Death by a thousand cuts


With arts funding continuously being cut, practitioners have designated today as a ‘Day of Action’, to highlight the importance of culture and to call on local representatives to support all art forms. ROSITA BOLANDspeaks to some arts
organisations feeling the pinch

THE NATIONAL Campaign for the Arts have designated today as a “Day of Action” for arts and culture, when a wide range of campaigning initiatives will take place around the country. Those who work in the arts have been encouraged to meet today with their local TDs: to remind their public representatives of the importance of the place of culture in Ireland; to draw attention to cuts in funding; to attempt to protect local authority arts funding; and to petition for arts funding in the next budget to be increased.

As the State body for the promotion and support of the arts, the Arts Council is its most visible, influential and best-resourced funding organisation. It’s certain that many of those arts practitioners who will be out lobbying and campaigning today will draw the attention of TDs to consistent budget cuts in funding to the Arts Council over the last couple of years.

At the very least, they will be looking for reassurances that their TDs will try to ensure that this year’s funding allocation to the Arts Council will stabilise, even if it does not increase.

So what is the reality for some of those arts organisations whose funding was cut in the last budget? The Irish Times spoke to three of them.

The Dance Theatre of Ireland

Arts Council Funding

2010 - 140,000

2009 - 208,000

2008 - 341,220

Robert Connor and Loretta Yurick are the directors and founders of the Dance Theatre of Ireland. Their funding has been more than halved since 2008. The most direct result of this has been that they have not been able to develop any new work. Since 2008, they have had to let staff go, and those remaining have taken a 5 per cent paycut. They had hoped to premiere a new work this year, which they had partially developed, but now they don’t have enough funding to finish the piece, let alone tour it.

“The Arts Council has decided who should make what work and where,” Yurick says. “It’s prescriptive funding. The funding we have received is ring-fenced for education and outreach only, so our practise as artists to make and tour new work is on hold. We’re incapacitated.”

“We would argue that touring our work is a form of outreach,” says Connor. The company was invited this year by 10 festivals around the country to perform a flagship production, Block Party. They had to turn them all down. “We couldn’t afford to do them,” Connor explains. “Normally, our Arts Council funding supplements the cost of putting the show on, and of travelling, but because our money was ring-fenced in the way it was, we had to say no to all the festivals. Ultimately, its the arts who are losing, because all those potential audiences lost the opportunity to see dance.

“What the Arts Council is doing is trying to find ways of bringing younger artists into the system. They are trying to fund younger artists directly, but that is actually resulting in a culling of mid-career artists. By cutting back on production funding – for companies like ours – younger artists will eventually run into the same problems.”

“There is a shift now by the Arts Council from funding artist-led companies to supporting one-off projects,” Yurick observes. “That’s a sustainability problem.”

Ireland Literature Exchange

Arts Council Funding

2010 - 225,000

2009 - 298,670

2008 - 297,270

Sinéad Mac Aodha is the director of the Ireland Literature Exchange (ILE). The ILE focuses on the international promotion of Irish literature, in both the English and Irish languages. At the core of the organisation is the process of identifying work that merits translation, and then facilitating those translations by offering grants to international publishers. To date, ILE has facilitated more than 1,500 translations.

“The funding cut we got this year is starker than a percentage cut,” Mac Aodha says, “although my biggest concern was the way the ILE was targeted by the Arts Council. Other literature bodies got cuts of 14 per cent whereas we got cuts of almost 25 per cent.

“Our biggest problem this year has been that the Arts Council funding cut meant less money to fund our main activity, and the effect of that will really only become apparent now.”

At the end of this month, the ILE’s board is due to consider 45 applications for translation. “Ideally – provided the work was of quality – we would be looking at funding 85 per cent of those. The most we’ll be able to support this year will be around seven of those 45.”

The ILE also gets funding from Culture Ireland, but as Mac Aodha points out, “that funding is tied to specific projects and doesn’t cover overheads. Culture Ireland specify the territory they want us to work in. Of course we’re happy to get additional funding, but there are advantages and disadvantages to it. For instance, we’ve established relationships with publishers right round the world. Once a relationship with a foreign publisher is broken, it might be broken forever.

“If we don’t have funding, there is no incentive for that publisher to come back to us in 2011 – they could go to other countries for works to translate, such as Canada. We’ve been turning away publishers from Argentina and Brazil, from France and Germany.”

Like everyone else, the ILE has been making its own cutbacks. As an example, Mac Aodha cites the fact that when she went for work to the London Book Fair earlier this year, she stayed with a friend rather than in a hotel, to save on costs. “But you can only call in favours like that once in a while, and it’s not always the most professional way of doing business.”

By the end of this year, Mac Aodha foresees a situation where “we’ll be saying no to everybody. We can’t take the risk of promising to fund projects that will come due in 2012.”

Hawk’s Well Theatre Company

Arts Council Funding

2010 - €145,000

2009 - €175,000

2008 - €190,000

Robbie McDonald is the acting director of Sligo’s Hawk’s Well Theatre. He’s philosophical about the funding cut to the theatre this year. “It’s in line with everyone else, so I don’t think we’ve been penalised above and beyond any other theatre company in the country.”

As a regional theatre whose space regularly hosts visiting companies, McDonald points out that the loss in funding to other theatre companies has a direct impact on the Sligo theatre. “We would have been a possible touring venue for a number of companies this year, for example, Second Age’s Dancing at Lughnasa was meant to come here, but couldn’t.” The fact that other companies also had a funding cut meant that their touring was restricted. “It’s probably more economical for them to tour within the M50 circuit,” he says.

“Touring grants are only announced in June, so the phones were hopping, wondering who had got what. The fact that the touring grants are announced at a different time from the core funding means that there is a programming gap for a theatre like us, because we don’t know what’s going to be available to us as a result.”

The fruits of funding: A year in the life of the Corn Exchange

WE AT the Corn Exchange have been extremely priviledged in the past year to receive funding that allows us to make theatre and to work the way we do

We started work on our play, Freefall, just after Obama’s election. I was in Chicago doing a workshop with SITI company a couple of blocks away from his old house. Anne Bogart and SITI had performed a translation of mine (Death and the Ploughman) a few years before – and now we were experimenting with a version of The Seagull I had originally written a decade ago. The workshop in Chicago was promising, though it has yet to become a production in its own right. We’re still hopeful, but it may never happen: arts funding is difficult to come by in the best of times.

But the week was important because it was in conversations with SITI that our company was introduced to the work of Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroscientist who suffered a massive stroke in her thirties. Her testimony was a watershed moment for us in creating Freefall, a story about an ordinary Irish man who suffers a similar fate. It gave us a language for making the play.

By early 2009 we had met with – and been invited into – the Dublin Theatre Festival. We had started casting and began developing the script. Annie Ryan, the director, and I spent the summer breaking it down and working with the actors. We went into rehearsals in August and opened in October.

So that’s less than 12 months from inception to birth – a year in which it’s safe to say we thought of little else, and during which we were constantly reminding ourselves how lucky we were to have the support of the Arts Council.

We are acutely conscious of the responsibilities that come with such support – and would like to think that it shows in the work. We believe in excellence and in making an unforgettable experience for the audience. It is both a joyful and demanding job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

When I think about the year that went into making Freefall, I am struck by a number of things.

The first is how many people the making of a 100-minute show for five actors depends on. In addition to the unseen artists in the creative team, there are administrators, technicians, producers and managers forming a vast network of people who work on the show, some for many months. Many of these jobs are highly specialised and skilled and, I suppose, that is the point: making art requires a lot of training and experience – and that knowledge cannot be purchased at the end point or subsidised at the beginning of every project. It is an ecosystem of shared resources and know-how bound together by good faith and subsidy.

The second thing I am reminded of is that both the translation that SITI produced in 1994 and the translation we were workshopping in November 1998 were originally commissions supported by the Arts Council.

Without them, I would never have found myself in a room in Chicago discussing what became Freefall. Out of such unpredictable connections and long gestation comes the possibility of future work.

Arts subsidy not only stretches laterally in the present moment but also reaches through time. For each artist it takes years to build up the network of relationships that allow work to prosper; and it takes years to learn how to make the work.

In 2020 the next generation of artists will look back and see this moment as formative.

Hopefully they will be able to trace to it the beginning of conversations and connections that drive their work, rather than wondering at its silence.

Michael West is a writer with Corn Exchange Theatre Company