The arts world is opening up – and it’s clear something is wrong

Most arts organisations are stuck in the gap between the imagination and the possible

Growhouse by Marie Brett, part of a multisensory installation at Cork Midsummer Festival. Photograph: Jed Niezgoda

Growhouse by Marie Brett, part of a multisensory installation at Cork Midsummer Festival. Photograph: Jed Niezgoda

 

I had thought I would feel more joy, but maybe anxiety should come as no surprise. As arts producers and theatre makers across the country return to live events, with public performances and hastily reimagined tours, there are exciting things to come. The Irish National Opera announces its “biggest, boldest programme yet” for next season, as well as its “largest-ever outdoor undertaking”, The Gate is being “beautifully imaginative” as well as “dynamic and accessible” in Middletown, there have been “ambitious … multisensory” installations at Cork Midsummer, and we are promised more at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August.

And yet the symptoms of disquiet are profound, reflecting issues in the industry that were present before Covid came. Back then size mattered, and overworked and underpaid teams struggled to top their last outings by digging deeper and doing yet more with less. Oddly, that hasn’t gone away. Now, as set builders, carpenters, riggers, lighting technicians and production managers are being presented with elaborate plans for astonishing projects, it’s tempting to think that all is well in the arts world.

But something is wrong. Across the sector, conversations are being had about sleepless nights, last-minute revisions, crises, cancellations, reversals of cancellations, losses of confidence and lapses in judgment and temper. Some of these have always been part and parcel of the job, but some are new, or if not new, are being experienced on a more troubling level than previously. So what is going on?

It is a complex mix.

Firstly, even though the arts received a much lauded increase in funding during the course of the pandemic, it hasn’t addressed the inequalities in the industry. Doubtless realising that the increases aren’t likely to last, funders are loath to support new permanent employment, so the majority of those who work in the arts are still lurching from gig to gig.  

Untempered ideas

Instead, grants were made to enable the creation of productions, projects and art works: so far so good. But plans that grew in lockdown had plenty of time to germinate and take root. Ideas became elaborate, plans extravagant and extraordinary, and they were often untempered by the day-to-day learnings you get from making things happen in a short time, and with limited budgets, physically in the world.

Another Arts Council funding initiative, the Capacity Building Award, threw this into relief. It’s a wise enough scheme – aiming to provide resources for arts organisations to work out how to be sustainable should a post-Covid crash come. Leaving aside the fact you can’t create a pool of money where none exists, it does provide – among other things – resources to hire consultants. Any administrator filling in the budget for consultant costs will have blanched at the disparity in the daily rates between them and what their own teams will be earning.

So, despite all that extra cash, most arts organisations are continuing to operate as if they must do everything for as little money as possible. Among the arts industry’s chronic afflictions, one is the habit of underestimating human costs. Producers pitch budgets low in the hopes of getting a project off the ground, wanting to tick the “cost-efficient” box. Then they use all their team’s ingenuity to make the damn thing happen.

Oxidation once again

On top of that, as anyone who has ever returned from a long-standing leave will tell you, people come back rusty. It happens to me every year, after even the short Christmas break. I think: I’ve forgotten how to do this. It takes a while for the muscle memory to kick in, as well as the confidence to trust my judgment and instincts. On top of that, Covid safety rules still apply, affecting everything from lifting sets, to handling props, to the number of the team that can be in the room.

Rustiness is one thing, but then there is the emotional toll that has been exacted on all of us. Opening up has already brought small joys. I was surprised by the intense pleasure of a first quiet drink outside a beloved pub. And I was even more surprised by how incredibly sad I felt later. Elation almost always brings a balancing emotional dip, and if mine are anything to go by, reserves are cobweb thin.

Another thing many people forget about art is that it isn’t pure imagination. Art is what appears when the artist has wrenched the inspiration from the back of his or her head, has struggled with the mundane realities of what paint, or clay, or words, or wood can be made to do, and still has managed to harness their abilities to create a thing that exists in the world. Art is what happens when the artist (and their teams of designers and technicians) manage to bridge the gap between the imagination and the possible. That gap is where we’re stuck at the moment.

We have all been through a hell of a lot, and it’s not over yet. We don’t need enormous. We don’t need the biggest ever, or the most marvellous. We need to be more gentle and kind, on the arts as well as on ourselves. We need to settle for less.

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