A new Minister and a new plan for the Arts Council: is a change gonna come?

The council says it is ‘very pleased’ with the steering group’s findings. Let’s hope real change will follow


It’s been a momentous few weeks for the arts. The Arts Council published its review of the Abbey Theatre by the consultants Bonnar Keenlyside. The council also published Inspiring Prospects, a strategic review by the steering group it set up last year. Its number one proposal is that the council should be “a development agency for the arts focused on the public good”.

And there’s a new Minister for Arts, Cavan-Monaghan Fine Gael TD Heather Humphreys. Although Taoiseach Enda Kenny reneged on the report cards he promised on the performance of his Ministers, it would seem outgoing minister for arts Jimmy Deenihan would have fared poorly, since he is no longer in Cabinet.

There are clear clues to some of his shortcomings in Inspiring Prospects. During the course of its research, the steering group had to contend with people describing national arts policy as being “a vacuum”, “in stasis”, and “unhelpfully fragmented”. Both the arts and the public, it says, “are poorly served by the absence of an overarching policy”. More than three years after his appointment, Deenihan’s recent announcement of plans to draft a national cultural policy was too little, too late.

The steering group’s report records poor connectivity “between the arts and many aspects of wider civil society and public policy and provision”. It identifies the need for collaboration between senior arts policy-makers and other arms of Government and talks of “a lack of coherence between different agencies, institutions and services all engaged in distinct but broadly similar work”.

It bemoans the lack of coherence in the planning and building of arts centres around the country, and the inadequacy of the thought given to these venues’ running costs. And it points the finger at “the fractured way in which domestic and international responsibilities” misalign.

The steering group also heard a lot about uncertainty surrounding “the policy basis or strategic rationale for funding decisions, of issues to do with conflicts of interest, of confusion about some of the procedures used in determining decisions, and of excessive corporate effort being expended on the detail of the funding function at the expense of strategic planning and policy formulation”.

The message is that the council needs to be clear about the policies it is pursuing as well as the “strategy basis for many of its judgments, choices and investment decisions”.

The Bonnar Keenlyside report about the Abbey is like a B+ assessment by comparison. The strategic review group was chaired by Terence O’Rourke, chairman of Enterprise Ireland and a director of The Irish Times, and a majority of its 12 members, have current or past connections with the council, as members of the council itself (including the deputy chair), of the executive (including the director), or through client organisations. These are people who should genuinely know what they are talking about.

They propose that the Government- appointed members of the council should focus “on the policy, strategy and planning functions of the Arts Council, while also maintaining effective oversight of all programmes – including investment – devolved to the executive”.

At the moment, the council often comes across as a beast with two heads, the executive and the board of council members, each thinking it knows best in relation to the minutiae of funding decisions. What’s not clear from the outside is exactly how the process works, and a lot of people say the council’s decisions betray inconsistencies and favouritism.

The new report proposes that the council should “ensure that all its actions and decisions are developmental in intent and that the rationale for partnerships, the criteria for investment, and the basis for funding agreements are explicitly linked to Arts Council goals and strategic objectives.” This is unlikely to be the current state of play.

I’ll give you an idea of the situation regarding music. I contacted the council and asked to be directed to its most recent statement of music policy. I was told that there is “no overarching music policy document, as the area is so broad, but that we have policy documents and approaches in several genres, for example choral music”. In spite of the declared broadness issue, I was directed to “higher-level policies”, which deal in even broader areas.

By contrast, a quick search on the websites of the Arts Council of England and the Arts Council of Wales identified goals and commitments regarding music that are specific and clear, and highlighted what pathetic boilerplate the council here is still happy to promulgate.

The council’s chairwoman, Sheila Pratschke, gave a positive reception to both reports. The one on the Abbey, she said, “provides an important first step for a renewed and improved relationship between the Arts Council and the Abbey Theatre”. And she declared the council to be “very pleased” with the steering group’s findings, saying “it is an excellent piece of work and we look forward to engaging with it”. Let’s hope real change will follow her welcoming words.


Oh my Gáis

Back in the days of plenty, the State acquired what is now the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre as part of a community gain contra deal with developers in the docklands. Think of it as a kind of parallel to the social housing clauses that developers signed up to, except that this project was built and delivered. The State, in its wisdom, decided that the way forward was to sell a 200-year lease for a fraction of the €80 million building cost.

That lease is now being sold by Nama, and one of the most valuable arts assets in the State seems set to remain in private control for the guts of two centuries. The long-term fate of that lease will have a huge bearing on the long-term future of opera in Dublin, as the theatre is the only large venue in the capital that is adequately equipped for opera. A case, surely, for the new Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys, and the Arts Council to take an interest in, once they can clear any hurdles set by the mandarins in the public service who facilitated this situation in the first place.

My aspiration for Humphreys in her new role is for her to be the new Leo Varadkar: to deal with the issues that really need to be dealt with; to answer the actual questions that she is asked; and to try to say what she really means, even if that’s an uncomfortable option.


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