Ruth Negga urges State to ‘nourish and care’ for Irish artists

Actor named as cultural ambassador for Ireland says ‘we can’t take art for granted’

Actor Ruth Negga, musician Martin Hayes, architects Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects and poet Paul Muldoon have all become Irish Cultural Ambassadors at a special ceremony in Dublin. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The Government must “nourish and care” for Irish artists if it wants to promote Ireland as a cultural and artistic leader on the world stage, actor Ruth Negga has said.

Negga, who was named one of five new cultural ambassadors for Ireland on Monday, said part of the reason she accepted the role was to raise awareness around the financial struggles most artists working in the State face.

“It’s a very precarious and tough life and I think that requires the right amount of investment and care,” Negga said. “We need to talk more about this and have an ongoing conversation. I don’t think being a cultural ambassador inhibits that for me; it’s part of the reason I agreed to do this, so I could contribute in any way I can.”

Negga, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017, said it would be “hypocritical” to accept the role and promote Ireland without paying heed to the many barriers preventing Irish artists from carrying out their work.

“We can’t take art for granted, we have to keep nurturing artists and offering funding.”

Traditional musician and fiddle player Martin Hayes, also named a cultural ambassador, agreed that most artists continued to struggle despite the recent rise in State funding.

“There’s more support for the arts now than ever before, that’s something we have to acknowledge, but the truth is that artists and musicians are struggling terribly to make a living. I’ve spent plenty of time in that struggle myself and it’s not been an easy road. I have modest success at this stage but it’s still no more than an average living and that’s doing extremely well in the world of the arts.”

Hayes plans to use his role as an ambassador to promote Ireland’s “musical treasure” through his music rather than speaking on behalf of the country.

“The only role I have is as a traditional musician. I feel like there’s a kind of musical treasure in this country that goes back centuries; a treasure that has been in the hands of thousands of people and shaped by many, something that no individual owns at this stage. My whole life’s work has been an ambassadorial effort to make known what’s truly inside of that. So I won’t have a lot to say beyond the thing that I know which is music.”

The new cultural ambassadors will hold their positions for three years. Architects Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, the founders of Grafton Architects who curated the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon were also named ambassadors.

‘Disillusioned’

They are the first Irish artists to hold the positions since actor Gabriel Byrne stepped down as cultural ambassador in 2011. Byrne later said he was “disillusioned” and “disappointed” by the government who he said “go on about their love for culture and the arts” but “actually don’t really give a toss about it”.

Asked to comment on Byrne’s criticisms following his departure from the role, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan said Culture Ireland planned to work “very closely” with the newly appointed ambassadors who will “reach out and ensure Ireland remains competitive”. “It’s to ensure that Ireland remains relevant and that there’s an awareness of the arts in this country.”

Ms Madigan said the Government’s commitment last year to dedicate €1.2 billion in funding to arts, culture and heritage projects over the coming decade was proof of the State’s dedication to promoting and supporting the arts.

“There’s a recognition from the Taoiseach and from the Minister for Finance and from myself that culture and heritage are something that need to be nourished. There has to be an awareness created that there are economic benefits to enhancing this area.”