Arguing the case for the arts in this year’s budget

New Arts Council chairman Kevin Rafter expects State will honour funding pledge

Kevin Rafter, Chairman of the Arts Council:   ‘I took the role with my eyes open, knowing it was a big time commitment.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Kevin Rafter, Chairman of the Arts Council: ‘I took the role with my eyes open, knowing it was a big time commitment.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

On the face of it, it’s a crazy proposition. Chairing a high-profile organisation, with lots of hands-on work, a big learning curve, the possibility of upsetting multiple people, a massive input of time (and all for no money).

Kevin Rafter, new chairman of the Arts Council (AC), looks happy with it. They say: ask a busy person. The day job is professor of political communication and head of the school of communications at DCU.

The experienced non-executive director (boards from Dublin Bus to Oxfam , as well as more arty ones including Galway International Arts Festival and chairing Culture Ireland; he’s dropped conflicting roles), also writes books on media and politics, after 14 years as a political journalist.

A few months into a five-year term, he’s chaired a council board meeting, overseen one funding round and has been out and about – a lot.

I’m not of any of the art forms, and not part of the sector as an artist, but I’m part of the wider sector

“As I expected, it’s busy. It’s interesting. I took the role with my eyes open, knowing it was a big time commitment, with a lot of background meetings with the director and staff, the usual governance, strategy, finance. And then making a very conscious effort to be out at things, accepting invitations.”

The decision to go for it came down to the fact “the Arts Council is the most important organisation in the arts in Ireland. It’s a big national institution and an area I’m really interested in. And I probably was only ever going to be asked once. I’d obviously had exposure to the sector, so I sort of knew my way around. And part of the role of the academic is public service, so chair of the AC - I see it almost as an extension of the day job.”

An audience member

The chair’s annual fee is €8,978, but as a public servant Rafter isn’t paid that. He juggles, with good time management, and talks enthusiastically about work he’s seen, from art at Solistice in Navan to theatre during the festivals.

Film, theatre and galleries have long been part of his life; “I listen to music all the time, not necessarily music funded by the AC, but pop and rock. Lana Del Rey or St Vincent.”

Culture Ireland introduced him to opera and dance. Also, “literature. I read a lot. I see writers’ names on grant lists now and I’ve read their work, so I’m not coming to it like an alien! I’m not of any of the art forms, and not part of the sector as an artist, but I’m part of the wider sector, as somebody who’s in the audience.”

We’re sitting in the council’s boardroom, surrounded by paintings; it has been collecting since the early 1960s. It now has over 1,100 pieces, a substantial collection of modern Irish art: “It’s the story of the past 60 years.” One of his nicest  jobs so far was in this room, marking composer Roger Doyle’s election as a saoi of Aosdana. “Over the summer I listened to a lot of his music, particularly Babel; it’s brilliant.”

We’re talking shortly before this week’s budget, and the arts sector is likely hoping the politically astute Rafter will oversee good news at a tricky time.

Kevin Rafter: ‘Culture Ireland couldn’t exist without the AC, because it funds the artists to make great work in the first instance.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Kevin Rafter: ‘Culture Ireland couldn’t exist without the AC, because it funds the artists to make great work in the first instance.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

“I’m hoping it won’t be an austere budget. There have been significant strides bringing AC funding back, with €75 million last year.” He talks about Leo Varadkar’s commitment in May 2017, which he thinks the wider political establishment also backs, to double arts funding in seven years.

“Notwithstanding the current Brexit situation I hope we’ll see the commitment to arts funding honoured, in increased funding for the AC, not just this year but through years to come.”

He hopes to see something around the same level as last year’s 10 per cent increase, and the “beginning of a movement towards significant extra money for the AC to expand good work”.

But he doesn’t have a magic wand, he says. “And we’ve put our case to the government about the value of the money they spend on arts.”

Advice and support

There’s been concern that doubling arts funding should not just relate to capital spending, but also to artists making work. Rafter interprets the commitment as “meaning year-on-year increases in arts funding and AC funding . . . so over that period, whatever government is in place will honour the pledge to significantly increase the AC budget.”

He does not envisage a scenario of significant increases in the wider arts sector not carrying through for the council. “It is the body that deals with the artists and is in a unique space.”

Frustration is perennial about never-ending red tape in funding applications, but lately disgruntlement seems unprecedented about excessive and time-gobbling administration, a particular burden for smaller organisations.

Rafter is aware of these concerns, which were discussed at the last council meeting. After December’s funding round the council will look at the issue, but he says, the other side of that coin is that “we are a public body dispersing public money, and accountability and transparency are hugely important. And if something was to go wrong we’d be the worst in the world.”

There’s a wider conversation about pay and conditions, allowing artists to earn a decent living

There’s a balance to be struck, he says. “As we go through my first year, and the grant cycles, we’ll see are there things that we can do differently. It’s not being ignored.”

In June, Rafter addressed the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. He talked about how “a small grant to a fledgling theatre company in Galway in the 1970s” led to Druid’s “world renowned theatre powerhouse” and how a bursary in the 1980s to emerging novelist Anne Enright helped a Booker prizewinner.

“At the AC, novels are not written, poetry is not crafted, dance is not created,” but it “disperses public money, provides expert advice and delivers practical support”.

Next year he’ll lead the recruitment of a new Arts Council director, when Orlaith McBride’s term ends. He talks now about the council being “well served by staff who are joyous, celebratory about the arts”. Their “huge energy and enthusiasm” is “bet into the DNA of this organisation”.

The council’s relationship with its biggest funding recipient, the Abbey Theatre, has been complicated this year, with €300,000 of its €7million grant withheld because of concerns about how co-productions impact on freelancers’ pay and conditions. The row predates him, and Rafter points out “the AC is not the regulator for the sector”, but had “an active role in the issues”, which, he says “were legitimate. The Abbey is aware, with a grant of seven million and its history, of its place in the Irish arts world”, and its “unique responsibilities”.

Progress

June’s council meeting decided to release the money, “following the Abbey’s commitment to dealing with the issues”. At the same time, the long-running negotiations between the Abbey and theatre sector workers is still not concluded. Does reinstating funding indicate the council is happy?

“It’s an indication there was movement by the Abbey”, but “the fact that the [AC-Abbey] working group is still in place is an indication these are ongoing conversations. It isn’t as if the AC has sort of nodded towards this and walked away.” There is progress, he says, but ongoing monitoring.

After Creative Ireland (CI), the Government’s legacy culture-based five year programme, was set up in 2016, some were worried about it encroaching on council territory. Rafter says now his understanding is the relationship is very positive.

“While there may have been concerns initially, and I can understand why, it has settled into a good working relationship. Bearing in mind that the AC is the most important organisation in this space and it’s much, much bigger than any of the other agencies.”

He mentions Culture Ireland’s Creative Schools Project, and says for the council, “it’s about ensuring the legacy post-2022 continues when CI comes to an end, and that its additional six or seven million stays available. If these projects are successful we should be continuing them, losing the word pilot, and they should be rolled out.”

There’s “a complex, complementary relationship” between the council  and Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish arts abroad. “Culture Ireland couldn’t exist without the AC, because it funds the artists to make great work in the first instance. It’s the Arts Council is the big beast.”

Old and new

He has specific hopes for his term. “There’s a laureate for fiction, a Laureate na nÓg, a professor of poetry, but there’s a gap with performance and visual art. There’s a particular status in awarding that laureate position for recognition of the art form, not just individual work.”

He also plans some attention for art centres around Ireland: “they are creative hubs”. And he wants to focus on artists’ pay and conditions, with a new policy in development.

“It wasn’t just the Abbey on its own. There’s a wider conversation about pay and conditions, allowing artists to earn a decent living so that they can actually do their practice, and the AC as the development agency for the sector will be taking a lead role in that.”

As a political scientist, he wants the Arts Council to be centrally involved in marking 2022, “a key date, the foundation of the State. It’s contested history and would probably be more challenging than 1916.” A celebration of Irish art in marking 1922 would not just include art from the past 100 years, but “contemporary art, the story of modern Ireland and 2022”.

There were 105 applicants for last week’s three council appointments, he tells me. “It shows the degree of interest, because it’s a lot of work. If you’re on the AC, it’s public service. You do it because it’s something that you love and you’re making a contribution to wider Irish society.”

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