Irish composer Jennifer Walshe has been elected to Germany's Akademie der Künste, the Berlin-based academy of arts that was founded as long ago as 1696 by Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg, who later became Frederick I of Prussia.
The institution counts itself as the third oldest academy of its kind, yielding only to Rome and Paris, and its long history has seen it take on many guises. In the years of the Cold War there were separate academies in East Berlin and West Berlin (which were united in 1993) and it was not until 2005 that the academy became the responsibility of the Federal Government rather than the states of Berlin and Brandenburg.
Its reach is international and its list of members makes for interesting reading. It includes Ai Weiwei, Peter Brook, Bob Dylan, Norman Foster, Sofia Gubaidulina, Daniel Libeskind, Olga Neuwirth, Renzo Piano, Bridget Riley, Rebecca Saunders, Margarethe von Trotta, and Robert Wilson.
Haughey, of course, was a political stunt-maker who would probably have stood in awe at the 21st-century behaviour of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
Its membership currently stands at 428, an interesting comparison with Aosdána, Ireland’s nearest equivalent, which, with 250 current members, is full, and unable to take on any more.
The German academy breaks its membership into six sections, visual arts, architecture, film and media art, literature, music, and performing arts. And the membership is pretty evenly split, with around 70 members in each section. Aosdána’s categorisations are architecture, choreography, literature, music and visual arts, with visual arts and literature accounting for over 80 per cent of members, music for around 12 per cent, and architecture and choreography for less than 4 per cent between them.
You might well wonder why the two institutions are so different. Well, the academy in Germany is an active promoter and publisher. Museums form an important part of its history, and it still runs ones about the writers Bertolt Brecht and Anna Seghers. And in the 19th century it founded its own universities, which became part of Berlin's University of Arts in 1931.
Aosdána is the outcome of a vision which, depending on the particular creation myths you choose to believe, was made real either by Charlie Haughey as Taoiseach or the Arts Council.
It would not have earned so many plaudits if it were seen as some kind of social welfare scheme
Haughey, of course, was a political stunt-maker who would probably have stood in awe at the 21st-century behaviour of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. One of his more amazing feats of political legerdemain was the artists tax exemption scheme, which was rolled out in 1969 when Haughey was Minister for Finance.
There’s no doubt that a wide range of artists were spared hardship because of the scheme, just as there’s no doubt that quite a number of very rich people also became a lot richer. The exemption did not distinguish between rich and poor, between the needy and the well-provided for.
It would not have earned so many plaudits if it were seen as some kind of social welfare scheme. But in the Ireland of 1969, when the Arts Council’s grant in aid from government was less than €90,000, that is exactly how the exemption scheme functioned. The focus was on the fact that struggling artists were being relieved of the burden of income tax.
The scheme however did have its own very particular red line. On one side, the right side for being allowed the exemption, were creative artists — composers, visual artists and writers. All other kinds of artists were cast into the income tax-paying world where the rest of us are obliged to live and work.
It still functions as a way of hiding the fact that public funding of the arts in Ireland is shamefully low.
And when Aosdána came along the distinction was preserved, although with the passage of time minor exceptions have been made. So, in essence, a social welfare scheme for artists that got the government off the hook for its measly support of the arts was allowed to define the parameters of a later scheme that was presented as being a way of honouring the artistic elite of the nation. Aosdána, too, functions as a social welfare scheme for artists.
And it still functions as a way of hiding the fact that public funding of the arts in Ireland is shamefully low. There’s a really useful way of turning the bald facts into numbers. The government’s 2019 support to the Arts Council amounts to €75 million. If the government were to fund the arts to the level of the European norm, it would allocate the council something in the region of five times that amount, or €375 million. The same adjustment would of course have to be made to all other public funding schemes for the arts to ensure that support reached European norms across all parts of the arts sector.
If the Government were to spend that kind of money there would be no need for the tax exemption scheme, and no need for the means-tested, €17,180 annual Cnuas, which members of Aosdána can apply for if their earnings are below the qualifying ceiling.
You can put it all into numbers another way. The Arts Council’s annual grant is enough to support just over 1,900 artists at the current level of the annual industrial wage. If Ireland were in the middle of the European table in this regard the number would be 9,500. And if it were at the top it would be about twice that number.
Meanwhile, Aosdána, the country’s major scheme for honouring artists, is closed to the likes of Jennifer Walshe, no matter how highly-regarded successful, famous or she becomes.