Couples conversing in four parked vehicles in Neil LaBute's Autobahn. Diarmuid de Faoite interacting with wheelie bins in Colm Corless's The Fairgreen Slaughterhouse. Art doesn't always have to have the expense of elaborate sets and props, but a little money certainly helps.
Lack of funding should never be a challenge for "the imagination of the mind and the heart", Noeline Kavanagh, Macnas's artistic director, observed at the onset of the economic downturn, when she spoke optimistically about opportunities created by recession. But Kavanagh could not have foreseen that such opportunities might be missed in her home town of Galway, where creativity in certain quarters is now fighting for its life.
The unofficial cultural capital has a record for nurturing a sector that is an integral part of its economy. Almost 5 per cent of its council’s overall budget for 2014 has been assigned to arts-programme funding, compared with 1.8 per cent for the next highest – Fingal – according to figures on localauthorityfinances.com. Galway city, Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown also allocated more than 15 per cent of their overall budgets to recreation and amenity spending for this year, with Cork city close behind, at 12.5 per cent.
What's more, Galway's artistic sector has a role in determining the level of grant aid, thanks to the establishment of an advisory subcommittee two years ago. It is chaired by the city mayor and involves representatives from Galway's two third-level colleges and its community forum, working with city arts officer James Harrold.
Harrold and Pádraig Conneely, the outgoing mayor, who chaired the advisory subcommittee, note that the pot has been smaller in recent years, with income streams, such as rates and developers’ levies, well down. There are also compelling competing demands for housing and basic services, which makes for gut-wrenching decisions, Harrold points out.
"Outrageous" was how Galway Film Fleadh responded to a €2,000 cut in its allocation of €16,000 last year. Other groups also felt the pain when this year's figures were confirmed, last month.
Nevertheless, headliners such as Galway Arts Festival and Druid Theatre maintained last year's grants of €46,000 and €28,000, respectively, but Macnas – still out of love with the arts festival but planning for another Halloween parade – is down to €24,000.
Crannóg, which is an invaluable outlet for new writing, has lost more than half of its meagre share, cut from €2,500 to €1,000, while Galway Jazz Festival has been slashed from €10,000 in 2010 to just €3,000 this year. (I should declare an interest, as several of the organisers are close friends.)
That festival has a policy of booking venues with limited access to alcohol, to appeal to a younger audience. This is no mean feat in a city where drinks companies invest heavily in the arts. The organisers have also brought free-form jazz into primary-school classrooms.
Members of the council's arts advisory subcommittee have denied that there was any lobbying against it by aggrieved publicans. "It wasn't even an issue," says Catherine Connolly, an Independent councillor. "The jazz festival was not singled out."
Connolly says she was upset about the proposed cut to ALâ Theatre, a socially inclusive organisation, and she pressed to have a proposed €500 allocation increased to €800 at committee, and then €1,000 at full council level. She freely admits that while the procedure is somewhat more accountable, the equitability of allocations is still very much a work in progress.
One arts professional who was loath to be quoted believes that what is happening in Galway mirrors a “national apathy about nurturing creativity and taking risks”.
Billy Cameron, a Labour Party councillor, says he abstained from voting when the figures came before full council because he wasn't happy with "the flippant way the arts grants were being treated".
He has proposed a new funding stream for social inclusion that, although small, at €25,000, may suit groups that might otherwise be disqualified. "We are aware there is a knock-on effect here, as the more a group gets locally, the more it then gets from the Arts Council. The big groups are seen as part of 'Brand Galway' and can't really be touched."
James Harrold says that there is a scoring system that influences decisions, and applications have to be “very good indeed in a fiercely competitive process”.
“Arts-grant funding is only one element of what we do, as we work on a multitude of innovative projects, such as residencies, art-education programmes, arts and health, arts and disability initiatives,” he says. Harrold emphasises that it was the most difficult budget to date and says that the city has a very committed new chief executive in Brendan McGrath.
Still, with Galway bidding for European city of culture in 2020, there is a firm belief among some arts organisations that their energies are being severely tested, if not smothered altogether, by a finely wrought mantle that should be embracing them all.
Fintan O’Toole is on leave