Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

It’s all about priorities

This piece by Guy Barriscale about our “wonderful cultural infrastructure” contains plenty of food for thought. Barriscale is the production chief at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkeny, a brand spanking new state-of-the-art venue and arts centre which is located …

Thu, Oct 22, 2009, 09:23


This piece by Guy Barriscale about our “wonderful cultural infrastructure” contains plenty of food for thought. Barriscale is the production chief at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkeny, a brand spanking new state-of-the-art venue and arts centre which is located fairly near to An Grianan, another state-of-the-art venue and arts centre. I didn’t think there was that much of the aul’ art going in in Letterkenny to require two state-of-the-art centres, but there you go.

As someone who works on venue production, Barriscale is acutely aware that Letterkenny is not alone with regards to this infrastructural over-supply. Every town in the country, it seems, has one of these “follies” which look great from the outside but which don’t have the resources to get by once the ribbon has been cut, the sandwiches have been eaten and the minister has departed in his car to open the next regional arts centre. As Barriscale notes, “an arts building without anything happening within is an expensive pile of stone, albeit an architecturally interesting one, that has won many awards.”

But while there was once plenty of cash to fund this splurge on fancy buildings and spaces (something which, weirdly enough, further highlights the close ties between the FF/Green government and the building and developing sectors), revenue funding to do actual stuff in the buildings was always under threat. The buildings were opened and then, well, the cobwebs started to gather. Very artistic and creative cobwebs, but cobwebs nonetheless.

Yet the mania for building has not gone quietly into the night. On the contrary, it has become something of a comfort blanket for any governmental thinking about the arts and culture. Look at the recent notion about moving the Abbey Theatre to the GPO for more of this wrong-headedness. Of course, this idea, mooted most recently in the Programme for Government (version 2.0), does take the spotlight away from cuts and slices to the day-to-day arts spend (as highlighted by Barriscale’s piece), but that’s something only a cynical observer like OTR would note.

The thought of two national institutions coming together in the middle of O’Connell Street is such a juicy proposition that there’s probably been more words and opinions aired on this in the last 10 days than has been applied to anything the Abbey has put on in 50 years. Hey, we’ll have a rocking building! And just in time for the 1916 centenary celebrations too! That Yeats line “did that play of mine send out/certain men the English shot?” can be repeated ad nauseam to celebrate the hook-up! Who cares if there’s no cash left over to pay wages or fund a production? Just leave in a counter so folks can buy stamps and collect their pensions and you’ll be sorted. Sure, they might even buy a ticket for a play while they’re at it.

As we’ll hear again and again before December’s budget, exchequer funding is now all about priorities. Naturally, arts funding is way down the list of priorities (the bloody minks are naturally ahead of the sector on that list) and the chances are that there may not be even enough money this time to fund a musical on the wit and wisdom of Tommy Tiernan once the cuts have been made. And when the arts sector start to grumble about this, the old “artist exemption” scab will surely be picked by certain mandarins one more time to keep them in their place.

Let’s assume, though, there will still be some cash ear-marked for the arts sector in the rapidly dwindling kitty. Funding the arts to some extent is one of those commitments which even a draconian budget can’t quite 86 – I mean, what would the government say to the great and the good who met at Farmleigh last month and declared that culture was the way forward, if they went out and axed all arts funding?

This, then, is a perfect time for some adjustments to be made to how this cash is spent. Do we really need more art centre “follies” when there’s no cash to keep activities in those buildings on the go? Isn’t this the time to make a proper connection between those vacant Nama buildings and makeshift, temporary arts studios and spaces which can house those who don’t want to use those arts centres? Do we really need to be spending millions on a new National Concert Hall when there isn’t even a properly scrutinised business plan in place for that new piece of flashy infrastructure?

Any cash which is lobbed into the arts sector at this time needs to be wisely spent with long-term revenue and social capital in mind. Areas like festival tourism, a properly managed arts export scheme and investment in arts education at primary and secondary levels are just three areas which could produce a return to the exchequer in time.

These projects don’t require any new tranches of cash just better, clever management of existing resources. The bodies to oversee and manage these areas already exist – Tourism Ireland, Culture Ireland and there must be some eager beavers at the Department of Education who’d know how to marry the arts and education – so we’re not talking about the current Minister for Fun Martin Cullen setting up brand new quangos with all that process entails. There are already plenty of European precedents for all three and it would take a phone-call – no, hold on, an e-mail, that would save a few bob – to get some expert advice on how to proceed. The returns may not happen overnight, but they will come. No more new buildings please, no more architecturally stunning buildings, no more regional arts centres which make a statement. For once, let’s spend the cash on people, not bricks and mortar.