Does the Budget mark the end of austerity? Not for the arts

None of the Budget’s so-called feelgood factor reached the arts, which received no boost in funding

Well, the budget’s been and gone, and all the talk is still about water charges. But the budget was good news. Wasn’t it? Between the easing of the tax burden and the increase in spending, there was about €1 billion to be divvied out.

The devil is in the detail, of course, and the detail is that the situation for the arts is one of no change. The extra €4 million, which will bring next year s expenditure allocation up to €212 million, is earmarked for the Easter Rising commemorations.

Given the mess that the Fine Gael party and Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys got themselves into over John McNulty's appointment to the board of Imma, and the Seanad byelection, I had asked myself what the Government might do to ameliorate the position of the Minister.

The only option I could think of was for her to deliver a result for her core briefs in the Budget. In the overall context of the Budget’s billion-euro uplift, “safeguarding funding for the arts” (to use Humphreys’s own phrase to describe the situation of no change) amounts to, well, nothing.


The Minister boasted that “the increase in the threshold for the artists’ tax exemption from €40,000 to €50,000 is a clear recognition of the need to support artists. Artists are the bedrock of our culture and they continue to represent us at home and abroad with great distinction.”

Well, if artists are the bedrock of our culture, isn't it a shame that the 2010 Arts Council-commissioned report, The Living and Working Conditions of Artists in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, showed that artists' average income from their art was €14,676, with half of all artists earning less than €8,000. Those are figures for 2008; given the drastic cuts imposed on the Arts Council since then, things seem likely to be worse now rather than better.

Of Aosdána’s 243 members, 151 of that official artistic elite are in receipt of the Cnuas. This means-tested annual stipend of €17,180 is open only to Aosdána members who are “engaged full-time in creative work” and whose earnings “are not in excess of 1½ times the value of the Cnuas”, ie €25,770.

The increase in the tax-exemption limit won’t make one whit of difference to the vast majority of artists.

Ulster Orchestra under pressure

More has become public over the past week about the threat to the future of the Ulster Orchestra, Northern Ireland’s only professional symphony orchestra. On Thursday the orchestra’s chairman, George Bain, met with Northern Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Carál Ní Chuilín, to outline the situation.

Bain pointed the finger at public funding cuts over the past three years, which, he said, had been “particularly exacerbated by the 4 per cent in-year cut recently announced as part of the cross-departmental cuts that have affected many organisations in the arts sector”.

The orchestra’s board, he added, was “faced with the unwelcome prospect of qualifying the accounts of the organisation by the end of November if interim funding is not found”.

In an interview on BBC Radio Ulster, Bain was more specific. “Our grants have decreased by 28 per cent,” he said. “If you want a figure, it’s roughly £1 million in four years.” The orchestra’s AGM comes up on December 15th. “We would have to pass our accounts at that point. If we couldn’t, we would go into administration.”

The orchestra is now canvassing its stakeholders. It’s turning to Belfast City Council, for instance, for an indemnity against the deficit of about £500,000 that’s expected to have accumulated by March (the end of the financial year), as well as a rent holiday for the use of the Ulster Hall.

The stakes are now very high indeed, and the orchestra’s supporters are in campaigning mode. Bain pointed out that 11,000 people attended BBC Proms in the Park at the Titanic Slipway in September, and that 60,000 had applied for tickets.

James Galway, Evelyn Glennie and James MacMillan are among the luminaries who have signed a letter imploring Ní Chuilín to ensure Northern Ireland doesn't become "the only part of Europe without a full-time professional orchestra".

The letter also points out that “the orchestra has given many home-grown composers the opportunity to have their music performed and broadcast nationally; it has invited many local musicians to play as soloists with the orchestra; through its community concerts, touring and broadcasting the orchestra has represented Northern Ireland in the best way possible – free from politics, simply as ambassadors for the very best characteristics of the community.

“The orchestra has also over the years provided huge expertise in terms of music education and outreach. Many musicians in the North have studied with members of the orchestra; to lose those players and the wealth of experience they possess would be devastating for musical life in Northern Ireland.”

At time of writing, the Save the Ulster Orchestra Facebook page is just shy of 6,000 likes. A petition to Ní Chuilín on to “guarantee and publicly state a long-term, meaningful and financial commitment to funding and promoting the Ulster Orchestra” passed 2,000 signatures in 48 hours. It’s good to know the orchestra has so many supporters and friends.

The real challenge, however, will be to secure the political support to ensure survival. Here’s hoping that Northern Ireland’s politicians can find a solution.

These orchestras going strong

There’s no current survival threat facing either of RTÉ’s two orchestras or the Limerick-based Irish Chamber Orchestra, all of which were in action last week. On the basis of track records, you might expect plaudits to go to the Irish Chamber Orchestra (in action at the RDS under Anthony Marwood) or the RTÉ NSO (heard under Australian conductor Daniel Smith).

However, the most memorable performance of the three concerts came from the RTÉ CO under John Wilson, especially a Fauré Requiem (with soloists Daire Halpin and Gary Griffiths and the combined forces of Tallaght Choral Society and the Goethe-Institut Choir) that was as warmly comforting as you could imagine.

This was closely followed by the liberating musical ease of Russian oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk with the NSO in Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, and a Concertino by Donizetti, arranged by Helmut Seeber. Oboe playing doesn’t come more stylish than this.