Jo Mangan: ‘Most people who produce art earn less than €10,000 a year’

Arts campaigner and Carlow Festival of Arts director Jo Mangan has dedicated her life to challenging the idea that art is for the elite

Jo Mangan is a busy woman. Our lunchtime meeting is sandwiched between a variety of media appearances relating to the National Campaign for the Arts, of which she is the chairwoman. She needs to be in Carlow by teatime to brief interns at the Carlow Festival of Arts, where she began a term as director in February, and she is also rehearsing a new play for her theatre company, Performance Corporation, which will premiere at Canada's national theatre festival in less than a month.

Indeed, Mangan is so busy that she won’t be able to travel with her latest show. Not that she is complaining. “I am outrageously passionate about the transformative power of the arts,” Mangan says of her various roles as theatre director, festival producer and arts advocate. “I can’t even pretend to be passionate about anything else. I have considered haulage, brewing beer, but I am not able to make it stick in my imagination, let alone in reality. This is where my life – my love – is.”

It is a difficult time for those who are passionate for the arts; the reality in the cultural industry is grim for many. Despite the vital role cultural tourism plays in the economic and ideological imagination of the nation, political support for the arts appears to have reached an all-time low. Ireland remains at the bottom of the European League for Government Investment in Culture and the Arts, spending just 0.11 per cent of GDP on culture, compared with a European average of 0.6 per cent. On top of that, the new Government has folded the old department of the arts into a diluted portfolio.

Mangan has been involved in the National Campaign for the Arts since its inception in 2009, after a report by economist Colm McCarthy proposed a series of budget cuts that would have devastated the country’s cultural infrastructure. The campaign achieved considerable success in lobbying to protect funding for the arts, but its work has been ongoing behind the scenes over the past seven years.

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Disappointment turns to anger
This latest crisis has, Mangan says, "regalvanised" the arts community in Ireland. "The NCFA came out of the crisis of the McCarthy report, and there was a dialogue then around disappointment, which is a a word that is being used again to describe the feeling among the arts community about [recent events].

“But what I see is actual anger now. People are wondering how much longer are we going to have artists living below the poverty line. Because the reality is that most people who make their living from producing art, whether that’s dance or sculpture, are earning less than €10,000 a year. People are wondering how much longer we are going to be hanging on by a thread, waiting for next inspirational notion, like Ireland 2016, that the Government is going to pour its money into. There is no sustainability in that sort of venture. Creating sustainability involves investment over long period of time. That is where the real benefit to society is.”

Mangan is at her most enthusiastic when she is speaking about the way in which the arts shapes the society we live in.

“We are citizens who engage with art every time we pick up a book or turn on Netflix or drop our kids off at an Irish- dancing class,” she says. “I challenge anyone to go through a day without engaging with the arts.”

Even so, she acknowledges, there remains a widespread perception that the arts are for a minority, an elite. This is something she has been challenging for years in her work with Performance Corporation, which she cofounded with her partner, the writer Tom Swift, with a mission to create theatre that would attract a new audience and bring the art form to new, unexpected places. For the past 15 years, the company has performed work in a wooden rowing boat in Lough Lannagh, in the sand dunes of Belmullet and in the back of a car on the urban edges of Kilkenny. It has staged a GAA match in the middle of Washington, DC, a flash céilí outside the Central Bank, and a mass snogathon in the Ilac Centre, all experienced by an unsuspecting public.

As Mangan sees it, the problem with art is often “how it is framed. It is not always helpful to call a performance ‘theatre’. Call it an event and you will attract a much wider, more diverse audience. Make ‘the event’ the frame, and use it to ambush your audience with a bit of opera, art, theatre, whatever, which they might otherwise have said no to.”

Adventure and accessibility
This philosophy of adventure and accessibility is at the heart of Mangan's first programme for Carlow Arts Festival, which runs over nine days in June.

“Where I grew up [in Meath] there was the annual Field Day, and I remember the build-up to it, how the whole community was involved, all the atmosphere and games and a bit of art thrown into the mix. That’s how I like to think of a festival like Carlow’s, and I have made an effort with the programme to use what people are curious about in a broader context to attract them to other types of art they might not consider.”

Some of this work will take place in unexpected locations across Carlow, on the river Barrow, for example, where barges will provide floating stages for a series of experimental concerts with Little John Nee, or the portal tomb of Brownshill dolmen, Carlow's most recognisable landmark, which will be challenged to bring the audience to another dimension for a staging of Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

“Sometimes we have a responsibility to make people not have to come into buildings to experience art, but to bring it to them instead,” she says.

As further encouragement for democratic participation, there will also be a day of free events on the lawns of St Patrick’s, Carlow College, and a pay-what-you-can initiative, which Mangan hopes will encourage otherwise reluctant audience members, or those without means of experiencing art regularly, to attend events.

However, a festival like Carlow Arts Festival is embedded in the community one way or another, Mangan says, particularly when you consider the economic benefit to the town. “Every hotel bed is already sold during the festival. Over the final weekend the bars will be open until 1.30am. And it’s not just about people visiting from outside Carlow. People who live in town [will be] coming in to town picking up stuff for a picnic or from traders selling food. So, yes, if you wanted to make the economic argument, it is there.

But Mangan is too passionate about the arts not to remind me that the economic benefit is “not the point. Carlow is a small town, so there is no avoiding the festival when it is on. But it’s the opera, the theatre, the music, the art: that’s what we want people to remember.”

  • Carlow Arts Festival, including Borris Festival of Ideas and Writing, and Barges on the Barrow, runs until June 19th