believes that a single board can oversee a State archive, a national museum and a national library, or two back-of-an-envelope mergers got accidentally lumped together

OVER THE next few years, cultural institutions in Ireland will have to contend with two huge problems. One, of course, is the shortage of money. We have a deluge of statements about the importance of the arts and culture in helping Ireland out of the recession and repairing the damage done to its international reputation. It would be reasonable, therefore, to expect that officialdom would at least try to do no more harm than the damage inflicted by shrinking budgets. Instead, the Government is set on imposing a whole other set of problems: so-called reforms that arise from ignorance, philistinism and a deep contempt for the value of cultural institutions. At best, these “reforms” will tie up the institutions in years of useless bureaucratic manoeuvring. At worst, they will destroy much of the fragile infrastructure that has been built, against the odds, over many decades.

Aidan Dunne wrote very eloquently in The Irish Timesthis week about the half-baked proposals to merge the National Gallery of Ireland, the Crawford Gallery, in Cork, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and I have written here about the equally feckless proposal to fold the National Archives of Ireland into the National Library of Ireland. But these ill-starred notions are part of a wider pattern of pointless destruction.

The first thing that’s obvious from the Government’s plan for public-service reform as it relates to culture is how abject is the level of basic thought. It is actually not a bad joke to put together a plan for public-service reform that itself embodies all the worst traits of unreconstructed and unaccountable bureaucracy: no proper consultation, no transparency, no clarity of purpose, no cost- benefit analysis, no attempt to understand what the basic function of a particular institution might be.

Let’s just take one example. Point 34 in the plan is to merge the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission into the National Library.

This is daft in itself, not least because large parts of the National Library’s existing collection is both uncatalogued and entirely inaccessible. But points 36 and 37 move us even farther into absurdity. They say, of the National Library and the National Museum, that they are to move towards “shared services and . . . board structure”. Think about this for a moment (which I suspect is a half a moment longer than anyone proposing the “reform” has thought about it). The archive is to be merged with the library but the library in turn is to be effectively merged with the museum.

There are two possibilities here. One is that some genius actually believes a single board can oversee a State archive, a national museum and a national library, and that Ireland has extraordinary polymaths in sufficient numbers to populate that board. The other possibility – and my hunch would be that this one is nearer to the truth – is that there were actually two different back-of-the-envelope proposals: one to merge the archives with the library and one to merge the library with the museum. Both were dumped into the final document without anyone noticing.

But this kind of nonthinking is to be applied to two other important cultural bodies, the Heritage Council and Culture Ireland, both of which are to be “reviewed” with the aim of abolishing them and absorbing their functions into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Heritage Council is a tiny body, one of the smallest of its kind in any developed country. It took 21 years for it to be established (on foot of an official report of 1967) and seven more years to establish it on a statutory basis, in 1995. Because it is independent, it is able to draw on a huge volume of voluntary work by genuine experts. The idea that civil servants could replicate that expertise is absurd. All that will happen is that most of what the council does will be abandoned and the rest will be politicised.

The idea of absorbing Culture Ireland into the department is, if anything, even more reactionary. It was at one point part of a Government department: it grew out of the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs. There were two overwhelming reasons for establishing it as an arm’s-length institution. One is that a Government department is far too cumbersome a mechanism for operating in the fast-moving world of international arts festivals and producers. If you’re programming an arts festival in Australia or you’re a commercial producer in the US looking to tour a show to 10 cities, you have to deal with someone who has the authority to make decisions – now. The second reason for moving the business of the international promotion of Irish culture out of a Government department was to depoliticise it.

Being in a department means being directly responsible to a Minister. And that in turn means two things. Firstly, Ministers come under pressure to back things for constituency or political reasons. Secondly, they come under pressure not to back things that may be uncomfortable, critical or controversial.

Culture Ireland, on the other hand, has been extremely good at dealing with both of these problems. It functions like an arts producer and deals with other producers on their own terms. And it has, remarkably in the Irish context, a high reputation for impartiality and fairness. Its chief executive, Eugene Downes, is respected across the arts world as someone who doesn’t run personal or political agendas and who has been extremely effective at getting a big impact from a budget (€4 million) that is tiny by international standards.

When you examine these proposals, just two logical principles can be discerned. One is a philistine contempt for cultural institutions, a notion that they’re all just jumped-up little empires for mouldy intellectuals. The other is a crude power grab: protect the department from downsizing by absorbing as many independent bodies as possible.

Which begs a question: where, in all of this, is the Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan? He has always seemed a man with a genuine interest in the arts and a belief that culture matters. His silence in the face of this pointless and destructive messing is puzzling.