A higher percentage of the population attends arts events in Dublin than in any other region in the country, according to Arts in Irish Life 2016, a report published on Wednesday by the Arts Council.
But the disparity in attendances across all regions is relatively small, according to the research carried out in 2016 by Kantar Media, which also found attendees at arts events in Dublin tend to be younger and more affluent than elsewhere in the country.
Going to see a film was by far the most popular cultural pursuit, the report found. Some 76 per cent of respondents had attended a cinema within the previous 12 months, while 25 per cent had been to an event in a pub or hotel, 21 per cent in a church and 17 per cent in a theatre.
One in three adults bought paperback books, while one in five bought hardbacks and one in eight purchased ebooks.
"It's not so much about the actual percentages," said Arts Council director Orlaith McBride. "It's more about what the data tells us. We need to understand how many people attend the arts in Ireland, how many people are employed by the arts. The Arts Council is committed to becoming more evidence-based."
This is the third annual Arts in Irish Life survey, and this year the council is focusing on groups who the data shows find access to events particularly difficult for financial, social or cultural reasons. These include people over 65, people with disabilities, unemployed and homemakers, ethnic minorities and those from less well-off socio-economic backgrounds.
Cost a barrier
The report found the main barrier to access cited by members of these groups was cost, but McBride also acknowledged there are “genuine psychological barriers” as well.
“People might not feel comfortable going into a theatre, but they’ll go into a local community hall,” she said. “We need to think about bringing people across the threshold. It’s why the work of local authorities is so important, and why we’re putting more resources now into touring. Also, a contemporary dance piece might not work in that setting, but might be bringing Jimmy’s Hall to it.”
Touring and regional development are exactly the sort of activities which tended to get cut first during the austerity budgets of recent years, she said. The other key way to overcome barriers to participation is through the education system.
Arts in school
Depressingly, it’s now 38 years since the publication of Ciaran Benson’s framework document, The Place of the Arts in Irish Education. However, there are signs of new initiatives in schools under the auspices of the Government’s Creative Ireland strategy, which McBride said had provided “the money and the impetus” for new initiatives including the secondment of three school teachers now working within the Arts Council.
"Ciaran Benson said that unless they experienced it in schools, then people wouldn't be comfortable years later going into a theatre," said McBride. "If you really want to shift attitudes towards the arts, then teachers have a huge influence. I was a teacher myself, and if you embed arts in the school, people will feel comfortable with and love the arts later in life."