The mystery of the Writers' Centre cuts

 

Funding for the Irish Writers’ Centre has been withdrawn: an Arts Council report cites value for money and quality of service, while the centre is mystified about the cut. Fiona McCanninvestigates

THE NEWS JUST before Christmas that the Arts Council had completely cut funding for the Irish Writers’ Centre has been greeted with consternation in some quarters, and came as a shock to many, not least to the centre’s director, Cathal McCabe, who says “we’re totally mystified”. The reasons set out in the recommendation made to the council members by its own executive, which was sent to the Irish Writers’ Centre (IWC) and has been seen by The Irish Times, include concerns about the centre’s visibility, value for money and quality of service to writers.

In response, McCabe points to the 2008 figures, with more than 4,000 drop-in inquiries at the centre, more than 9,000 telephone inquiries and more one million hits on its website, writerscentre.ie. The website was criticised in the Arts Council document as “inadequate in providing information about its services or information that would be useful to writers”. It has recently been altered to include an option allowing online donations, calling for support to “help us to maintain Ireland’s position in world literature”.

This plea follows the council’s decision not to renew the IWC’s grant, which was €200,000 last year. The rest of the centre’s funding came from other local authority and public funding, fundraising, sponsorship for the Glen Dimplex award, and courses run at the centre, which this year include Learn to Write Short Stories with John Boyne, Learn to Write Poetry with Núala Ní Dhómnaill and How to Finish Your Book, a course taught by Conor Kostick.

“When I began here, the Irish Writers’ Centre was almost totally reliant on Arts Council funding,” says McCabe. “The courses that it ran then were not key to its income generation, and in many cases lost money. The situation now is that the Arts Council grant we receive typically in the last couple of years accounts for some 40-odd per cent of our total, and enables us to run the programmes that we’ve now had to discontinue.”

Programming has also come in for council criticism, however, with concern expressed about “the capacity of the current staffing complement to deliver high-quality literary programmes”, while the “uneven quality” of the centre’s courses is also mentioned. Last year’s events included the Out to Lunch series of poetry readings, the Into Print talks by literary agent Jonathan Williams, and the Hourglass Readings curated by Dermot Bolger, which was noted positively by the council with the caveat that it “is one of only a few tangible outputs from the centre, and could be delivered by a number of different players operating in the city and would represent better value for money”.

Value for money is raised in the document under “Key Features”: “The core staff costs for the organisation are high, at €237,550 for four full-time members of staff.” These staff members are McCabe, plus a finance manager, a communications manager and an information and resources officer. “It is questionable as to whether this is the best use of resources,” the document says. “The issues of staffing, literary expertise and how resources are deployed have been raised with the IWC on numerous occasions and no alternative staffing arrangements have been proposed.”

McCabe, though he declines to give a breakdown of how the staff costs are distributed, defends the high salaries: “The Arts Council provides less than half of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s income, the vast majority of which goes towards funding artistic programmes and services for writers. Core costs are covered by funds generated by the centre itself.”

He adds that salaries and staff costs were the result of a “best-practice independent review” in 2007. The organisation was independently reviewed following a request by the Arts Council in 2005, with the centre committing to acting on the resulting recommendations. Although the council says that the “core concerns” that prompted the review, which it has raised in regular meetings and correspondence, have not been addressed, McCabe says every effort has been made to implement its recommendations. At a meeting in April, he says, the council expressed its satisfaction with the centre, saying the IWC is “absolutely integral to the fabric of support for Irish writers and writing” and is “really important for literature . . . in Ireland”.

MCCABE SAYS THE centre provides networking and promotional opportunities for writers, as well as employment as tutors and as judges of the Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards, run in association with the centre. The awards were also criticised in the Arts Council document, which states that they “do not serve Irish writers to any real extent. . . and the sponsor’s branding far outweighs the branding of the Irish Writers’ Centre”. The awards, which include an Irish-language section worth €5,000, the most lucrative for first-time authors in Irish, were established in 2006 and are open to first-time authors whose primary residence is in Ireland or the UK. The report says: “If compared to other key artform resource organisations, the programme is underdeveloped, the priorities and purpose of the organisation are not clearly evident and its services for writers and audiences are weak.”

Although efforts are continuing to raise money for the centre, with a special benefit reading by the recent Costa prize-winner, Sebastian Barry, planned for January 22nd, McCabe says a number of programmes will be cut as a result of the council’s decision, including a planned series for this year called Exile and Return, along with the Into Print, Out to Lunch and Hourglass Readings series.

He adds that the centre, the board of which consists of Carlo Gébler (chairman), Frank X Buckley, Frank Callanan, Una Claffey, Gerald Dawe, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Liam Mac Uistín, David McConnell, Núala Ní Dhómhnaill, Emer O’Kelly and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, is appealing the Arts Council decision.

While the Arts Council declined to comment further on the issue, it specified that the money would be redistributed among other literary artist-support organisations. “It is the case that the money is being spent elsewhere in literature, and that services to writers are being maintained through other resource organisations, for example through Poetry Ireland, which is receiving over €400,000, the Munster Literature Centre, which has received over €137,000, and the Irish Literature Exchange, which has received almost 300,000,” a council spokesperson said.