Arts Council chair calls for an Aosdána for performing artists

State investment in the arts marked but Ireland remains below European average

Arts Council director Orlaith McBride, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke at the announcement of investment in the arts for 2019. Photograph: Alan Betson

Arts Council director Orlaith McBride, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke at the announcement of investment in the arts for 2019. Photograph: Alan Betson


The chairwoman of the Arts Council Sheila Pratschke on Thursday called for a separate Aosdána for the performing arts.

Speaking at the council’s Dublin offices in her last official speech as chair – her five year term ends on February 24th – Pratschke said it would be “a parallel but different body for the extraordinary artists who interpret work, and in so doing, reimagine it through performance”.

Aosdána, the affiliation of creative artists administered by the Arts Council, honours and supports artists with “a distinguished body of work” who have made an outstanding contribution. Limited to 250 members, Aosdána comprises creative artists – including writers, composers, visual artists, and more recently architects and choreographers – but not performers.

Performing artists – including actors, musicians, dancers – are also not eligible to apply for artists’ tax exemption. Research into wider pay and conditions for performing artists released last month by Theatre Forum, which represents performing arts, shows many established, acclaimed professionals live precarious lives, with one-third earning less than the minimum wage of €9.55 an hour (partly because 83 per cent are paid flat fees regardless of hours). Their average weekly earnings were two-thirds of those in other sectors.

Arts Council investment

Pratschke was speaking at an event marking €75 million in Arts Council investment across Ireland this year, following a 10 per cent increase in council funding in the Budget. Pratchke saluted “the promise to double funding to the arts over the next seven years. Incremental increases are aiding recovery. Doubling funding will reposition artists from the side-lines to the centre ground. Delivering on this promise is an investment in citizenship, in democracy and in the public imagination.”

Ireland’s funding of arts and culture has increased in recent years, on foot of years of severe, post-crash cutbacks. But at 0.1 per cent of GDP, Ireland’s arts funding is just one-sixth of the average 0.6 per cent on arts in other European countries.

The role of Arts Council chair is expected to be advertised shortly through the Public Appointments service, and three other council member appointments are also due.

This was Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan’s first visit to the Arts Council since last June – “I’m not sure if it was before or after I said Mass in June,” the Minister joked. She said State investment was “a statement of public support for the arts. It is a statement that the arts and artists matter. It is not possible to interpret or imagine our country without the vision and the practice of our artists.”

Many cultural clients of the council attended the Arts Council’s gracious Merrion Square HQ, and fiddler Liam O’Connor and Paddy McEvoy on keyboards played before the Minister arrived.

Observing “we are living through yet another golden age of Irish literature”, Pratschke also said “new voices of young writers and poets have emerged at a time of minimal support for Irish publishing. I passionately believe that greater support for both publishing and translation should be one of the priorities for the future”.

We also need to “look out from our own shores”, she said, and suggested funding Irish artists who live and create abroad. The council “should enable creative practice outside of Ireland, thus building living international networks which will enrich us all”.

This year’s investment will fund “the very best performances, concerts, exhibitions, readings and other arts events in every region of the country”, as well as investing in artists at key stages and developing art forms.

Of the €75million, €37.2 million goes to key arts organisations, €12.6 million is invested in individual projects and programmes, including hundreds of productions, touring and festivals.

Individual artists

Support for individual artists (through the Aosdána cnuas, bursaries, commissions, schemes, residencies and travel and training grants) total €5.9 million; local authorities, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, and arts venues get €8.4 million; development funding is €5 million. There will be further investment in the Creative School pilot and the council will spend €200,000 on new visual artists’ work for its collection.

The Abbey Theatre’s funding is for “an extensive programme of work for audiences, both at its home theatre and on tour, as well as developing new work with some of the most exciting theatre artists”. Its 2019 funding is €7million, the same as last year, but with €300,000 withheld pending the theatre meeting conditions, including clarity about the Abbey’s production and presenting models, the quality of employment it offers actors and creatives, and pay levels. These issues came to a head last month, when 409 theatre professionals supported a letter of concern about the direction of the national theatre.

The council has not yet made a decision about 2019 funding of Wexford Festival Opera. The council says it has been “working closely” with the festival since last autumn, “to better understand its current financial position”, and stressed it is “committed to continuing its long-standing support” of the festival. Wexford Festival Opera confirmed it’s working with the Arts Council on a 2019 development plan, and is grateful for its “continued support in advance of our grant funding for 2019 being fully confirmed”. In the meantime the festival is preparing for this year’s productions and booking opens on March 23rd.

Wexford Festival Opera last month announced its new artistic director, Italian-born Rosetta Cucchi. The festival recently changed its previously announced repertoire for this October, replacing Weber’s Der Freischütz with a production of Vivaldi’s Dorilla in Tempe. The festival said the change was “mainly for financial reasons, although we are happy that it will provide an interesting and attractive addition to the programme”. Der Freischütz has a cast of 12, Dorilla in Tempe just six, and needs fewer musicians in its orchestra.