Does Mary Hanafin realise she's the minister for all we've got?


CULTURE SHOCK:Press, public and the Minister herself seemed unanimous this week in seeing her appointment to the culture portfolio as a demotion – which tells us all we need to know about attitudes to Ireland’s greatest remaining asset, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

WASN’T IT STRIKING that when Mary Hanafin was appointed as the new Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, the reaction suggested that she had contracted a nasty disease? Callers and texters flooded the drivetime radio shows with angry comments about the ill-treatment of the poor woman. The Irish Independent’s political editor remarked that she might as well have been dropped from the Cabinet altogether. The Irish Timeslabelled her simply as a “loser”. And Hanafin herself admitted that her initial reaction to the news was to consider that she had been demoted. If you wanted to cut through all the hype about the role of culture in rescuing Ireland, you could not have chosen a sharper knife.

The problem, of course, is that the idea of the arts, sport and tourism brief as an insult to a senior politician is not irrational. In the last four years, the job has been held by four different ministers: John O’Donoghue, Seamus Brennan, Martin Cullen and now Hanafin.

And the role of culture within that brief has been diminished. The change in name from “arts, sport and tourism” to Tourism, Culture and Sport (at a substantial cost for signage and stationery) is not accidental. Brian Cowen, in announcing Hanafin’s appointment, spoke about the importance of the “tourism and hospitality industry”. Hanafin herself stressed that the job was not, after all, a demotion, because tourism is a huge indigenous industry. She spoke about the arts only as an afterthought.

All of which tells us that, neither within the political establishment nor in the wider discourse around politics, is there the slightest understanding of the reality that cultural creativity is not a repository of pieties or a bit of a diversion for tourists. In terms both of our capacity to regenerate our society and of our claim to the world’s attention (and investment), it is pretty much all we’ve got. And this lack of understanding matters. We are still stuck in the outmoded frame of mind that regards money spent on supporting that creativity as, at best, a bit of icing on the economic cake.

What follows from that is a slash-and-burn, rather than a developmental, approach.

Let’s bring this down to basic economics. Consider the west of Ireland. It is, thanks to the ways in which it has been imagined and even fetishised by artists, a powerful cultural brand. But that brand pays far fewer real dividends than it ought to.

Creative businesses span a range of areas, from artistic invention and performance to architecture, design, fashion, media, crafts, digital technologies such as gaming and animation, publishing and photography. According to the Western Development Commission’s report, Creative West, published last year, the region has 4,779 creative businesses, employing 11,000 people and turning over €534 million annually.

This may sound like a lot. In fact, the picture is one of serious underdevelopment. Most of the businesses are very small and two-thirds of them are not engaged in any meaningful export activity. The huge potential for sustainable jobs and long-term wealth creation is not being tapped.

We know that this potential is real. World trade in creative goods and services has been growing at around 9 per cent a year. More than six million people work in the creative and cultural sector in the EU alone. And we also know that the presence of creative people attracts other creative people.

The more successful a region is at generating a creative infrastructure that connects pure arts to education to commercial businesses to tourism, the more successful it will become.

The west of Ireland, to pursue this one example, is not at the moment translating its magnetic cultural image into the creation of such a region.

Job numbers may be a highly reductionist way of looking at the impact of creativity, but they’re also what we need. And those numbers tell a story: in London, one job in seven is in the creative sector; in the New England region of the US, one in 25; and in the west of Ireland, one in 33. There are some problems of definition with these comparisons, but the overall point is clear. The west may be magical and mystical, but it is not nearly as good as it could be at turning its fabulous resources of culture and landscape into sustainable employment in creative industries.

This is particularly true of primary artistic enterprises. People who work directly in fields such as music, visual art or theatre earn too little money. Those three fields alone account for two-thirds of the creative businesses in the west. But they also have just 20 per cent of the financial turnover. Again, the economic potential of artistic work in the west is seriously underdeveloped.

This is, in an odd way, good news. By any objective criteria, Ireland, with its vastly disproportionate cultural impact, ought to be getting more economic benefit from culture than other countries. The fact that it is instead getting less tells us that there is a tremendous resource that is not being tapped.

None of this is to suggest that we should talk of the arts only in these economic terms. (The paradox of the arts is that their economic benefits flow from non-economic impulses.) But politicians should at least be talking about this stuff in the same way that they talk about roads and sewage systems. It matters to communities in Co Leitrim just as much as it does to those in Dublin 4. The mindset that contrasts talk about creativity with “bread-and-butter issues” is one that will leave us all with cheap sliced pans and oily margarine.

While that mindset persists, we are trapped in a growing gap between rhetoric and reality. The living ecosystem of artistic and creative activity is being impoverished by short-sighted cutbacks, even while the flag of “culture” is being waved to restore some respectability to our international standing. So long as we’re spending money to erase the word “arts” from official stationery and becoming minister for culture is a source of ignominy, that is unlikely to change.