Classical music: The Arts Council allows a crisis to go to waste

Times have been hard, but the decision to cut funding to three musical organisations is unnecessarily damaging

The line about never letting a good crisis go to waste has been used many times. It comes up in assessments of the Government’s track record, not least because of the fundamental reform of the political system that was promised in advance of the last general election. There doesn’t seem to be that much to show for that raising of pre-election hopes.

Government used to be able to explain things away by pointing to a bogeyman – the troika – whose iron-fisted rule could be put forward as an excuse for any number of unwelcome outcomes. And just as the Government had the troika, the Arts Council has had the series of harsh cuts imposed by the Government as an explanation for the trimming of grants and the felling of long-standing clients. Although, to be even-handed, you would have to say that the wasting-a-good-crisis line applies to the council every bit as much as it did and does to the Government.

Dreadful times are not an insurmountable barrier to new developments. The Dublin Grand Opera Society (which later became Opera Ireland) was founded in the dark years of the second World War, in 1941. The Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra, today’s RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, was established in 1948, and the Arts Council in 1951, both in a world where rationing was an unpleasant reality.

Back in the crisis-ridden 1980s, important new organisations were set up, including the Contemporary Music Centre in 1985, and Opera Theatre Company and Music Network in 1986, all three funded from scratch by the Arts Council, in spite of the fact that the council itself was subjected to a cut in its government grant-in-aid in 1986.

You might reasonably look at the council’s ill-conceived proposal for opera, the so-called Shannon Plan of 2009, as an attempt to turn a crisis to advantage by reforming the structure of opera in Ireland. And although the outcome was the shutting down of Dublin’s major opera company, the situation since has not been without its up sides.

New companies have emerged to compete for opera production grants. And operas that Opera Ireland would probably never have dared present have been staged in Ireland: Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest (getting its US stage premiere from the New York Philharmonic next year), Donnacha Dennehy's The Last Hotel (due in New York next month), and John Adams's Nixon in China.

The council showed an appetite for risk in giving Wide Open Opera a first grant of more than half a million euro for its first production, of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. And Irish Youth Opera managed to get funding for its second production (of Handel's Agrippina, in 2015) before its first production (of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, in 2014) had made it to the stage.

No guarantees

There is, however, a key difference between the council’s relationship with its first-time clients in 2016 and 1986. The new ventures of the mid-1980s were all funded on an ongoing basis. The new ventures of today are not. They compete within particular schemes year after year without any guarantee of continuity.

The council’s top-ranking clients, the ones who have security of some kind from year to year, are called regularly funded organisations, or are within a scheme for annual funding. But other organisations are currently prohibited from applying under those headings. Admission, I’ve been told, is only by invitation from the council.

Back in the 1980s, both the Contemporary Music Centre and Music Network were Arts Council initiatives, instigated to take over services provided by earlier organisations. Opera Theatre Company was an independent initiative intended to fill the gap left by the council’s withdrawal of funding from the piano-accompanied tours of Irish National Opera.

It seems strange that the council is so much less responsive to innovation today than it was 30 years ago, but the failure is by no means untypical of an organisation that seems to have difficulty with joined-up thinking.

Just last week, three music organisations in the southeast, with some 40 years of activity between them and all competing within the “festivals and events” funding category, got word that they had lost their grants: two concert series, Music in Wexford and Music in Kilkenny; and one festival, the Lismore Music Festival, which presents operas in Lismore Castle, and concerts in Lismore and Cappoquin.

It’s hard to imagine that the council will find these decisions easy to stand over. The amount of money involved is relatively small, about €30,000. But all three organisations provide an important platform for Irish performers and have played a significant role in facilitating the touring activities of Music Network.

The damage is not going to stop with the communities involved or with Music Network. Waterford city has teamed up with Kilkenny and Wexford and successfully led a bid to get on the shortlist to compete for the title of European Capital of Culture 2020. According to last month’s press release from the Department of Arts, a panel of independent experts took two days to evaluate the applications. The Minister for Arts, Heather Humphreys, said that the designation “will allow the winning city, and Ireland as a whole, to put our best cultural foot forward”.

Best cultural foot? Obviously not with the help of the Arts Council. The Waterford-led bid will face into next year’s competition with Galway and Limerick in a musically weaker state than when it was originally shortlisted.

A clutch of decisions such as this make some of the aspirations of the council’s recently published strategy for the next 10 years seem like something between guff and hot air.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com

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