One of the recurring issues at the Election 2020 arts hustings was the precarious nature of working in the arts, including the difficulty in accessing social welfare – the “artists’ dole” – which involves concessions allowing for the fluctuations in arts workers’ employment. Access to housing, healthcare and childcare, the cost of insurance and the lack of creative spaces were also hot topics.
The hustings, with all major parties represented at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, was hosted by the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) coalition, which has called on all General Election candidates to commit to at least doubling investment in culture and arts by 2025, over the next Government's life, including a commitment to double investment in the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, who directly support artists and their work.
All parties except Fianna Fáil committed to doubling arts funding by 2025. Richard Boyd Barrett of Solidarity PBP said people "can't believe the promises on arts in elections. Let's see the colour of their money."
Government investment in culture in Ireland is lower than any other country in Europe, NCFA chair Angela Dorgan told the full house, and quoting Indecon, said for every €1 invested in culture, almost €2 is returned in direct taxation. Later, from the floor, actor Aongus Og McAnally asked the panel if they disputed the NCFA figures on arts funding, and "if not, what's the logic for not doubling arts funding overnight?" There was some to and fro, during which Minister Madigan defended the government's record, and described negotiating Budgets when "the arts are the Cinderella at the table, and to secure any funding in that context was extremely difficult".
After party representatives made their pitches, questions from the floor were lively, with a palpable anger and hurt.
Maria Fleming, on sick leave from her job as Dublin Theatre Festival general manager, said she is one of the 48 per cent of arts workers without health insurance. "In 25 years I have never seen it so precarious for people working in the arts," She quoted Greta Thunberg – " 'our house is on fire' and we need you to do something about it." She talked about the insecurities of day to day life for artists, so that the first thought with a bad diagnosis is "now I'm really f**ked".
A number of people from the floor loudly disputed the Minister’s assertions about how well the new artists’ social welfare scheme is working, saying “I’ve been shamed at Intreo.” “I’ve stood in the dole office. It’s untrue what you are saying.” While the Minister stood by how the scheme works, contributors disagreed, saying “I know from personal experience”, and suggested that she “let them know in Intreo and the appeals office” how the scheme is supposed to work.
During presentations, Josepha Madigan, still Minister for Arts until the election, outlined Fine Gael's achievements in culture, including arts funding increases. She said the government's commitment to double arts funding by 2025 was sealed by a memo she brought to Cabinet in December, so "any future government – Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil - will have to base culture funding on that significant commitment". It was what she is most proud of, she said, and would have ramifications for successive governments.
The commitment was to “significant increased funding to the Arts Council”, from €67.5million in 2017, and “in 2025 the Arts Council will get €34m”.
She also cited capital funding plans, the extension of the artists’ social welfare scheme, tax reliefs for film, local authority arts funding, and a cultural policy framework, unveiled days before the election was called.
The Minister pointed out Fianna Fáil and Labour had not published a cultural strategy.
Malcolm Byrne, standing in for Niamh Smyth, who had a bereavement, said Fianna Fáil was not going to get involved in "auction politics" and commit to doubling arts funding by 2025, the only party there who didn't follow Fine Gael's much quoted, and often disputed, aspirations. They were "going to be honest", while "goalposts were moving", but Fianna Fáil supported a "sustainable arts sector" , and "not treating artists as a photo opportunity". He said under Fianna Fáil arts would be an independent department, incorporating heritage, and possibly media and content creation, in the same department. Fianna Fáil would "restore" the Arts Council's independence, and the arms-length funding principle. It doesn't believe Culture Ireland should be a part of the department of arts.
Fianna Fáil would deal with insurance, a huge issue for this sector. Byrne bemoaned the fact that one-third of posts in the National Symphony Orchestra weren’t filled, and contrasted its situation with the FAI bailout. He said his party leader is “passionate” about the National Symphony Orchestra, and Fianna Fáil would make it a standalone national cultural institution.
Fintan Warfield outlined Sinn Féin's arts aspirations – including reforming nightlife and increasing funding for the Heritage Council, to "stop Fáilte Ireland funding heritage based on tourist numbers". He cited NCFA figures on Irish cultural spend, 0.1 per cent of GDP, compared to the European average of 0.6 per cent of GDP. If we spent the European average, we would spend €1.8 billion on culture, he said.
Sinn Féin would fund culture funding increases by increasing the tax base. “Issues facing artists will be addressed when we deal with the housing crisis”, and “the biggest pressure on artists is the inability to earn a living. Our reputation is built on the back of people earning next Government €12 or 13 thousand a year.” He said Sinn Féin would set up a €4m local living wage initiative through local authorities, and increase Arts Council funding by €20million a year.
Rebecca Moynihan said Labour, too, was committed to doubling arts funding over five years, increasing by 20 per cent in the first year. She proposed a hotel bed tax yielding €15m a year to fund arts locally and sustainably. Dublin is changing, she said "artists' studios are closing and there are luxury hotels in their place". She suggested the Arts Council get involved in providing mortgages for organisations, rather than depend on short-term rentals. Issues such as childcare and housing were vital for those working in the arts.
Claire Byrne for the Greens spoke about restoring arts funding after cuts, expanding the artists' social welfare pilot, addressing insurance issues. Arts should be added to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to have a STEAM-focused education policy.
Richard Boyd Barrett of Solidarity People Before Profit said the arts were “savaged when things got tough”, and “funding was already at an insultingly low level”. He favoured using a digital advertising tax to fund the arts, from “the Googles and Facebooks”. He proposed 5,000 artists should be “directly employed by the state on a decent wage”, who could contribute in arts in education, mental health, youth services.
Sarah Durcan, direct from the Social Democrats' manifesto launch, said artists and creative talennt had been lost because of decades of austerity. Arts workers' lives would be more affordable with improvements to health care and transport. Social Democrats said the party would outline a road map for doubling arts and culture funding. The party would support film and publishing, expand tax breaks for lower income artists. Planning should take into account cultural and creative spaces. Artists need both physical infrastructure and money to live on.
In questions afterwards, Gavin Kostick of Fishamble said there were “fine words in the manifestos”, but asked would they find their way into a programme for government, because “they tend to vanish”. John O’Brien, a former artist, said copyright directive payments should be collected and distributed in Ireland. He also suggested extending Section 481 – which is cost neutral - across the arts sector.
Some 23,000 people work in arts and culture, and according to NCFA figures, 72 per cent of artists earn less than the minimum wage, 72 per cent don’t have a pension and 48 per cent don’t have health insurance. While government investment in culture in Ireland is lower than any other country in Europe, NCFA says, more people attend paid arts events in Ireland every year than attend GAA Championship matches.