Under Sheila Pratschke, the Arts Council has rarely been free from controversy

‘I’m the person who should speak out ... I did what I thought was right’

Sheila Pratschke has now dealt with three ministers and has shown herself unafraid to wade into the fray when necessary. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Sheila Pratschke has now dealt with three ministers and has shown herself unafraid to wade into the fray when necessary. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

So is this a valedictory conversation we’re having, I ask Arts Council chair Sheila Pratschke as we sit down with coffee and biscuits in the council’s elegant Georgian headquarters on Merrion Square.

“Well I’m into my final year now,” she acknowledges. “The time has just flown, it’s unbelievable.”

Appointed by then minister for arts Jimmy Deenihan in 2014, Pratschke brought a strong track record, having run some of the country’s most important cultural institutions, from the Irish Film Institute to the Annaghmakerrig artists’ retreat in Co Monaghan and the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.

Although it’s not a full-time job like those, chairing the council is a very hands-on role, she says. “It really is quite demanding. I have very happily invested a lot of time into it because I enjoy it. But even if you were less passionate about it, you’d still have to do quite a lot of work.”

She estimates she spends half her time every week working for the council. For this she is paid €9,000 per annum, which seems a pretty good deal for the State. “But a huge bonus is that I am invited to things so I don’t have to pay for tickets. So I’m having the life that I love.”

It’s not all sweetness, light and opening nights. The Arts Council during her term has rarely been far from controversy. Whether it’s the stand-off over the proposed review of its relationship with Aosdána, accusations that it should have acted earlier on issues of governance and alleged bullying at the Gate theatre, or muttering among arts organisations that its funding application processes have become hopelessly bureaucratic and fussy, the council often serves as the focus for discontent in the arts world. Not surprisingly, much of this comes down to money – how much of it there is and whether it is being spent wisely and fairly.

Wade into the fray

Such financial questions ultimately hinge on how much the council itself receives each year from the arts minister of the day. Pratschke has now dealt with three ministers and has shown herself unafraid to wade into the fray when necessary. Having become chair at the end of a five-year cycle of severe cuts and recessionary cutbacks, she has made no secret of her dissatisfaction with the pace of recovery since. Last October, she expressed “huge disappointment” at the increase of 4.6 per cent the council received in the budget. Meanwhile, her deputy chair, the poet and academic John McAuliffe, excoriated the Government’s much-vaunted Creative Ireland initiative in an article in The Irish Times, describing it as “part-car, part-temple, part-group-hug and part-energy-drink”. It seemed clear the council perceived CI at that time as a real threat to the principle of arms-length State funding of arts and culture in Ireland.

Pratschke is adamant the argument was not just a turf war between rival state agencies. “There are fundamental issues at play here,” she says. “Some people have said that [Creative Ireland] poses an existential threat to the Arts Council. I don’t think so at all but it’s a new organisation which is about joining up the dots across government. All of that is music to my ears and is what makes Creative Ireland a perfect partner for us.

“But I won’t shy away from this. It drifted towards choosing to fund certain festivals and demanding a lot of acknowledgement for that funding. And having no transparency and no clear process whereby the funding was allocated. So that was our disagreement. And we have been assured that that will not happen again.”

It isn’t the first time she has publicly criticised the amount of money the council has received, although she acknowledges that it has seen an increase of €10 million over the past four years. “It’s not nothing, although it falls short of what we need.”

Being publicly critical of Government policy is part of the job, she says. “Because I am chair I have a certain freedom that the executive does not have, because they are civil servants. I’m the person who should speak out about such matters. I won’t say I regret it because I did what I thought was right. One could also say that we got extra money and that might be because of being very forthright.”

Displeasure

Did she get any indication of displeasure from around the corner on Merrion Street? No politician likes to be criticised, she says. “But I get no sense at all of any lingering animosity towards me. Quite the contrary, in fact. We have very good relations with people in the department. I’ve met the new minister several times and we are doing a lot of things together.”

The Department of Arts has disputed (but not disproved) research by campaigning groups showing how dismally Ireland compares with other European countries when it comes to state support for culture, but Pratschke agrees that we still lag far behind.”You can quantify it in different ways and you can have complicated arguments about it but no matter what way you slice it we are underfunded in comparison with our European neighbours,” she says. “And I think politicians know that. Personally and individually they certainly acknowledge it.”

She believes there’s a lot of sympathy for the arts sector among and that there’s “a natural love of the arts in the Irish psyche”, but agrees that such sentiments aren’t worth much unless there’s concrete action.

“I prefer to think at the moment that we may be on the cusp of opportunity,” she says. “We have to make the arguments and travel forwards with that sense of optimism that actually we can persuade them.”

In advance of our meeting, I asked a few people working in areas which receive funding from the Arts Council what issues they had with it how it does its business. They all expressed deep frustration with the online application process, which they said was incredibly time-consuming, technically glitch and over-complicated. Smaller arts organisations said they were devoting weeks of work to applications which they should have been spending on their actual core activities. Does the council acknowledge this as a problem?

“Well we’re very aware of that,” says Pratschke. “There is an issue, I think, rather than a problem. Life has changed for everybody in terms of accountability. We were singled out to be one of the first guinea pigs in terms of providing value-for-money reports. And that was very positive. But some things were highlighted as needing change and they were all about accountability for money, really, when you boil it down. It’s tedious and time-consuming but I do believe that that is one of the key ways of protecting our funding. We could stand up in front of any government committee or subcommittee and answer for ourselves and that protects Arts Council funding.”

Paradox

There is a certain paradox here, as the other chief complaint has been that the council has been insufficiently forceful in demanding high standards in governance and employment practices from its clients. Allegations of bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour at the Gate theatre under former director Michael Colgan have highlighted problems with board membership and other issues in arts organisations.

Pratschke points out that it was due in part to pressure from the council that the Gate began to change its board some years ago, and also that many arts organisations have difficulty finding new people with the right skills to volunteer for their boards.

“It’s really difficult,” she says. “And I think at the moment the Gate with its new board is actually lucky. There is now a good board in place to support a new artistic director with the determination to make it a different place.

Where does she think theatre and other creative industries are at now when it comes to dealing with the issues raised by the Gate allegations and related issues of gender imbalance and abuse of power highlighted by movements such as Waking the Feminists?

“I think for all our sakes that we need to try and to just re-energise and commit to working in a new way,” she says. “We need to give people confidence in the systems. Obviously it’s been very difficult for some of the people directly involved. Bear in mind that even when all the Waking the Feminists movement was happening, nobody spoke out about the Gate. So it took time. But there was a lot of genuine courage from the people who spoke up. I admire them a lot.”

Biggest regret

Pratschke says the initiative she’s most proud of is the setting up of the new Irish National Opera Company. Her biggest regret is the way in which relations between the Arts Council and the creative artists’ association Aosdána broke down following a proposal by the council to change the definition for those eligible for funding under the cnuas system from “full-time practising artist” to “working artists engaged in productive practice”, and to introduce a requirement that recipients of the cnuas show they are “productive”.

“I think Aosdána is a brilliant idea,” she says. “There was always an acknowledgement that people had to report on what they were working on, that it was a grant for artists who were working full-time. In common with a lot of people, we do share the general feeling that Aosdána could do with reform in some areas. And the attempt to open discussions on that has not been very fruitful. And of course there’s this huge feeling of what we have we hold.

“I’m sorry the exchanges with Aosdána ended up the way they did. I think it wasn’t necessary and I wasn’t very clever in avoiding it. I would hope to have that at least back on an even keel before I leave. I don’t think there’ll be any resolution but I hope there’ll be conversations and meetings and treating each other with courtesy should be re-established.”

ON THE RTÉ ORCHESTRAS

It’s a personal view because we haven’t taken a view as a council, but I think it probably warrants a standalone national cultural institution, although I don’t know enough to say that with any certainty.

I’m not happy about what’s happening. You couldn’t be happy about so many musicians being laid off or not replaced. There’s something wrong with the country if it’s not able to support an orchestra.

ON CONFLICTS OF INTEREST IN FUNDING DECISIONS

Yes, everybody knows everybody so the conflict of interest rule has to be clearly drawn. But I think it’s worth saying that I’ve chaired a number of peer panels in my last four years here and without exception people have found it an enlightening experience. I’m very impressed with our attempts to be as fair as possible and I’ve learned a huge amount. It’s fascinating because the knowledge that some people bring to the table is very detailed.

ON THE COUNCIL’S HEADQUARTERS

It’s true it’s a very beautiful building in a very beautiful square. And maybe that gives the wrong message of privilege. But in fact we have had to renegotiate the lease on this building. The opportunity to move arose and we went to endless viewings and looking at other buildings. But there was nothing available. Part of the argument in favour of being in the city centre is that a lot of our work is related to government. We are at arm’s length but we are still a part of government.

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