Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Why whinging about cutbacks in arts funding gets you nowhere

For the last month or so, I’ve been waiting for someone else to bring up Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh’s remarks about the arts in Ireland. I thought at the time that they’d form a jump-off point for a good …

Tue, Mar 9, 2010, 11:03


For the last month or so, I’ve been waiting for someone else to bring up Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh’s remarks about the arts in Ireland. I thought at the time that they’d form a jump-off point for a good think-piece from some arts activist about the state of the arts nation, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case. The remarks were reported by Lorna Siggins in the paper and that was that. There were other matters for the arts cognoscenti to get their teeth into. Rhubarb was in season or something.

A huge pity because what Kavanagh had to say about the arts was hugely informative at a time when every other arts organisation, especially those in the theatre sphere, seems to be exerting their energy whinging, fuming and complaining about Arts Council cuts. No-one is denying that the cuts will not have an effect or that they should be discussed, but Kavanagh’s take on this is very interesting. And they’re as relevant now as they were a month ago.

Siggins reports that Kavanagh believes “artists should stop engaging in the “blame game” about funding cuts and seize the “re-invigorating” opportunities created by recession. A “co-dependency” and “drip-feed” reliance on Arts Council finance, which leads to a “slash-and-burn” approach during the economic downturn, is neither good for artistic groups nor for the State body.”

Kavanagh knows cuts will run deep, but says this won’t prevent her and her team from ploughing ahead. “We had to let three people go last year, we rely on two full-time and one part-time staff and a community employment scheme, but we will work within this and look to the future. Artists have always survived on the outskirts, and recession is not a challenge for the imagination of the mind and the heart.”

It’s a brave stance and I’m sure there are many other arts organisations around the country who are similarly fired up. These are the ones staffed by people who got into their specific sectors to perform great work, to contribute something to the culture, to make some kind of difference. They probably didn’t get into the arts because they prefered it to working in a bank.

Yet the general mood of late in the arts sector has been one of endless complaints about cuts in Arts Council budgets. A lot of this comes down to a feeling late last year, aided by that Farmleigh House love-in and smart lobbying from the National Campaign for the Arts, that the cuts would not be as savage as those mooted by the McCathy Report. However, when the sums were done, the cuts were as bad if not worse than once feared. The Arts Council didn’t have any cash so they cut to the left and cut to the right and then went back over the body with the knife again.

Some practitioners have become so incensed about what they see as a U-turn (a U-turn in their heads at any rate) that they have commenced a letter-writing campaign seeking to have the council abolished and its functions taken over by the Department of Fun. However, they may feel a little differently about that campaign this morning, seeing as that department is now under the thumb of well-known arts lover Brian Cowen following the departure of Minister for Fun Martin Cullen from the scene. There may not even be a Department of Fun in a few weeks time once the reshuffle takes place.

Regardless of this, it’s probably time for a rethink about funding in general. Over the last two decades, a huge swathe of the arts in Ireland have become over-dependent on government funding. This dependancy culture means many organisations are now as adept, if not better, at filling out forms and seeing to meet Arts Council criteria than putting on fantastic work. This has brought about, as seems to have happened elsewhere in Irish society, a strong feeling of entitlement to these funds. Some will argue that you need the funding to make the work in the first place, but others will look at Kavanagh’s approach and realise that cash from Merrion Square is not going to stop them in their tracks.

And that’s the rub of the issue. It’s the work, not the complaints, which should pull people in. And ultimately, it’s the work, not the ability of the arts administrators to fill out forms, which should get the cash. I have written before here and elsewhere about how the government have completely neglected popular music when it comes to splashing the cash. Yet instead of fuming about this state of affairs, most of those actively involved in popular music have simply given up on the Arts Council and have found other ways to get the money needed to proceed. Be it tapping the folks at Culture Ireland for some cash to do stuff abroad or making two and two make 75, they’ve got on with the job. No fuming, no writing letters to the editor of the Irish Times, none of that old guff.