Arts Council bogged down in procedure

 

Amid the current row about Arts Council funding cuts, Project Arts Centre director WILLIE WHITEargues that the council’s decisions process takes too long, and is overlooking a new generation of artists

ON A WINDY day last October I stood at the edge of a throng of journalists on the steps of Leinster House as they photographed a delegation on its way to speak to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sport and Tourism. Later I sat in the public gallery listening to presentations from artists including Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann, Garry Hynes and Brendan Gleeson on the value created by public investment in art. There was a convivial atmosphere; we enjoy being in the company of our successful artists, and there was humorous banter between the senators and TDs as to whether The Generalor In Brugeswas their favourite Gleeson film. This was a familiar kind of occasion where leading artists command attention by leveraging their international reputations. Irish artists certainly have plenty to leverage with their Costa, Emmy, Golden Globe, Man Booker, Nobel, Olivier, Oscar, Pulitzer and Tony awards.

One might expect the state agency responsible for development of and investment in the arts would be ensuring the succession of the next generation of high-performing artists of whom we could one day be similarly proud. This month it was hard to believe this was the case. Even those with only a passing interest will have noticed this week some complaint and consternation around the Arts Council’s cuts to clients. The cuts were, in many cases, greater than its own cut in the December budget and some longstanding clients have had their funding halved or taken away completely.

The talk now is mostly of unjust treatment of existing clients who are experienced artists, but the understandable protests and letters to the editor threaten to obscure what is, in my opinion, another pressing issue. A generation of new artists has long felt overlooked for funding and the boldness of the Arts Council’s actions has so far not translated into a remedy for this. The council says it has earmarked 20 per cent of funding for one-off projects and awards. There is no chance this money will be available to artists until after project grants announced just this week have been processed, most likely in the summer. This is late in the day to plan activities for 2010. For most of the year the public will see less art and not much of it will be made by people under 35.

Artists who have had regular funding withdrawn have been encouraged to apply for other awards and face at least a nine-month hiatus since making initial applications in September 2009, before they know if they can move forward. There is a tendency to see the cuts in terms of the figureheads of the afflicted organisations. We should also remember all of the other people – writers, performers, designers and technicians – waiting for news of potential work for those nine months. As someone who is in full-time employment in the arts, I am acutely aware it is my responsibility to create the conditions and generate opportunities for the great majority of my colleagues who pursue fragile freelance careers at best. There is a considerable opportunity cost to the taxpayer in the slowness in getting grants to artists.

Along with many colleagues, I joined in the work of the National Campaign for the Arts last year. In the shadow of Colm McCarthy’s review of public spending, we met politicians to make our case for the value of the arts. The reception was generally warm and enthusiastic, if tempered with a priority for economic impact over intrinsic values.

The campaign was given a boost when arts and culture featured so prominently at the proceedings of the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh, amplified by Martin Cullen’s criticisms of proposed cuts to cultural resources. I was greatly relieved when the 5.8 per cent cut to the Arts Council in December’s budget was less than recommended by McCarthy; I was realistic there would have to be reductions in funding but I hoped they would be supported by a credible and fair policy. Clients were put on notice that tough decisions would have to be made but few anticipated the upset of February 1st when the Arts Council letters were opened.

At a meeting with standing room only, convened by Theatre Forum on Wednesday to discuss the impact of the cuts, director Mary Cloake explained the Arts Council’s actions in the context of the economic outlook for the next three years. We already knew there had been a reduction in the number of production companies supported. We also learned there would be an emphasis on making work, an audience-focused touring policy, the establishment of directors’ residencies with venues and the prospect of a pilot project for production hubs, a form of shared administrative service. There was also an undertaking to try to process the current project awards promptly.

Cloake’s presentation of a response to diminishing funding did much to address the disquiet and speculation that had been in the room earlier in the day. It is regrettable this rationale had not been shared before the recent decisions had been published as it would have saved a lot of anguish.

The Government has been generous to the arts in the past 15 years, as it ought to be, acknowledging the arts return value to the country through employment, cultural tourism and international prestige. Increased revenue meant more money to invest through bodies such as the Arts Council, whose funding grew from €20.7 million in 1995 to a high of €83 million in 2007 before contracting to €69.15 million in 2010. Despite the recession, that’s a considerable sum of money and it needs to be properly spent. It represents a lot of potential good will and good news from the arts sector but seems now to be producing the opposite effect.

I believe the Arts Council is necessary. It keeps the arts at arm’s length from Government, marshals the expertise required to assess bids for investment of public funding, evaluates the impact of that investment and ensures quality and value for money. It also has an eye to professional development and to creating a diversity of opportunities to participate in and experience art of all kinds.

Unfortunately the Arts Council’s current way of doing business seems unnecessarily slow and not very smart. The reason for the tardiness of the council’s process can’t simply be a consequence of December’s budget. It was two months after the budget, and five months after applications closed, that the recent decisions were communicated and at that the work is only half done. Apart from the nuisance for some lucky clients, having to start planning in earnest for 2010 in the second month of the year, independent artists, those who work outside a company structure, have once again to wait even longer for news of possible funding. It is hard to reconcile this with a commitment to supporting artists to make work and to enabling more people to experience the arts in 2010.

A lot of time will be spent giving out about the cuts but this is for nothing if it doesn’t produce change. The Arts Council should simplify its funding mechanisms and those of us who make applications should persist in demanding a process that is efficient and transparent. If the council can avoid getting bogged down in how it does its own work it can then focus on getting artists to work.

If progress is achieved then we may be able to avoid the annual non-event of arguments over money and instead pay more attention to what we’re both meant to be involved in doing, making work for the public instead of trouble for each other.