Winners and losers in Arts Council’s absurd festival grants scheme

Two long-standing music series lose out as new events hit the jackpot, but the lack of continuity from year to year is mind-boggling

There was bad news last month for two long-standing music series, Music in Kilkenny and Music for Wexford, and the opera-focused Lismore Music Festival. All three lost their Arts Council grants.

That news filtered out through the grapevine. But now that the full list of beneficiaries under round one of the council’s festivals and events scheme has been published, it’s possible to identify the winners as well as the losers.

Two classical festivals have received funding for the first time. The Killaloe Chamber Music Festival, which takes place in June in St Flannan’s Cathedral, has been running since 2013 and received a grant of €9,500.

The festival has the Irish Chamber Orchestra's principal viola player, Joachim Roewer, as its artistic director. It opens this year with a mostly baroque programme and will climax with a closing performance of Max Bruch's late Octet for strings. Ian Wilson's Bewitched is the major work by a living composer, and the festival's popular adoption of the Wood Brothers Cafe as a venue will continue, with a percussion concert by Alex Petcu-Colan and Maeve O'Hara, and a talk by Michael Murphy.

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The new Ortús Festival, which takes place in Cork city and county from February 26th-28th, has received a grant of €9,770. It’s the brainchild of two young musicians, violinist Mairéad Hickey and cellist Sinéad O’Halloran, who are its artistic directors.

The initial aim is to provide a platform at home for young Irish performers who are furthering their education and careers at international music centres. The concerts, in Youghal, UCC and Cobh, all feature programmes for strings, from duos to sextets, and the opening programme will include the first performance of Sam Perkin's Pause, a work written in commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Full details are on the festival website, ortusfestival.ie.

The Westport Festival of Chamber Music, run by Madeleine Flanagan's Classicallinks, with violinist Catherine Leonard and pianist Hugh Tinney as artistic directors, got a funding increase of 28 per cent, bringing its grant from €7,000 to €9,000. The festival might now have a little more financial comfort than in previous years (like Killaloe, it was founded in 2013), but it is caught up in the uncertainty surrounding the future of Westport House, where each year's opening concert has been held.

No security

The good news for Killaloe, Ortús and Westport has to be tempered by the fact that the Arts Council’s festivals and events scheme offers no security from year to year. In 12 months’ time they could all be subject to the fate that befell Kilkenny, Wexford and Lismore this year.

Continuity is a vital issue for series or festivals that want to make annual presentations. And it’s absurd that the Arts Council has chosen to channel funding for these events through what it calls “a nonrecurring competitive scheme, assessed by a peer panel”. What that means is that the applications for any year are assessed in relation to each other, and not by the council members themselves but by outside panels, which can change between application rounds.

The council’s guidelines explain this in detail. “Due to the nature of nonrecurring funding programmes and the high number of applications received by the Arts Council each year, it is important to note that funding under this programme is offered on a once-off basis and independently of the outcome of past applications.” This is inappropriate for any kind of annual event.

The scheme’s funding is divided into two strands: applications for up to €10,000, and those for between €10,001 and €20,000. First-time applicants are restricted to the sub-€10,000 Strand 1 awards, as are previously successful applicants whose awards were less than €10,000.

As if that’s not crazy enough, “festivals previously funded by the Arts Council under this scheme between €10,001 and €20,000 must apply to Strand 2”. So there’s an impermeable ceiling on Strand 1, and an impenetrable floor for Strand 2.

At the same time, the council says that for grants up to €10,000 the scheme will give priority to proposals that, inter alia, “extend the range or nature of the types of engagement offered to audiences in a particular geographical area”.

So it’s a scheme that’s explicitly aimed at extending the range of what’s offered but has little concern about preserving what’s already there. And while it aims to prioritise extension, it also imposes an arbitrary funding ceiling on clients that it is encouraging to engage in that extension. This has all the hallmarks of a scheme that’s conveniencing the bureaucracy that runs it rather than the clients and ultimately the audiences it purports to serve.

Surely somebody at the Arts Council understands that annual festivals and annual concert series need to be annual, and that “nonrecurring” funding for festivals doesn’t make sense. It’s high time for the council to devise a scheme for these events that is fit for purpose.

All three organisations that recently lost out are planning to plough ahead. Lismore Music Festival will launch its programme next month. Music in Wexford will present an afternoon recital by baritone John Molloy at Greenacres art gallery on January 31st. And Music in Kilkenny presents the Irish Baroque Orchestra at Castalia Hall on February 6th. This is part of a short tour that also features concerts in Limerick (February 5th) and Dublin (February 7th).

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com