Putting the arty in political party: arts policy proposals

Free tin whistles, education changes and plenty of funding are just some of the arts promises in the various political parties' manifestos – but is there any substance to the pre-election proposals? And how do these compare to the National Campaign for the Arts' vision?


When it comes to pre-election arts policies, most political parties speak in hypotheticals. It’s one thing to come up with a neat-sounding idea for a manifesto, and another to see it through in government. What is remarkable is that even when given the opportunity to deal in abstract promises, many parties’ arts policies remain thin.

Economics of arts

Renua Ireland hardly claims to be a party of painters and poets, and its arts policies are anaemic. Its priorities for the sector: move funding from local authorities to the Arts Council; ensure “our cultural institutions such as the Abbey has a country-wide touring and exhibitions policy”; and “regeneration of our main cultural institutions after a decade of austerity”.

Prioritising countrywide theatre tours seems an odd policy to push to the fore, and the Abbey, for example, already tours its work extensively. The “regeneration” of cultural institutions is vague. But like most of Renua’s policies, its main focus is economic, and therefore centres around funding.

Renua believes “there is no cultural, social, political or economic justification for local authorities to have control of funding for local art galleries and theatres. Our local authorities should be focused on local government, and the funding of the arts should be administered by our expert body, the Arts Council.”

It is a clear-cut policy, but one that would require significant restructuring of the Arts Council. Renua provides no practical details of how that could occur.

Soc it to Dem

Fellow new kids on the block, the Social Democrats, are perhaps the greatest contrast to Renua, with plenty of arts ideas in the mix. First up is a policy about reviewing arts funding and administration and examining equality within the sector, funding practices, administrating processes, and the lives of artists themselves.

The Soc Dems, keen to put their own stamp on something, are also calling for the establishment of a new department: a Department for the Arts, Culture and Communications.

The Soc Dems are also asking for arts funding to be gradually restored to pre- crash levels. In its plans, tax breaks for artists would be expanded to lower-income artists to include a wider range of practices than is currently allowed for. New programmes of grants and bursaries are also proposed.

Arts education is mentioned, with an aim of “universal access to arts education at both primary and secondary levels” within the lifetime of the next government. There’s a shoutout to Waking the Feminists, and a commitment to equality and diversity in the sector.

Some of the more dynamic proposals include advocating for special commercial rates for creative arts spaces, a highly topical issue given the closure of cultural and creative spaces and studios around the capital. Its policy will be to work with local authorities, planners, and Nama “to protect and expand upon the number of existing creative spaces in Ireland’s cities and towns in order to foster young cultural enterprises and initiatives”.

Scant on solidity

By contrast, Fianna Fáil’s policy is surprisingly scant, with plenty of generalisations and few solid actions. Much of what it recommends is static or already in train. In arts education, the party commits to “building on recommendations” from the Arts Council report by the Special Committee on Arts in Education.

There’s also a commitment to increase music provision in primary schools, “by the creation of a fleet of peripatetic music teachers”.

Unlike Renua, which wants to remove local government’s remit when it comes to the arts, Fianna Fáil wants to further integrate arts planning into county plans, with local governments obliged to publish an “annual action plan” for the arts. Fianna Fáil also recommends a “Percentage for the Arts” scheme on each public capital project worth more than €100,000.

In terms of structural and administrative policies, the party is calling for an external review of the Arts Council, and for the subsuming of Culture Ireland into the Department of Arts to be reversed, with a non-civil servant chief executive reinstated.

There are few other notable elements to Fianna Fáil’s arts policy, aside from a garbled “Promoting Irish Culture” policy, which includes directing “State agencies involved in the arts to connect into the huge energy of our diaspora through the GAA and Irish clubs”. There’s also a vague plan for a “culture trail” in Dublin, which sounds meaningless.

Green cash up front

The Green Party, which can usually rely on an arty vote, has a concise, specific arts policy. An immediate increase in funding is front and centre, with the Irish Film Board, Culture Ireland and the Arts Council singled out especially for funding increases, with an overall aim of increasing arts funding by €50 million per year – it’s a nice round figure, wherever it’s coming from.

The Greens also plan to extend “multi- year funding” to more of the the larger arts organisations, which would allow for longer term planning. That policy is likely to win a lot of favour in arts organisations around the country.

The Green’s policies lack the dynamism of the Social Democrats, and much of it isn’t new: maintain levels of funding to the National Museum; continue the Section 481 tax break; “seek to form joint ventures between our enterprise and tourism bodies and our artistic and cultural organisations”; ensure the continuation of Culture Night (who says it won’t continue?). It doesn’t exactly feel realistic to propose a year-on-year increase of €50 million in funding, and then come up short on what you’d actually do with it.

Other policies feel more local government rather than national policy level, such as: a register of existing and potentially available properties for cultural activity; the vacant spaces levy; and restoring the House of Lords (currently a Bank of Ireland branch) on College Green in Dublin for various uses, including cultural ones. This policy also seems unaware that a new Cultural and Heritage Centre is due to open in the building in 2017, and will be available to the State for 10 years.

Like the Social Democrats, the Greens also mention creative and cultural space, proposing the introduction of “rates credits” for buildings that would be suitable for artists’ studios.

One simple, strong policy proposal is a match-funding scheme for arts organisations in rural and “peripheral” communities. This means the government will match the funding efforts of local groups for a minimum of €2,500 and a maximum of €10,000 from a pot totalling €5 million.

The Greens have planning to the fore in their policy. Planning legislation should be reviewed, it says, with a minimum of 2 per cent of space given over to artistic, cultural and creative use in all large-scale developments. Along with that, the party proposes a partnership platform between artists and property developers, with the hope of delivering sustainable studio space.

Like Fianna Fáil, the Greens want Culture Ireland restored as an independent organisation.

Tiocfaidh ár feadóg

Sinn Féin perhaps fares the worst on specifics, real actions, practical recommendations or actual policy. The arts are barely mentioned in its comprehensive election manifesto. The only concrete policies are: increasing Arts Council funding by 45 per cent over the lifetime of the next government; ensuring fairness and transparency in grants and awards; expanding the concept of “support” when it comes to better pay for artists; and “film relief”.

Sinn Féin also has a Creative Communities document, which is almost fascinating in its accomplishment of not saying anything over several pages, apart from repeatedly referencing Robert Ballagh. (Whoever wrote it must be a fan.)

Aside from vague commentary about how great the arts are, the only specifics include “encouraging the Dublin Local Authorities to foster the culture of street art”, and providing every third-class primary school student with a tin whistle. Another slightly less random proposal is to bring public funding in line with the European GDP average.

Labour’s brass tacks

The Labour Party’s policy is aspirational but practical on its referencing of successes elsewhere that could be translated to the sector. One of Labour’s big arts ideas is to host a Global Arts Forum along similar lines to the Global Economic Forum.

Another cue is being taken from the GAA’s Cúl Camps, with a similar idea for the arts in order to get more children involved.

It cites the Sports Capital Fund as an inspiration for an Arts Capital Fund. And it proposes introducing a culture and heritage course to the Junior Cycle.

Labour promises to double funding to the Arts Council and the Irish Film Board. Relaxing “activation rules” for artists on job seekers’ payments is also in play, and it will review the threshold for the artists’ tax exemption.

The incumbent

The only party that can really be judged on what it has achieved in arts policy in recent years is Fine Gael. Public funding for the arts and culture in this country represents just 0.11 per cent of GDP, compared with an EU average of 0.6 per cent, putting Ireland at the bottom of the European league table. Like many areas of Irish life, arts funding has been gutted by austerity.

Fine Gael’s National Cultural Policy, Culture 2025, is a work in progress. It’s an ambitious policy that by design has been led by artists and arts organisations rather than civil servants. However, the Department failed to complete the policy within the lifetime of the last Government.

Transparency in the decision-making of the Arts Council is another Fine Gael policy. A new small grants scheme will target regional cultural centre, including theatres and museums. Like the Green’s policy, Culture Night gets a mention, with a similar plan to expand it in the regions.

Not to be outdone by Sinn Féin’s free tin whistle, Fine Gael is proposing a National Musical Instrument Library for children and young people – definitely a positive policy – along with continuing support for Music Generation. Fine Gael is unique in mentioning public art at any length, saying it will identify and promote public-art spaces, establish a dedicated philanthropic fund, and extend the Section 1003 tax relief scheme for important items donated to museums.

In film, Fine Gael says it will improve Section 481 tax relief, increase the number of training courses at Screen Training Ireland, and introduce a new scheme “aimed at increasing the number of women working in the film industry”.

The party has also pledged to establish a film-industry apprenticeship scheme, and an online skills database for the film and TV sector. In terms of planning, a Creative Sector Taskforce is proposed, to create an action plan across the audiovisual, gaming, animation and music industries.

There is a strong through-line of “art for all” in Fine Gael’s arts policies, especially with the emphasis on national cultural institutions, art education and public art. However, it lacks a certain cutting-edge energy, not to mention more cash. The Department has so far managed to steer the artistic elements of the 1916 centenary celebrations relatively well, with budget bumps flowing into that stream.

Add funds, implement plans: NCFA vision for arts policy

In the lead-up to the general election, the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) has been holding a series of national hustings asking political parties to present their arts policies. This week the lobby group also launched its own manifesto for the arts.

Its main plank is a call on the new government to commit to an investment of 0.3 per cent of GDP over its lifetime. This would take Ireland halfway to the European average, and would mean restoring €30 million worth of cuts to the Arts Council. It would also like to see the new government implement tax efficiencies and strategies to encourage corporate and philanthropic investment in the arts. It also proposes the creation of a new arts fund from National Lottery income.

NCFA is calling for the appointment of an expert panel of artists and cultural managers to advise the minister for the arts, and the department. It has backed calls for local authorities to publish individual arts plans and cultural strategies, and for local authority arts spending to be mandatory.

The lobby group is urging the new minister for education to implement the Arts in Education Charter, to extend the Junior Cycle to include dance, theatre and music, and to shift government investment policy from STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths).

It also claims that cuts in government funding and subsequent arts closures are “robbing citizens of their rightful access to the arts, as set out in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.


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