It's all smoke, mirrors and how you spin it

 

ARTSCAPE:IT'S A HARSH BUDGET all round, so no surprises that there are big cuts in the arts too. How those cuts, and their effects, are interpreted depends on your standpoint.

For the Arts Council, the main funder of ongoing day-to-day spending for big and small arts bodies, a cut from €82m a year to €76m is pretty severe. Or is it? The Minister for Arts Martin Cullen indicated last year's spending was down from €82m. However, the council actually had €85m to spend when a Supplementary Estimate of €3 million is included. Then the Department of Arts cut the council's budget by €480,000 in August.

How bad the figures are depends on the base you work from. It's all smoke and mirrors, and the department obviously chose to put the best spin possible on it.

The Minister was urged not to cut revenue funding, whatever about capital spending, and that is the direction he has taken. He indicated €74.3m of the Arts Council's funding next year would be on day-to-day spending (this year it was $77m). The argument runs that it is therefore only a 3.75 per cent cut in current spending, 3 per cent of which would be saved internally. That's a lot to save in a relatively small organisation on payroll, admin and PR. (They'll ease up on the reports, was how one department commentator put it.) And it's hard to see how it won't impact on jobs at the council, which has grown over the past few years.

The department's capital spending on big projects, such as Wexford Opera House, the new Gate wing, the Everyman Theatre, Lighthouse cinema and Druid refurbishment,has finished and there won't be similar spending next year. But the NCH and the Abbey PPP processes are well underway, and the department indicated that these plans have not changed, and will not be affected by this Budget, as they have no financial implications for the State yet. Access I and II capital funding is also continuing. All the national cultural institutions will be able to continue with their programmes for next year, according to the department, which seems well pleased that its arguments about the loss of employment and the impact of bigger reductions held, and that the cuts were minimised for the arts.

However, capital funding has been cut, which is a severe blow for the national cultural institutions. The amalgamation of the National Gallery of Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Crawford Gallery, and the "merging" of the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission into the National Library will involve shared boards and directorates and a unified management structure (much like the Smithsonian model, it was pointed out) - and indeed some of this may make good sense. It has not been stated, however, how much will be saved. The department indicated one board of 12, instead of three boards of 12, at €8,000 a board member, was a saving. However, these savings will be long term and won't impact on 2009's figures and will presumably involve job losses - unless a HSE-style doubling-up fiasco is envisaged.

Other Budget changes will have an impact on the arts: the VAT increase, for example, will hit lots of companies, and it further increases the VAT bill for "visiting artists", a huge burden for festivals particularly, which has not been resolved despite many attempts.

Reactions varied to the arts- budget cuts. Olivia Mitchell of Fine Gael was appalled at the cuts in capital spending for the national cultural institutions, an issue she has consistently drawn attention to, particularly the condition of the national archives, which are "a disgrace . . . They are run on a shoestring anyway, and they badly need investment. Now the Celtic tiger is gone. It's a tragedy." She was dismayed at the Arts Council cuts, and at how "jobs will go in that industry, as jobs in many organisations are barely viable. It's a bad policy because to get value for money for all the facilities that have been built, you need to have the arts programmes to put in them."

Labour's Mary Upton criticised the decision to "slash the funding [to the department] by 22 per cent as a myopic soft option". The ability of the Arts Council and the Sports Council to support the wider arts and sports community in every village and town has been damaged, she said.

"Conversely, the continuation of such a large grant to the horse and greyhound fund will mean that they continue to gobble up a disproportionate amount of spending in this area. This Budget has exposed the disregard of the Government for arts and sport which are seen as a 'side-line'."

Theatre Forum chairman Johnny Hanrahan points out that the council's funding cut was nearly 12 per cent before inflation. "We note the department's own budget has been cut by 4.4 per cent so the cut to the arts is disprop-

ortionate." He understands the strain on exchequer resources but "the sector is deeply disappointed". "The arts place minimal strain on the public finances so this cut will be felt. Apart from the large demonstrable economic and social dividend generated by government funding of the arts, our actual draw on public funds is tiny compared to other industries. In the light of these cuts it is now vital that the employment base of the arts be safeguarded and prioritised by decision-makers."

Business to Arts chief executive Stuart McLaughlin said that while the cuts were expected, "the degree of the reduction in funding is further evidence of the need for the arts sector to develop a clear and coherent sense of its economic value to the country" to support the department in justifying increased public spending. It sees the cuts as "a call to action for the arts to increase engagement with the private sector" and called for the Minister to develop policy that "encourages, or enables, a culture of sponsorship and philanthropy".

The Arts Council's own reaction was uncharacteristically forthright in comparison to previous years' bland welcome for the Budget, no matter what its contents.

Half the members and the chair are due for appointment shortly, and deputy chairman Maurice Foley said it was disappointed at the allocation, "which will in practice leave us with nearly €9 million or about 10 per cent less money in overall terms than we invested in 2008".

Foley said that "for most of the organisations we fund, our support is essential and it is well leveraged by talented artists, capable managers and enthusiastic volunteers. Public funding of the arts increased considerably in recent years, from a low base, and it was well spent. The inevitable cuts will jeopardise much of this investment. The public can expect fewer festivals, fewer exhibitions, less theatre and less music. Individual artists can expect fewer bursaries. There are also likely to be job losses.

"The council will continue to do its best to maximise the value to the public and the arts community of the funds it has to invest. However, significant grant cuts are unavoidable, conditional commitments will have to be reviewed," (a comment that will worry some larger companies, who understood they had secure public funding for next year) "and some organisations will need funds from other sources if they are to survive. The council will vigorously make the case for better funding in 2010."

But not everyone was so upset. Patrick Sutton, Culture Ireland board member and former Arts Council member, saw the positive in it. "Now is the time for Culture Ireland and the Arts Council to make the very best" of cuts that are "not savage", he said.

"From Culture Ireland's point of view, we can still deliver what we said we'd do, and it won't diminish. If the cuts are managed properly the sector needs to suffer as little as possible. I would sing Martin Cullen's praises. I don't know if anyone is singing his praises, but I would. The arts have taken a bruise but they haven't taken a hammer."