Culture Shock: The sacrifice of Culture Ireland will come home to roost

Fiona Shaw is making a key speech on Tuesday, at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ jamboree. Bizarrely, the State’s official body for cultural exports won’t be at this key annual event

Electrifying presence: Fiona Shaw. Photograph: Gino Domenico/AP

Next Tuesday, for the first time, an Irish artist will deliver the keynote address at one of the world’s most important cultural trade fairs. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters jamboree, generally known as APAP, started last night in New York. It matters little to the general public. But it’s a key event for anyone who works in theatre, music or dance, and who has an interest in presenting their work in the US and on the global circuit. If you’re active in any of those fields, APAP is the nearest equivalent of Cannes for film producers or Frankfurt for book publishers. About 3,500 people in the culture business – independent producers, venue managers, festival directors, concert promoters, university programme directors – will be there. Connections, deals, networking: all that will happen.

In previous years Culture Ireland, the State's official body for cultural exports, has had a busy and successful presence at APAP. This year? Nothing. This is especially bizarre because the one person who will present a solo keynote address at APAP this year is an Irish performer, Fiona Shaw. She will, no doubt, be an electrifying presence. The APAP programme breathes heavily on "the exhilaration and inspiration of hearing first-hand what is on the mind of this extraordinary international artist!" If there was a vague seriousness about "cultural exports", the State's cultural agencies would be shamelessly exploiting this excitement to create a bigger buzz for Irish performers. But there isn't, and they won't.

Imagine if Fáilte Ireland didn't turn up to the big tourism trade fairs in the US or if Enterprise Ireland declined to get involved in the global tech-industry jamborees. There would be outrage. But, outside the small circles of those directly involved, nobody at an official level knows what APAP is, much less cares that Ireland has taken itself off the radar at what Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan described in 2011 as "the largest and most competitive performing arts market in the world".

Why the absence? The reason is not, as might be assumed, the fiscal crisis. Culture Ireland started to send missions to APAP in 2008 and continued to do so through the worst years of the crisis. The thinking was obvious: when things were going down the tubes, the need to sell Irish music, dance and theatre to the international market was greater, not less. In 2012 the Minister brought 70 Irish performers to APAP and announced: "I have no doubt that the quality and range of work being showcased by Irish artists this weekend will lead to further opportunities, coproductions and collaborations for future seasons." He added: "Now, more than ever, culture is the means by which most Americans encounter Ireland. This huge territory and cultural market is a vital part of the growth strategy for many Irish artists and companies."


What changed is that Culture Ireland, a hugely respected and highly professional organisation, was offered up as a sacrifice to those who wanted to kill off "quangos". (Typically, real quangos were untouched while serious official bodies were destroyed.) It was absorbed into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and lost both its independence and much of the expertise it had developed over many years. The business of promoting Irish arts abroad has been taken back into the Civil Service. Civil servants do many fine things, but aggressive entrepreneurial marketing is not one of them. Culture Ireland still does some excellent work, but its presence as a force in international arts has been greatly diminished.

And this is the irony of all the stuff about using the arts to rebrand Ireland that dominates the discourse and haunted the Limerick City of Culture project. A lot of it is pure guff, but the bits that aren’t pure guff are not being taken at all seriously. Art isn’t a branding exercise and it isn’t an export industry. But most Irish performers need to operate internationally if they are to make a living, and the country benefits, reputationally and economically, from the way they do so.

Increasingly, official policy is getting this entirely the wrong way around: resources go into the silly stuff (branding) but the practical business of promoting Irish arts is being starved.

The budget for all promotion of Irish arts abroad this year is €1 million. To put that in context, the State is spending €7 million this year to rebrand social-welfare offices as “Intreo”.

Perhaps this contradiction is not as complete as it seems. Both the blather about cultural branding and the neglect of the existing Irish cultural brand are rooted in the same lack of seriousness about art and lack of respect for artists.