Five ways culture can save us


The arts cement our reputation abroad, are crucial to our smart economy, provide employment at home, fuel cultural tourism, and help form the nation’s psyche – they are vital to our national recovery, writes GERRY GODLEY

IRISH ARTISTS, your country needs you. If there was a consensus among the high achievers of the Irish diaspora gathered in Farmleigh last weekend, surely this was it. A roll call of totemic figures, including financier Dermot Desmond, philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman, film-maker Neil Jordan and a forthright Minister for Arts, Martin Cullen, all avowed the importance of culture in the economic heavy lifting to come. Earlier this year, its potency in international affairs was underscored by Brian Cowen in New York, when he spoke of how “most Americans encounter Ireland today through culture: whether that is Irish dance and music, Irish film, Irish writing or an Irish play on Broadway”. Mary Robinson asserted its importance in a social fabric context speaking in August at the annual Béal na mBláth commemoration, when she said: “We should listen to our creative artists.”

Like the rest of us, they are each in their own way drawing from the well of our remarkable achievements. Each successive nominee or winner of an Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Golden Globe, Mercury and Man Booker, not to mention this week’s Emmy success, our Nobel Laureate and the world’s most successful rock band, is a jewel hewn from the rich seams of artistic expression that permeate every stratum of Irish life, representing levels of participation surpassed only by our great sporting traditions.

The arts have a vital role to play in our national recovery in five distinct areas.


“Why do the Irish write such good plays?” ran a recent feature headline in the Wall Street Journal, and the New York media’s reportage of Ireland is dominated by culture stories, to an equivalent advertising value of $5 million (€3.4 million) in the second quarter of 2009 alone. Daily on the world’s cinema screens, bookshelves, theatres and concert stages, and in its print, online and broadcast media, Irish artists are our perpetual trade mission, defending and redeeming our global reputation at a time when it is under the most rigorous scrutiny, and offering the most spirited riposte to the perception of a nation in duress. We are economically bloodied, we are culturally unbowed.


Our artistic community is a nerve that flexes the creative economy muscle. The arts instinctively foster those attributes of the enterprise model articulated in the Government’s framework document Building Ireland’s Smart Economy. Lateral thinking, big ideas, resourcefulness and invention, problem-solving, vision and originality find full expression in the output of Irish artists, and their work percolates many walks of Irish life. Dr Richard Tol at the ESRI: “Innovation is about creativity and skills, just like art is. Soon you will not be able to get a degree in electrical engineering at Princeton without having taken drama. The reasoning is that anyone can acquire skills, but the competitive edge is in creativity. Ireland beats Princeton hands down in the arts.”


There is a reason, certainly not the climate, why thousands are compelled to travel here, and cultural tourism disperses €2.3 billion annually in our local economies. This is a bona fide growth industry in Ireland, with projected upward trends of 15 per cent. As with landscape and heritage, the arts have a starring role in how we give our visitors a unique cultural experience, from our mighty international festivals of the performing arts to our vivid traditional music by a convivial hearth. Long before they arrive, it’s our writers, film-makers and touring performers who whet their appetite to come.


In 2008, some 170,000 jobs or 8.7 per cent of the total workforce were within the culture and creative sectors. Within that employment matrix lie the arts, among them practitioners, technicians, producers, curators, publishers and the other highly skilled disciplines that work together to create art from Ireland. We are an indigenous industry, active in every county, we are wholly Irish-owned, and we are exporters. Our earnings are not repatriated, and we are spending locally.

Why then, given the symbiosis between cultural health and economic recovery, are stakeholders so apprehensive about the immediate future? While the goodwill is universal, understanding of the levers and valves through which culture flows appears limited, at least on the evidence of the McCarthy Report, which if implemented will retard the cultural sector for years. Similarly the Commission on Taxation, which in removing artists’ tax exemption will further erode the subsistence income of Irish artists, the majority of whom would view the average industrial wage as a far away country.

Under the McCarthy recommendations’ targeted savings of €105 million in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, Culture Ireland, the cultural export bureau that has dramatically upped the profile of Irish art internationally, will be axed to effect savings of €4 million annually, and the Irish Film Board will face a similarly perilous future. The Arts Council, which funds thousands of independent artists, professional and voluntary organisations across the State, will see its annual funding reduced to €68 million, contextually the same sum that Anglo is lending its client Zoe Developments to complete the construction of its own CHQ in Docklands.

If the arts sector is a sponge, it’s not a particularly absorbent one. When one considers that the renegotiation of the pharmacy contract alone netted savings in the order of €133 million in the health spend, it seems that so much squeezing of the arts will be required to extract meaningful savings that the patient will not survive the procedure.

This is tacitly acknowledged in McCarthy, which goes so far as to recommend the discontinuing of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism itself, thus rendering us the only State among the EU without a senior arts ministry at cabinet.

At this time of great economic duress, and the solidarity it asks of the collective, I am not arguing for the retention of the tax exemption, continued support to the Arts Council, Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board, and critically the Department itself, from some myopic sense of entitlement. The arts community is not afraid of thrift and austerity, it has always been our modus vivendi. Rather, it is borne of the hope that when the smoke clears and culture is inevitably identified as a pillar of national recovery, the ecosystem that supports it remains intact. It may also help us determine what shape our society takes, which brings me to my fifth point, for which there is no metric, no measurable output, but it is important.


At their best, our artists steer a course for shore when the waters around us became uncertain. They reflect our shared gift for self-expression, our capacity for resilience and reinvention, and are a catalyst for us to heal and resonate, understand and reconnect. The artist’s voice is woven into our discourse, reconciling the past, imagining a future, and as important now as at any of the precipitous moments when our forefathers called upon its counsel. The citizenship of the artist is always active.

Gerry Godley is director of Improvised Music Co and a member of the National Campaign for the Arts, being launched today by many of our most significant institutions and best known artists. To join the campaign, see