The winter sun streamed through the tall windows of the refurbished Shaw Room in the National Gallery last December as theatre directors, film-makers, board members of museums and libraries, and other movers and shakers in the Irish arts world milled about, awaiting the arrival of Enda Kenny.
As usual, the taoiseach was late, but when he finally arrived he enthused the crowd by laying out the Government's plan to build on the achievement of the 1916 commemorations through Creative Ireland, an ambitious, long-term plan which would bring creativity into the classroom, build new local support systems for the arts, boost the film and TV industries, promote Irish culture overseas and invest in badly-needed infrastructure.
A couple of days later, in an article in The Irish Times, Kenny described how his Government intended to “put culture and creativity at the heart of public policy, and to share the outcomes with the world”.
Over the following months, under the direction of the energetic John Concannon, a marketing executive whose previous credits include The Gathering and the Wild Atlantic Way, Creative Ireland seemed to gather speed, with public events held around the country to seek feedback from communities on what should be done to encourage creativity in their localities.
Cross-departmental work was done with the Department of Education on projects to bring music teaching into more classrooms. Then minister for social protection Leo Varadkar launched a pilot scheme to allow practising artists claim social welfare benefits. There was, of course, a glossy 10-minute video, featuring international stars like novelist Anne Enright and film-maker Lenny Abrahamson.
But all the time there were sceptics who wondered how much of Creative Ireland was just cosmetic fluff. Fancy videos and inspirational speeches were well and good, but the reality remained that the Irish State devotes far less resources to culture than other European countries. The real test of serious intent, they said, would come in the next budget.
Some were reassured when, during his campaign for the Fine Gael leadership, Varadakar promised to double funding for arts, culture and sport over the next seven years. Later in the summer, he re-emphasised the importance of culture in placing Ireland "at the centre of the world".
So when Sheila Pratschke, chairwoman of the Arts Council, spoke this week of the "deep disappointment" with which Budget 2018 was received, it was not just the knee-jerk reaction of a disappointed lobby. The council is the statutory agency for funding the arts in Ireland, so it tends not to be critical of Government unless it feels it has no choice.
Its increase of €3 million to €68 million – less than 5 per cent – will allow it to tread water but not much more. The council remains by far the most important conduit for funding artists of all kinds in Ireland, which makes the grandiose statements of the last few months sound particularly hollow.
The stark reality is that after almost a year of such statements, the Government fell at the first hurdle: if the 5 per cent increase for culture next year were to be applied annually, it would take 15 years rather than seven for the budget to double.
Critics have been quick to draw unfavourable comparisons with one of Varadkar’s favourite politicians. “When the Taoiseach made his campaign pledge to double arts funding, it transformed hopes and expectations for artists and arts workers across Ireland, just as Justin Trudeau’s pledge had done in
, ” playwright
told The Irish Times. “Like Mr Trudeau, the Taoiseach should now set out a concrete, costed plan to deliver his promise.”
The Department of Culture quibbles with the Canadian parallel, but has failed to rebut charges that Ireland’s plan has none of the concrete commitments which Trudeau’s government has made, or that the State sits at the bottom of the European league table in terms of cultural investment, according to Council of Europe figures. (A spokesman said the department would be looking at the issue of comparing spending between countries “in the next year”.)
When set against the overall budget, the numbers involved are very small. If the Arts Council had received an additional €5 million, for example, that would have brought its increase this year up to €8 million, or 13 per cent – a reasonable annual rate to achieve the seven-year target. Paschal Donohoe has pointed to the constraints he faced in framing the budget, but he did manage to find €5 million to finance the Government's new Strategic Communications Unit – headed, as it happens, by former Creative Ireland boss John Concannon.
Perhaps it’s not hard to see why many in the arts feel they’ve been mugged by spin.