Arts hits the hustings

 

At public meetings around the country yesterday the political parties offered their manifestos for the arts – but what are they really offering and what does the arts community think?

Chaired by broadcaster Myles Dungan, the parties were represented by Mary Hanafin (Fianna Fáil), Jimmy Deenihan (Fine Gael), Paul Gogarty (Greens), Aengus O’Snodaigh (Sinn Féin) and Alex White (Labour), who was a last-minute replacement for Ruairí Quinn.

The Dublin event was one of four happening simultaneously around the country, in Galway, Cork and Limerick, all of them organised by the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA). In Dublin alone, more than 100 people were turned away due to lack of space. In Galway, 200 people packed out that venue; 70 were in Limerick and 60 in Cork, at which there were 11 candidates on the panel.

Each of the Dublin representatives was initially given a few minutes to outline their party’s policies for the arts. It was not always a presentation of any clear manifesto, with a range of comments such as “the one organ that can restore our international reputation is the arts” (Deenihan), to “we need to harness the imagination” (O’Snodaigh).

Things sharpened up when Dungan put some direct questions to each of the panel on behalf of the NCFA. Will there be a cabinet minister with responsibility for the arts in the new government? Everyone answered “yes” unequivocally, to a palpable sense of relief from the audience.

The question of Culture Ireland possibly being brought in under the umbrella of the Arts Councilwas raised, drawing the following responses:

Gogarty: “I don’t like the idea of quangos when money is tight.”

Hanafin: “Culture Ireland is one of our most successful bodies. We would very definitely keep it as a separate and distinct body.”

Deenihan: “We wouldn’t want to separate it.”

White: “We’d want to combine the two. But we’re listeners in the Labour Party.”

What’s the future for the long talked-about relocation of the Abbey Theatre?

Gogarty: “I thought the GPO would have been a good venue.”

White: “I’m not sure about the GPO as a venue. I don’t think that issue is settled yet.”

Hanafin: “Wherever it will be, it needs funding. And there are issues about mobility access at the current venue. But it’s not appropriate for me to comment on it until I’m reappointed.”

Deenihan: “There are compelling reasons for leaving it where it is. There are other buildings near the river that will become available.”

O’Snodaigh: “I don’t think the GPO is a very flexible space. But coming up to the centenary of 1916, we could look at developing O’Connell Street as a cultural quarter.”

The issue of funding for a new 2,000-seater National Concert Hallwas raised.

Hanafin: “There’s a greater need for a 500-seat venue than a 2,000 one.”

Deenihan: “It depends on resources. But if it came to providing finance for a building, then I’d prefer to see that money going into keeping people employed in the arts.”

O’Snodaigh: “It’s not proven that there’s a need for a 2,000-seat concert hall at this time.”

About mid-way through, Mannix Flynn, who is running as an independent candidate, made a very vocal exit, addressing the panel as he did. “You’re the most boring lot of self-serving people. This is the dullest thing I’ve ever been to. This is the biggest non-event ever,” he shouted as he made his way out. “That was an arts event by Mannix Flynn,” Gogarty quipped.

Deenihan mentioned the number of Nama buildings in the country, suggesting that some of them could be used for arts purposes. “We could make a centre of literary excellence in Dublin where people could get the whole package, from Swift to current writers reading their work. The Anglo Irish Bank on Stephen’s Green is a Nama building that stands out.”

“What about the Anglo Irish Bank in the docklands?” interjected Dungan. “Perhaps we could turn that into a Chamber of Horrors?”

When it came to questions from the floor, inclusion and consultation on arts policy was a priority. “Artists are a marginalised community,” Rynagh O’Grady of Irish Actors’ Equity stated. “We need to be given a voice.”

The other issue raised by all, was, of course, money and funding. The bottom line agreed by all candidates was, as White put it, “there’s a limit to resources”.

The reaction on Twitter

@colinmurphyinfo Sorry to have to miss #ncfa this morn at Project. People fighting to get in? Sounds like John B’s Sive.

@fmacconghail Paul Gogarty spoke about the hardship artists have in explaining their job role to the Dept of Social Welfare.

@TomTDowling No new money for arts in Dáil, could we justify spending 100mil on Abbey move to GPO? Soaking 1/4 of art council buget per year.

@mannixflynn the cure for insomnia was found at the Project Arts Centre this morning, in the form of #ncfa. Good day for insomniacs.

@thisispopbaby I love that Mannix thinks he was the only artist at #ncfa hustings. The rest of us are “self serving arts administrators”. Thanks Mr Flynn.

@ThatEvaOne Just noticed a mirrorball hanging over the stage @projectarts. Gives the #ncfa hustings a touch of disco-fever.

@williewhite “Opera’s very complicated and very political,” says Mary Hanafin TD.

THE GALWAY REACTION

Lorna Siggins, Western Correspondent

AN ESTIMATED 180 people attended the Galway hustings chaired by Fergal McGrath of Theatre Forum in the Radisson Hotel. Eleven General Election candidates from four of the five main political parties, and some independents, set out their stall, while the fifth party, Sinn Féin, sent a representative.

The consensus was that artists need to congregate immediately after the General Election to press their case with the new government – and a new minister.

Issues raised from the floor included the lack of Social Welfare status for artists, tax exemption, VAT imposed on foreign artists performing in Ireland, along with education and the importance of the Irish language.

While there was firm support for the NCFA’s key tenets, the local issue of space for arts workers in Galway city and county was also highlighted. This issue is defined by the Galway campaign as “space to make work, to show work, space to learn, space to start and spás don teanga”.

The space issue is particularly pertinent at a time when Nama-controlled buildings are lying dormant, and when Galway city and harbour have plans to develop the CIE Ceannt Station area and an extension to the docks.

“We intend to influence the policies of candidates in this election, but we also have a long-term view,” one of the hustings organisers, Maeve Mulrennan, said. “Galway has a massive arts and culture ‘industry’, and it is time we used the power of our united voice to tackle the issues facing arts workers locally and nationally.”

Fellow organiser Kate Howard said that the event was one of the most successful in Galway since the national campaign got underway.