No Minister: the arts cannot save Ireland


SO ONCE again, kitted out in ramshackle armour and sat upon a flea-bitten nag, Ireland’s artistic heritage is called upon to embark on a quixotic attempt to rescue the country, gamely tilting at the windmills of national catastrophe. Noble as his intentions may be, the proposal by Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan to convert Bank of Ireland’s College Green headquarters into a cultural space carries a dispiriting air of deja vu.

Despite the claims made for our creative legacy, looking to State-funded cultural projects to revive our fortunes has about as much chance of success as the deluded Don Quixote had of vanquishing his giants.

Since the financial collapse of 2008, the arts sector has been touted as Ireland’s unlikely saviour. Supposedly untainted by the avarice of the boom years, the arts are now seen as one of the country’s few remaining valuable assets. If harnessed properly, the theory goes, the country’s inherent artistic richness will aid recovery, projecting positivity, inviting tourism and even, outlandishly, spurring growth in so-called “creative industries” such as software. In seeking to transform the College Green site into a major attraction – a vague scheme, envisaging elements such as a literary centre, exhibition space, archive and gigantic plaza – Deenihan is buying into the concept of culture as national panacea, particularly if it comes in the form of an extravagant landmark project.

It is a nice idea, but one that does not stand up to scrutiny. The subsidised arts sector arguably already had its chance to transform the country and blew it. During the boom years, cultural centres mushroomed across Ireland. Like the bubble economy from which they sprang, the longer the good times rolled on, the more lavish these projects became, located in towns not normally regarded as artistic hotbeds. The Visual arts centre in Carlow cost €18 million, the Solstice in Navan cost €13.5 million and the Source in Thurles cost €10 million. Such proliferation was largely funded by local authorities, with some of the resulting centres resembling vanity projects rather than viable creative hubs. Supposedly designed to provide more access to the arts, the greater availability of such activities did not noticeably turn people into reflective aesthetes. At best, they added a patina of cultural respectability for a population that continued to delude itself that it was living in a prosperous nation.

In fairness, local projects were taking their cue from bigger institutions. For more than a decade, the Abbey Theatre has been on a ceaseless quest for lebensraum. George’s Dock, Grand Canal Dock, Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square: all have been mooted and scrapped, with the Abbey’s most recent target, the GPO, blocked only last month on the grounds it would cost €293 million to relocate. (Deenihan got that one right.) This, one might think, would be a good time for the national theatre to get on with the business of producing work to fill its current home. But Fiach Mac Conghail, the Abbey’s director, continues to seek new quarters, insisting that the current site is unsuitable for visitors and actors alike. Mac Conghail’s argument is symptomatic of the new paradigm, bullishly conflating aesthetic aspirations with economic aims. But for all the money awash in the artistic sector in the mid-noughties, it did conspicuously contribute an improvement in output. Most of the key works came from already established artists: Enda Walsh, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Conor McPherson.

Meanwhile, the idea that the country will experience a surge on the back of increased cultural investment seems shaky. Much as our literary, theatrical and artistic heritage may help us feel good about ourselves – and possibly even make us more contemplative and self-examining, as the most enthusiastic advocates claim – it is not what attracts our idyll-seeking tourists, much less investment.

Fáilte Ireland says that “cultural tourism” is worth € 2 billion annually, but this includes sub-categories such as landscape, traditions and customs and, most airily, lifestyle. True, many museums have decent footfalls, with the National Gallery boasting 736,000 visitors last year. But that is only a fraction of the six million-plus overseas tourists who arrived in 2010. Meanwhile, given that the College Green plan revolves around Ireland’s literary appeal, it is worth noting that the venerable National Library attracted 185,000 visitors in 2010. Impressive enough, but hardly numbers that warrant Deenihan’s similar proposal being touted as a new Smithsonian.

That is not to say ambitious cultural projects cannot succeed. Designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, with its €80 million construction costs privately funded, the 2,100-seat Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin’s Docklands reported “substantial profits” in the nine months after its opening in March 2010. Crucially, its commercially canny programme of popular entertainment is driven by the bottom line rather than any lofty instincts.

Deenihan might take note: even if the State gets the College Green site, it might be more usefully employed than becoming yet another well-meaning cultural white elephant. The arts cannot save Ireland. Its practitioners should stick to what they do best.

John Waters is on leave