Arts Council’s role is now to provide income continuance and business survival
The Covid-19 crisis has put millions of independent artists and small companies around the world under existential threat
Fianna Fáil’s Niamh Smyth: “While I do not expect us to be matching funding set by the German or English governments, the sums involved show they clearly value their arts community more than the outgoing Government here”
The Arts Council was clearly taken aback by the ferocious response to last week’s announcement of measures to support artists, arts workers and cultural organisations during the coronavirus crisis.
So much so that it published a plaintive open letter from its board on Wednesday about its plans, along with the Department of Culture, Creative Ireland and Culture Ireland, to keep the sector on life support for the next few months.
“We know that this is a deeply worrying and challenging time for you,” the council said following a board meeting. “We are aware of the difficult situation in which you find yourselves and we wanted to reassure you that we are listening to you.”
The implication was that some didn’t think this was so. The letter went on to offer some clarification on actions taken so far, such as fast-tracking funding and bursaries already agreed for this year, while decoupling that funding from projects which may have been derailed by Covid-13, essentially redefining the council’s role to become a provider of income continuance and business survival in the arts.
Alongside the measures introduced by the State for all workers and self-employed people affected by the crisis, this fast-tracking might have appeared a reasonable starting point in addressing what is likely to be a long-term rolling disaster for the culture industries in Ireland, with a clear need for more to follow.
Yet the further announcement of a million-euro scheme for 344 projects to be distributed online clearly enraged artists to judge by the comments of some of those who won Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards last weekend.
Paul Keogan, winner for best lighting design, described it as “extraordinarily ill-conceived and tone deaf”.
The National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) said it was “dismayed by the lack of vision”. Best production co-winner Gary Keegan said: “We should keep creating but not be offering it up for a pittance online”.
Misbegotten it may be, but the new fund’s symbolism was more important than its very modest scale. It was the only new money announced which specifically targeted culture, and it was tied to a half-formed idea which required artists to jump through the application hoops so beloved of bureaucracies but of no one else. Just as irritating was the department’s trumpeting of “advance funding of €25 million” – money already allocated in the last budget.
IETM, the international network for contemporary performing arts, describes the current challenge well: “The cultural sector, in particular the performing arts, has been the first to suffer from the early wave of national measures taken in response to the outbreak of Covid-19.
“Moreover, they most probably will be the last ones to be able to resume their regular activities once governments start softening their containment measures. Thus, the current crisis, which is only a few weeks old, has already put millions of independent artists and small companies under existential threat.”
Add in that artists and arts workers are among the lowest paid groups in the Irish economy, that precarious employment is often the rule rather than the exception, and that many arts organisations and companies hovering on the brink of solvency at the best of times.
So what needs to be done? NCFA points to what is happening in other countries. England has allocated an additional £160 million to the arts, while Germany has announced a remarkable allocation of €50 billion.
If that figure is too eye-watering for you, consider the much smaller and closer example of Wales, where the Cardiff administration has already reallocated money from existing budgets to create an urgent response fund of £7 million.
“While I do not expect us to be matching funding set by the German or English governments, the sums involved show they clearly value their arts community more than the outgoing Government here,” said Niamh Smyth, Fianna Fáil’s spokeswoman on culture.
Since her party is likely to be sharing power within a matter of weeks, so we will see how the money vs mouth equation works out then.
Yet a note of caution to those making the public case for greater intervention. Their argument is based on sound principles in terms of the extreme threat to the sector and the role of culture in helping us navigate our way through this crisis. But there is a danger that it may be seen as entitled special pleading at a time when hundreds of thousands of other people are also fearful for their jobs and their futures.
A statement issued on Thursday evening by the NCFA gets the tone right. The State and its agencies urgently need to come up with a road map for the future, with resources to back it up. That should be done in consultation with creative artists, not dreamed up on a whiteboard on Merrion Street