What's keeping Irish arts on the EU money margins?


Few Irish cultural organsiations are winning funds from Europe’s €400m Culture Programme – are they blocked by bureaucracy or just misinformed, asks CIAN TRAYNOR

IN A HALL beneath a giant glass cube in the centre of Brussels, a man asks a 600-strong EU arts conference: “who here hasn’t heard of the EU prize for literature?” Almost everyone puts their hand up. This is not a good sign. But it is, perhaps, one clue as to why Ireland is not making the most of the European Commission’s six-year, €400m Culture Programme.

At a two-day seminar about arts projects, funded to encourage cross-cultural collaboration, Ireland receives almost no mention. None of the multi-national enterprises attending – art networks, music collectives and theatre ensembles – appear to have the country on their radar.

Of the hundreds of parties here to learn more – film boards, festival organisers, universities, county councils – Ireland has just one cultural body in attendance: ArtPolonia, a Dublin-based information and event centre for Polish culture. Perhaps it comes down to branding. The European Capital for Culture is well-known, but few may have heard of EU initiatives like the European Border Breakers Awards for music, the Europa NOSTRA Awards for cultural heritage – or any other part of the 2007-2013 Culture Programme.

Among the information stands lining the halls at the conference, however, there is one Irish success story – it’s just not part of the Culture Programme. Leitrim Design House – a crafts body – is here to illustrate the art of business, having been previously funded by the European Regional Development Fund and kick-started by the Leitrim County Enterprise Board.

That kind of institutional guidance is the ideal. Normally each member state has a cultural contact point (CCP) that’s responsible for promoting the programme in that country. It’s their job to get as many cultural professionals involved as possible, assist with applications and ensure there’s communication between national cultural institutions. Ireland’s CCP is the Arts Council. So why aren’t more Irish projects getting involved? “There are a number of things – very natural and understandable things,” says Niamh McCabe, the Arts Council’s international officer.

“Our geographical positioning means it’s not as easy for people to develop the networks.” McCabe explains that it’s harder for Irish people to travel to the conference for the same reason, adding: “I don’t think our figures are unlike other countries of our size.”

There were three Irish applications in 2008, none of which were approved, and three of the six submitted in 2009 were successful. (An activity report for 2010 was not available at the time of writing.) None of these featured Ireland as the lead partner. Slovenia, meanwhile, had 19 of 34 applications accepted in 2008 and six of 30 in 2009, while Lithuania made 11 successful applications out of 25 over the same period.

Bureaucracy is another obstacle. It’s not as straightforward as receiving blanket funding. At its simplest, a recognised cultural body can apply for €50,000 to €200,000 in funding as long as they can match that amount themselves and collaborate with at least two European countries.

It could be that some institutions find international collaboration off-putting. But one of the biggest successes of the programme is a dance production called Borrowed Light by Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company, which availed of funds without compromising artistically.

Before applying, they were a small, non-institutionalised dance company with little public funding. They attracted international co-producers to invest in the production, as they always did, and qualified for the programme by touring in three countries, holding a seminar in France on networking and distribution, as well as using their tour revenue to help match the EU funds. They subsequently boosted their income, performed to an audience of 50,000 people worldwide and found critical acclaim.

“The project did not start out with European funding in mind but we were lucky enough to find this way to do it,” says Iiris Autio, managing director of the Tero Saarien Company.

“It’s lots of work, this programme, but the funding is big enough to make quite ambitious creations. You need to love bureaucracy,” she says with a laugh. “But if you are well organised and have big dreams, why not? All dance people are well connected through Europe, so in a way this is the perfect tool for dance companies and presenters.”

Dance Ireland is currently participating in Modul-Dance, a pan-European project involving 15 countries and a budget of €4,345,000. It developed between partners of the European Dance Network, an established web of contacts with collective experience of applying for EU funds. They appointed a secretariat for the application, which took a year to put together, and they had no outside help.

“The CCP had absolutely no involvement in this application or [its] success,” says Paul Johnson, chief executive of Dance Ireland. “You can interpret that however you like. Just to clarify, I am also a council member of the Arts Council.” When asked for an example of a successful applicant, the first name the Arts Council give is the Project Arts Centre. However, it maintains it was just approached to stage a Dutch production called If I Can’t Dance. . . The project was already developed and their slice of its €200,000 grant simply covered a number of the costs of staging it in Ireland. Willie White, artistic director of Project Arts Centre, doesn’t recall being invited to the conference but says he would have been interested in attending.

“I’m trying to get more Irish arts practitioners mobile because there are loads of opportunities throughout Europe being missed,” he says.

“It’s always a challenge to join up what the bureaucrats are doing and what the practitioners are doing.” That gulf inspired another telling moment in Brussels. Seconds after the host half-jokingly advised people to stay awake until the afternoon, a Zen-like composer named Jordi Savall took to the stage with a simple question.

“Why are we here?” he asked rousingly. A hush descended as he added, “the power of art,” but his point was clear: the conference felt far removed from the creativity it was there to nurture, giving little sense of the projects being discussed.

“It’s been forgotten in the detail,” he says of the culture programme later. “The complexities are so great that we’ve lost the essential thing, which is developing creativity and opening the eyes of young people. That has to be the front. There needs to be more awareness.”