A 40 per cent cut in funding to Irish arts in recent years was an illustration of the "peripheral" place they occupy in Irish society, President Michael D Higgins has said.
Yet funding for the arts is as important to our infrastructure as roads, hospitals and schools, he argued.
Addressing the membership of Aosdána, the organisation representing Irish artists at its general assembly on Thursday, President Higgins outlined the fundamental place the arts should hold in society and the need for a cultural policy.
“There can be no doubt that Irish artists and cultural institutions have, along with many sectors of Irish life, suffered significantly during a period that reaped the rewards of speculative economics and the austerity that served as a response,” he told the near 250 membership.
Cuts of about 40 per cent in annual budgets of the majority of cultural institutions had left many struggling to survive.
“A reduction in funding for arts, culture and film by some €16 million between 2011 and 2014, elicits little public comment or concern [and] underlines the peripheral place the arts are too often granted in our society and in the public consciousness,” the President said, despite evidence of the benefits the sector can provide.
The President’s address was a historic moment in the 34 year history of the organisation as it was the first time such a speech was given to the full assembly.
Aosdána was established to represent the Irish artistic community. Members are elected and include such luminaries as Sebastian Barry, Robert Ballagh, Neil Jordan, Colum McCann and Patrick McCabe.
President Higgins said it was regrettable funding shortfalls existed in a sphere that brought so much economic benefit to Ireland.
“That the arts are something apart, peripheral, and belonging on the fringes of society is an assumption that must continue to be challenged,” he said.
“When we support artists, we support viable democracy.
“As a society we must come to recognise that institutional provision for the arts is as important to our infrastructure as roads, hospitals and schools.”
President Higgins, himself a former minister for the arts, said there was a danger artistic institutions, left to “the vagaries” of the marketplace would either fail to survive “or become so compromised and distorted that the public good will not be served”.
“It is essential to have a national cultural policy, and to have one that recognises the fundamental role of cultural access in citizenship while respecting the integrity and independence of the personal artistic inspiration,” he said.
The general assembly also debated and voted on nominations for 19 new members, the results of which will become known later.
Three motions were also put forward for discussion. One related to a review of the Arts Council’s support systems for non- Aosdána artists. Another, tabled by Mannix Flynn, requested a restructuring of the nomination process for a limited number of those given the title “Saoi”, for “singular and sustained distinction in the arts”.
On her own motion to forge links with libraries, through buying and stocking new Irish books, Margaretta D’Arcy said 51 per cent of people in Ireland use such facilities, a higher proportion than in the UK.
“Is it not time that Aosdána began taking an interest in libraries and found a way that us the producers and us the consumers can benefit each other,” she said.