Fintan O'Toole: Plans for culture may see hope triumph over experience

National Development Plan: €75m a year will go a long towards making the main national cultural establishments fit for purpose

 The Natural History Museum on Dublin’s Merrion Square is earmrked for priority funding under the National Development plan. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The Natural History Museum on Dublin’s Merrion Square is earmrked for priority funding under the National Development plan. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The wonder, as Samuel Johnson said of a dog standing on its hind legs, is not that it is done well but that it is done at all. For the first time in the history of such plans, the National Development Plan is not entirely a case of matter over mind. It is, of course, dominated by big engineering projects but it does find room for some significant commitments to the development of Ireland’s woefully neglected cultural infrastructure.

None of them are knockout, left-field ideas of the kind that might be expected in a document that sets out the aim to foster a “creative, innovative and culturally attuned society”. But it might be conceded that Ireland’s cultural infrastructure is so undeveloped when compared with most rich countries that most of the investment has to be rather obvious and basic. That’s pretty much what it will be.

 The scale of the proposed investment is, in the overall scheme of things, modest. The aggregate level of proposed capital spending on Ireland’s cultural infrastructure over 10 years is estimated at €725 million. To put this in perspective, major capital projects have previously set aside one per cent for an artistic component. €725 million is 0.625 per cent of the €116 billion plan – though admittedly it is to be spent over a shorter time period. But if the State really does deliver €75 million a year for cultural institutions, it will nonetheless go a very long towards making Ireland’s main national cultural establishments fit for purpose as expressions of a State that finally takes some pride in its own heritage.

Citizens have already seen what decent investment in the National Gallery can achieve: a beautiful and vibrant public space. The hope will be that the same can now be done for the other national institutions that have suffered from decades of neglect: the Crawford Gallery in Cork, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum, the National Concert Hall, the Natural History Museum, the Abbey Theatre, the Chester Beatty Library and the National Archives.

The plan gives concrete budgets and completion dates for just three of these: the Crawford, the National Library and the “dead zoo”, all due to be completed by 2021.

For the rest, there is a disappointing air of vagueness: “Appraisal, planning and design work will also be delivered on flagship projects at the National Concert Hall, the Chester Beatty Library, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street and the National Theatre with a view to moving to the construction phase over the duration of the National Development Plan.”

That could in principle mean that none of these institutions sees any construction before 2040 – a ridiculously long time frame when one considers that the Abbey, for example, has had “urgent” development plans since the 1990s.

And of course every promise made on culture in Ireland always come with a caveat. Will these plans be the “fat” to be trimmed if things go wrong in the economy, the inessential extras that can be cancelled at the stroke of a pen?

Samuel Johnson also called a second marriage the triumph of hope over experience. This plan needs a lot of hope to drown out the whispers of doubt from too much bitter experience.

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