Colm Tóibín slates plan to cut grants for non-productive artists

Author writes six-page letter to Arts Council describing proposals as ‘oddly North Korean’

The writer Colm Tóibín has condemned controversial proposals from the Arts Council to cut grants for non-productive artists and to introduce audits to monitor output.

The author launched a furious broadside on the council following the emergence of a discussion document aimed at changing administrative rules in the artist body Aosdána, of which he is a member.

Tóibín is particularly incensed by proposed changes to the cnuas – a five-year annual stipend worth just over €17,000 provided to support full-time work.

The Arts Council has suggested changing the definition of those eligible for funding from “full-time practicing artist” to “working artists engaged in productive practice”.

"The first problem with this, as I am sure you will agree, is that the phrase 'working artists engaged in productive practice' sounds oddly North Korean, or is like a phrase that could have been used by Stalin about recalcitrant farmers in the Soviet Union, " Tóibín wrote in a six-page letter to council director Orlaith McBride.

“While I am not seeking a cnuas, and never have sought one, I presume I am a working artist, but I have not written a single word since last November.

“I can’t think of anything. Sentences won’t come. I can’t force them. I don’t know when I will start writing again. I do nothing most of the time. I am waiting. That is what artists do sometimes.”

Potential new approaches have been distributed to Aosdána members ahead of their AGM on Monday and have been seen by The Irish Times.

They suggest exposing artists in receipt of grants to “sample audits” undertaken annually “to confirm the ‘productive practice’ aspect of the artists’ planned work as reported in cnuas applications”.

“A full audit of the previous five years artistic activity would be undertaken for all cnuas renewals and reported to the council prior to the renewal being approved,” the document states.

A spokesman for Ms McBride said the letter reflected Tóibín’s personal opinion on what is a draft discussion document.

Draft document

Aosdána was established in 1981 to honour those whose work has been central to the artistic heritage of Ireland. Its members include writers Edna O'Brien and Patrick McCabe and playwrights Tom Murphy and Tom MacIntyre among 250 of the who's who of the arts world.

The Arts Council’s procedural review began with a meeting between it and Aosdána in 2015 with a view to addressing the “overall governance and administration” of the body.

It is understood the contents of the discussion paper were not agreed to by Aosdána members.

In a statement the Arts Council, which both funds and administers Aosdána, described the draft document as “the first step in what was envisaged would be a long and open discussion process” between the two bodies to bring about change.

Tóibín’s incredulity extended to a proposal that members of a pensionable age “should be encouraged and possibly assisted” to claim alternative State entitlements.

The document proposes those “not advanced in years but who are temporarily incapacitated due to ill health and unable to engage in ‘productive practice’”, would have their cnuas suspended.

In his letter, Tóibín noted that WB Yeats wrote the poem Cuchulain Comforted days before his death, while Patrick Kavanagh's The Hospital came to the author while he was being treated for cancer.

“Would you really have written to him when he was stricken so, to let him know what the Arts Council had agreed?” he asked.

External panel

He objected strenuously to the word “audit”, asking again if the council would apply this to John McGahern had he been in receipt of a cnuas between 1979 and 1990, a period in which he struggled to produce work.

"In the case of James Joyce, who 'produced' nothing between 1922 and 1939, what would you have done? Would you have asked to see the working drafts of Finnegans Wake?"

Tóibín also took aim at the idea of forming an external panel comprising high-profile national and international individuals to review new nomination proposals for Aosdána’s distinguished membership.

A member of various other bodies including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Tóibín said a similar approach on their part would not be countenanced.

“Why don’t we do this? We would be worried about the cost to start with,” he wrote.

“Also my colleagues who are Americans and British have confidence in themselves. Is the fact that the Irish Arts Council doesn’t have this confidence in Irish artists a sign of poor Paddy doffing his hat to some set of ‘high profile’ and ‘international’ people? Surely we are over that!”