Political parties go in search of the 'halo effect'


As the General Election nears, the positions of political parties on the arts assume greater importance and policies range from aspirational to plans for legislation, writes GERRY SMYTH

IN THEIR introduction to Capitalising on Culture/Competing on Difference, authors Finbar Bradley and James J Kennelly state that a core argument of their study “is that culture, tradition and identity are powerful resources that lead to innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and global advantage”. They contend that when such qualities are part of public policy, they “can create conditions necessary for the creation of the vaunted knowledge or learning society”.

The vaunting of cultural policies by the political parties in this election campaign should not go unnoticed. All of them, it seems, are now happy to capitalise on what they see as the “halo effect” of the arts.

Fine Gael delivers the most ambitious set of proposals that seem keenly attuned to how culture has moved into what it calls a “central role in Ireland’s future”. Oddly, Fianna Fáil makes only a one-paragraph reference to culture and promises to do its “best to support arts and cultural initiatives” – without any elaboration on what this would entail. The “economic potential” to support enterprise and innovation is mentioned, but the lack of a more fully fleshed-out programme is odd in view of the party’s clear commitment over recent years, and more so its post-Farmleigh enthusiasm.

This, after all, was the party that, in government with the Greens, brought Arts Council funding from €44 million in 2003 to €85 million in 2008, set up Culture Ireland, supported the development of Culture Night, and, under John O’Donoghue, established a new Arts Act.

The Greens in their policy document see a need to further legislate on that Act to expand on the definition of the arts. They also focus on the importance of retaining Section 481 tax breaks for the film industry (they claim credit for saving the Irish Film Board when the McCarthy report recommended its demise); ensuring that arts education is introduced into primary and secondary schools, looking to the future role of technology and innovation in the arts. The Greens also commit to maintaining current levels of funding and the retention of a Cabinet seat for the arts.

The Labour Party places great emphasis on how the Irish language “can and should contribute to our economic recovery”. It wants the office of the Taoiseach to take responsibility for development of the language and suggests that teaching of the language needs “significant reform”. One of its aims would be to establish the teaching of a second subject through Irish at primary level. It also sets improvement of literacy standards in schools as a priority.

Labour proposes the merger of Culture Ireland and the Arts Council which would be given “an expanded mandate to promote Irish arts abroad”. That will raise eyebrows among those who commend the effectiveness of Culture Ireland in raising the profile of Irish arts on a small budget and small staff.

Its advocacy of multi-annual funding to allow longer planning will be welcomed by the sector which has always had that objective high on its agenda. A review of the areas that receive funding through the Arts Council might well draw it into conflict on the important issue of the arms-length policy.

Other points in the Labour document include an audit of the infrastructure of venues and how they are utilised – and the identification of Nama buildings which might be suitable as arts facilities. The one “boom-time” legacy that the arts have been left with is, of course, an extensive network of venues and theatres – what is required is adequate funding to maintain a proper touring policy. Labour is the only party to mention artists’ tax exemption of €40,000 a year and indicates it will seek a way to allow artists to spread income over a number of years.

On its website, Sinn Féin endorses an all-Ireland approach and the development of cultural “industries in the context of economic regeneration”. The country’s archaeological heritage should be prioritised and the crafts industry – not often given recognition in discussion of our cultural assets – is seen as having the potential to reinvigorate Irish culture. The promotion of Gaelic games, the Irish language and increased funding for Foras na Gaeilge give clear pointers to the party’s aims and priorities.

Sinn Féin wants St Patrick’s Day designated an all-Ireland public holiday, and more extended co-operation between the two arts councils, North and South – though, in fact, strong and effective co-operation between both councils long predated the Good Friday agreement.

Much has certainly changed in the way we regard the arts; what remains to be seen is how any wish-list translates into action. Like most policy documents – especially those created in the bluster of an election campaign – Fine Gael’s needs to be read as aspirational – it offers practically no detail on cost and gives no assurances on funding.

One suggestion that will get people in the sector sharpening their CVs is the proposal that new Arts Council members “will be appointed in a new and transparent way, after vacancies have been advertised and qualified and appropriate candidates short-listed”. There will be no shortage of applications, but the kind of expertise and arts know-how that has always been part of the council make-up will continue to be necessary, as will a fair representation from all the various disciplines.

What Fine Gael is clear on is the party’s commitment to “a seat at the Cabinet table” for the arts and a continuation of the department (Tourism, Culture and Sport) as it is now stands, but with a more collaborative and productive set-up between it and other departments. The appointment of a “cultural broker” to oversee and ensure this process makes good sense.

The policy has many good ideas that deserve not just further exploration but to be delivered: a flagship Literature Centre for Dublin, the possible setting up of a TV channel to broadcast Irish arts and films at home and abroad, and a scheme to foster more philanthropy in the private sector, leading to the a National Endowment Fund for the Arts.

The promise to “put culture at the heart of the 2016 commemoration” reminds us that the midwives at the birth of Yeats’s “terrible beauty” were indeed writers and cultural figures. The idea to create a large-scale digital archive of the national cultural institutions to mark the anniversary would do the State much service. So too would the opening of a Literature Centre to honour the literary heritage to which we pay so much lip service.

Fine Gael, too, strikes that old and familiar note with its suggestions on building a more defined relationship between the arts and education – making them “a core component of the school curriculum”. Now where have we heard that before?

Actually it was in the 1951 Dáil debate on establishing the Arts Council, when FG TD Maurice Dockrell said that if the new council wanted to build a better appreciation of the arts, it would have a very difficult task unless it started by educating the children.

This worthy ideal been has raised many times since, but 60 years later, there is not much to point to in the way of achievement of that ideal. Should we hold our breath?

Arts on the hustings

THE NATIONAL Campaign for the Arts is today holding four election hustings meetings around the country, each at 11am.

In the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, speakers from all the main political parties will explain their arts and culture policies and members of the public are invited to attend and ask questions. The parties will be represented by the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin, for Fianna Fáil; Jimmy Deenihan, Fine Gael’s Frontbench Spokesperson on Culture; Paul Gogarty for the Greens; Ruairi Quinn, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Aengus O Snodaigh for Sinn Féin. Journalist Myles Dungan will chair the session.

Meetings on arts policy will also take place with local politicians in Cork (Crawford Art Gallery, chaired by poet Thomas McCarthy), Galway (Radisson Blu Hotel) and Limerick (Belltable Arts Centre).