It's raining sweeties


Blinking in the dawn of the 21st century, the arts sector can afford to be optimistic, what with the Arts Council's 23 per cent increase in the Budget Estimates to an annual £34.5 million grant for 2000 - the exact figure outlined in its Arts Plan. However only a Nostradamus, or perhaps a Machiavelli, could predict the carve-up of the sizeable Culture, Recreation and Sports Measure in the new National Development Plan. This projects a total expenditure of £232 million in the Southern and Eastern Region, and a further £156 million for the BMW areas (that's Border Midland and Western, not Killiney), to beef up infrastructure in rural regions with high-quality facilities.

The arts will have to fight their corner alongside heritage centres, sports facilities, national parks, the Shannon/Erne waterway, canals and angling facilities. However, Minister Sile de Valera has pledged special attention to arts infrastructure under three headings: new regional/city/county projects, redevelopment of existing facilities, and community projects. Then last month, the Millennium Committee doled out the remainder of its £3.8 million for art projects in a hail of millennial Christmas presents - although the grants in the list of they supplied seem to exceed their stated total of £3.8 million. As an RTE presenter might say, you're talking telephone numbers shoved around the table like sweeties.

Committee member Derek Keogh, chairman of Millennium Festivals Ltd, perhaps produced the biggest splash last year with £1 million worth of fireworks, Millennium Drum carnivals, and a general leg-up for existing festivals around the country. But with an extra £2.5 million from the Department of Tourism, they will continue to provide for 18 festivals this year, although on a smaller scale. The flagships will be Dublin's St Patrick's weekend, Galway and Kilkenny arts festivals, the Rose of Tralee, the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil, Wexford Opera, Cork Jazz, and the Belfast Festival at Queen's.

Thanks to the RTE broadcasts, we've all had a chance to judge Frank MacNamara's Messiah for ourselves. The Messiah XXI company retains the rights for CD and video-release spin-offs. Although the terms of the deal with the Millennium Committee were that Messiah XXI would plough 10 per cent of profits up to £700,000 back into Irish charities, it will be interesting to see whether Messiah XXI actually turns a profit of £7 million.

The committee was cagier about public money going into private hands in the case of the £500,000 refurbishment of the front-of-house area of the Gaiety Theatre, now owned by Denis Desmond. And indeed, Cork Opera House got another £450,000 for a front-of-house/plaza development, which director Gerry Barnes described as just part of the complex phased overhaul of the Lee-side edifice. Over the past five years, £3.1 million of public funds have been invested, including - so far - £2 million from Cork Corporation, £375,000 of Cultural Development Incentives Scheme funding under Michael D. Higgins, and £250,000 from the Arts Council.

The Millennium Committee also gave £250,000 to the new LarCon Centre in Liberty Hall, a new arts centre and multi-purpose theatre for drama, music, conferences and lectures. Gutting the old Connolly auditorium on the first floor, it'll have 500 seats, but will also involve a new balcony, entrances, wing-space and dressing rooms. There will also be a new exhibition centre, bar, toilets /cloakrooms, and foyer and forecourt onto the quays. Colm O Briain is back in there as special adviser, and the project tots up to £1.95 million.

The committee has also pledged £531,000 to allow Lelia Doolin and the Cinemobile 2000 to buy a big truck which folds out into a 100-seater cinema, replete with aisles and carpets, generators and film/video projectors. It will be built by a French company, Toutenkamion, owned by the Irish Film Institute and run by a new subsidiary, Fis na Milaoise. Covering the west, it will be a sister project to Leitrim's mobile cinema - which received £500,000 from the Centenary Community Initiative Scheme from the Department of the Environment (1998 was the centenary of Irish local authorities).

According to Sean Kielty, deputy county manager of Leitrim County Council, the truck will be in Leitrim from next autumn, functioning as a mobile cinema, an all-purpose arts venue and, indeed, a venue for the County Council for on-the-road public meetings.

The Millennium Committee also gifted £300,000 to the Hugh Lane Gallery for the apotheosis of Francis Bacon in the painstaking reconstruction, by a team of archaeologists, of the artist's studio, itself a gift from Bacon's sole heir, John Edwards. Its launch in November will be fan-fared by satellite exhibitions: Francis Bacon in Dublin, Perry Ogden's pictures of the Kensington studio in 1998, and Bacon's Private Diary, including drawings, collages and photos.

Ballyhaunis gets a Millennium spire atop St Patrick's Church (thanks to £100,000 from the Millennium Committee). Meanwhile, sundry Christian architecture of the past 2000 years will be celebrated in an exhibition later this year run jointly by the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (with the help of £73,000 from the Millennium Committee) and the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (which garnered £65,000 sterling from the UK Millennium Committee). A big exploratory, educational show with photographs, drawings, models and a big catalogue, it will take place in both the Ulster Museum and the RHA.

The committee gave £37,000 to another cross-border venture for the RHA (from February 10th until the end of March), this time in partnership with Ormeau Baths (June 16th to July 22nd), who drew down UK Lottery funds. Ruairi O Cuiv, exhibition administrator, described it as a show of masterpieces by 100 leading Irish artists, alongside 100 self-portraits. The whole show will cost £230,000, with the balance to be met by sponsorship and catalogue sales. Curated by "a team of experts" - RHA director Patrick Murphy, Liam Belton, Brian Ferran, director of Arts Council Northern Ireland and John Logan of the National Self-Portrait Collection - the show will be a "unique overview" of 20th century Irish art, with a familiar list of Le Brocquys and Maddens, Ballaghs and Blackshaws, Dorothy Cross and Alice Maher, and back through Mainie Jellet and Sean Keating to Jack and even John B. Yeats. Indeed, Ferran himself is included.

Meanwhile, the Ark is still running its Adeste exhibition at the Ark until the end of next month. This, along with a new music-theatre piece next Christmas by John Browne and Johnny Hanrahan, received £50,000 from the Millennium Committee. It features 12 contemporary artists chiselling delicately into cultural meanings of the Nativity, which according to Ark director Martin Drury is "the defining, originating moment of `the Millennium' ".

A variety of arts events will avail of the roughly £2,000 smaller potatoes divvied out of £3 million worth of Millennium Events Awards. These are operated by the 34 local authorities, mainly by local arts officers and librarians, with individual awards of up to £4,000 which require matching funding.

The Millennium also gave £25,000 towards a monument to missing persons, an eight-foot-high sculpture of bronze casts of the hands of families of missing persons. The brainchild of the Jo Jo Dollard Memorial trust, this will be mounted in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle. The sum of £22,000 went towards a statue of St Patrick in Lough Derg, while Croagh Patrick gets £250,000 for a "Millennium Peace Park" at the base of the mountain in Murrisk.

The Heritage Council's Pilgrim Path project gets £50,000 of committee funds to upgrade medieval Christian and indeed more ancient "pilgrimage" routes around the country. Meanwhile, £1 million of Millennium Committee funds goes to the new Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester - alongside a further £1 million in the Budget Estimates - a big Irish Diaspora juggernaut on a 13-acre site donated by Manchester City Council. Hopefully, it won't row in with distastefully glossy notions of the Irish Empire.

The Millennium Committee has also given £100,000 to an intriguing green-genes project from the Royal Irish Academy. Standing on the shoulders of the Human Genome Project, the aim is to plot the Genetic History of Ireland, through a heady collaboration between 40 scientists, archaeologists and historians North and South; sampling prehistoric Ireland DNA from ancient bones and anonymous contemporary samples - to look at links between Scotland, England, Wales, Scandinavia, Iceland, France, Iberia, north-west Africa and the Near East.

The group will try to link DNA with Irish surnames, and indeed various migrations since the end of the last Ice Age 13,000 years ago. They will also be comparing native breeds of domesticated plants and animals in Ireland with others in Europe (from oats to apples, from cattle and cats to coarse fish and rabbits) - and may help answer the vexed question: who the hell were the Celts? They are also throwing open four research grants of £20,000.

Despite rolling my eyes at the excesses of some of its contributors, I have to recommend The Whoseday Book, which got a substantial £100,000 from the committee to develop its page-a-day diary from artists and public figures, including Sinead O'Connor, Christy Moore and Charlies Haughey and McCreevy. Sales go to the Irish Hospice Foundation, which also got a further £100,000 to build a hospice in Donegal.

Maybe the cutest and daftest project was Deirdre Purcell's Millennium Book, which tapped into the demented pride of Irish parents. Purcell herself directed operations, under an £80,000 Millennium Committee budget. Its 23 big, vellum-bound volumes, in which thousands of 11 and 15-year-olds write up "my life" on durable manuscript paper (featuring a fair whack of South Park and Buffy the Vampire Slayer references), will be on show in display cases in the National Library later this month.

Overall, the Millennium Committee seems to have an emphasis more on heritage than arts. But indeed one of its most interesting projects - which received £200,000 - will be Milaois na Gaeltachta, and its vaunted new electronic encyclopaedia of the Gaeltacht.