Underlining council's role as a development agency


Analysis: The latest Arts Plan will see the Arts Council expand its role from simply providing resources to artists and arts organisations, writes Victoria White.

The third Arts Plan (2002-06), launched yesterday by the Minister for the Arts, Ms de Valera, embodies the Arts Council's new identity as a "development agency" rather than a funding body.

This was the main thrust of the last Arts Plan (1999-2001) and bears the signature of the director of the council, Ms Patricia Quinn.

The new plan sees the council stepping back from simply providing resources to artists and arts organisations. Instead it will carefully lean on other funding bodies to come up trumps for the arts, as well as trying to create an environment in which this funding becomes natural and desirable.

The council will redouble its efforts to increase the commitment of local authorities to the arts - although funding to the Arts Council is now respectable by international standards, arts funding by local authorities in other countries is much higher.

Among the council's intentions, published in the plan, is the establishment of an incentive funding programme for local authorities to encourage them to support festivals and consideration of the feasibility of a national arts advisory service to advise local authorities.

But it is the Department of Education and Science more than any other body which will be called on to show a hitherto unforthcoming commitment to the arts.

The plan makes plain that the council "cannot, and should not, compensate" for deficiencies in arts education. However, it is full of suggestions as to how the Arts Council can become a partner in education - by developing "material and mechanisms" to promote best practice in visual arts teaching in primary schools, for instance.

The plan is critical of existing provision for vocational training for artists. While withdrawing the council's support for students to study theatre and dance at undergraduate level here, it suggests an in-depth evaluation of training structures. It also suggests support for theatre and opera professionals to study abroad.

Ms Quinn has been an advocate of an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts, and she said after the launch that these strategies were being put in place "as a consequence of there being no IAPA".

Building the audience for the arts and the skills base of artists through education would contribute to the "sustainability" of the arts in Ireland. That is a keynote of the plan.

No longer are artists to exist as begging clients at the door of the council; instead they are to be valued professionals with a living wage. In future, the council will not fund organisations unless agreed standards in wages and conditions for its artists are reached.

While this focus on the working conditions of artists is welcome, some will find the emphasis on the need for professionalism in arts organisations insensitive to the mercurial nature of art itself. The plan complains that most arts organisations employ fewer than 10 people and advocates a "chief exectives' forum" to promote best practice standards.

The previous two plans were strong lobbying documents aimed at winkling out very large increases in funding to the arts. The new plan drops the lobbying tone, but still manages to winkle a 40 per cent increase in funding levels over the five-year period, and similar percentage increments as were achieved under the last plan.

This is a massive achievement on the part of the council, and indeed Minister de Valera, in a very changed economic climate. That they enjoy a good working relationship is a tribute to the negotiating skills of them both and has paid huge dividends for the arts.

This is evident in the fact that the plan's determination that State support of the arts should be separated from State control has been largely echoed in the Arts Bill, published yesterday.

This is a huge vote of confidence in a council which has had its difficulties, particularly as the discussion document on the Bill suggested giving the policy-making role to the Department. The 30 per cent increase in staffing is another massive vote of confidence.