The government’s problem with the arts
Funding and the hope of funding means the arts community are prepared to accept this abusive relationship
That Kanye West line about George Bush came to mind a few times over the last week when considering how the new government has downplayed the arts in terms of cabinet designation. This government, like so many before it, just doesn’t appear to care about the arts. We kind of knew this already, but the recent cabinet shuffle has underlined this and put it in bold 30 point print.
Outgoing minster Heather Humphreys is back in charge of the brief, but she is now the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht. That’s a bit of a mouthful with a hell of a lot of responsibilites thrown into the mix and arts does seem like an add-on in the context of the other briefs. Naturally enough, the arts community has jumped up and down about this state of affairs and responded with a petition.
The minister has quickly responded to these concerns saying that “the new department of course has a lot of extra responsibilities, but with that must come extra staff and resources.” There is, as yet, no indication that those extra staff and resources will be forthcoming. The cabinet does, after all, have more pressing things to do, like making sure that government ministers have paid their water bills.
But why on earth does this downgrading of the arts come as a surprise to anyone in the arts? There have been plenty of examples over the last few years about just what the arts mean to those in power so it’s not like they’ve changed their tune because of the 2016 election. The John McNulty story back in 2014 was a great example of this. In fact, everything in that post holds up when you look at the current sitution too. Again and again, we’ve seen a lack of care and thought on a government level about the arts and culture. It has to be acknowledged that some of those who’ve overseen the arts and culture brief have been better than others, but the status quo when it comes to arts remains.
This paragraph from that last post is a good example of how the relationship appears to work: “both those elected to office and those faceless members of the permanent establishment who run the various departments and administrations don’t really know or trust what the arts are about. They see the arts either as a soft news story (cue photo of performers acting the eejit at some funded festival or other) or as the material for a cute hoor stroke (cue the current fandango with our friend from Kilcar). They do not see the arts as what they really are.”
Yet the arts community sucks this up because they believe there is no alternative. The arts need funding and, unless you’re prepared to go down the commercial route with all the possible compromises that requires, this means filling out forms, taking a number and waiting your turn. It’s not as if the issue of arts funding is transparent and above board, as we’ve seen in the last few years, but the arts community still go along with it. No wonder there’s an abusive relationship between those who are funded and those who do the funding.
Is there another way aside from signing a petition? The nuclear option would be for the arts community to stop co-operating with the government full stop. No more turning up to play a jig or do a spot of classical dance to add colour to some launch or other. No more pussyfooting around when it comes to pointing out that the government doesn’t give a fig about the importance of arts and culture. No more mealy-mouthed acceptance of the convoluted, archaic and unnecessarily one-sided funding situation. Call it a strike or a full stop, but that might get some attention. The arts community could, of course, have used the election in February to get attention, but that didn’t happen.
The problem is you need the full co-operation of the sector if you want to make a point and that’s not going to happen because some in the arts community are actually doing grand from all of this. They’re the good boys and girls. They know their funding is secure because they’re national institutions. They realise they’re bullet-proof because they’ve weathered the kind of fiascos which would take anyone else out. They’ll keep their powder dry and their noses clean because they know being part of the rabble is not a good look for their five year plans to expand their castles. They’ll pay lip service to how terrible it all is, but they’re really sound out with the situation because they know the players and the players know them.
So, like has happened so many times before, this storm will fade away. In a few months or a year or longer, another story which will point to the government’s complete lack of interest in and care for the arts will present itself again. We’ll be back again with the social media fuming and the petitions and handwringing and it will all play out as before and as above. And then that storm will go away too. You could actually write a play or novel about it. Actually, maybe that’s the solution…