Sheltering the arts from the economic storm


Curbing funding to the arts, sports and tourism would be short-sighted and counter-productive, writes Roger GH Downer

IN THE well-known Aesop Fable, a farmer kills his most prized asset, a goose that lays eggs made of gold. His ill-considered attempt to realise short-term gains results in loss of his major source of wealth.

As the current Government considers strategies to reduce public spending, ministers would do well to remember the fable and take care to avoid the destruction of vital revenue and employment generators in the pursuit of short-term gains.

Rumours suggest that recommendations emanating from the report of An Bord Snip Nua will include proposals to abolish the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism and drastically reduce or eliminate grants to cultural institutions. Such actions could have devastating impact on our international image as a nation that promotes and encourages the arts and, perhaps of greater relevance in the current climate, on our economic future.

Few can question the importance of tourism to our economy, with close to 370,000 employed directly. Arts and sports are two of the vital ingredients that contribute considerably to the overall quality and success of the tourism product.

The economic impact of sport is compellingly demonstrated by the recent study commissioned by Munster Rugby and conducted by Grant Thornton, which indicates that rugby games played at the new Thomond Park Stadium in Limerick during the 2008-2009 season contributed more than €50 million to the local economy. Similar assessments would be derived from the many other sporting events held annually in Ireland.

Culture, although not as well appreciated and, therefore, more vulnerable to poorly informed cutbacks, is also an important element in the overall economy and in the Irish tourism sector, with cultural tourism estimated to be worth €5.1 billion annually.

According to the 2007 Eurostat Pocketbook on Cultural Statistics, 48,000 people were employed in the cultural sector in Ireland in 2005, representing 2.5 per cent of the total workforce. In a 2006 study, the European Commission estimated that, in Ireland, the “Culture and Creative” Sector was worth €6.9 billion (1.7 per cent of GDP) in 2003.

Significantly, this contribution is the same as that of the “Computer and Related Activities” sector and greater than that of the “Real Estate” sector (1.2 per cent). A large percentage of the jobs in the “Culture” sector are sustained by government grants and subsidies. Without such support the jobs and the substantial revenue that they generate would disappear.

The social and economic costs of adding a sizeable percentage of those currently employed in the sector to the live register would be considerable, and it behoves Government to ensure that such jobs are protected and investment made to enhance the revenue-generating capacity of the sector. In this regard, it is disturbing to note that another study by the European Commission places Ireland last out of 27 countries in terms of public expenditure on arts and culture.

The report recommends greater investment in order to maximise the economic potential of the sector. The significance of such investment is emphasised by the fact that, across the EU in the period 1999-2003, the culture sector grew by 12.3 per cent compared with 8.1 per cent growth for the EU economy as a whole. Indeed, reports from the US and France indicate that these countries are putting the creative sectors at the centre of their economic recovery packages.

Additional benefits resulting from a thriving culture and sports sector include enhanced attractiveness of Ireland as a location for FDI and enhanced quality of life for all citizens. The recent successes of the Druid production of The Cripple of Inishmaanin New York, Sebastian Barry’s triumph in the Whitbread and the presence of the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway have enhanced Ireland’s international profile while the successes of our sports teams and players in international competition have also improved our global image and helped greatly to boost national morale during a period of considerable economic uncertainty.

The Government faces an enormous task as it attempts to bring public spending under control and it is inevitable that almost any proposed cutbacks will elicit protest from those affected by the decision. All that any government can do under such circumstances is to consider carefully the impact that the proposed cuts will have on the preservation and creation of jobs and on the potential for revenue generation. In the light of the facts presented above, it is hoped that such careful deliberation will recognise the folly of endangering the golden eggs produced by arts, sports and tourism.

Roger Downer is chair of the board of the Hunt Museum, Limerick and former chair of the Munster rugby board