'Passivity is not an option'


The hugely successful National Campaign for the Arts is not about separate groups fighting for their share of the pie, says Tania Banotti. It’s a collaborative effort

WHEN I CALL Tania Banotti back to confirm the time of the interview she’s already agreed to, she voices a concern. She’s keen, she says, that the focus will not be on her, but collectively on the work she and many others do at Theatre Forum and at the National Campaign for the Arts. “Being seen by your peers to be the one to put your head above the parapet is always tricky,” Banotti says.

It’s a revealing comment, and one that demonstrates both her political mindset and her work as a lobbyist. On the one hand, Banotti is anxious to keep her colleagues on side; on the other, as a lobbyist she knows it is her job to keep her skull constantly bobbing up and down above those parapets.

Banotti has been chief executive of Theatre Forum, the organisation that represents the professional performing arts in Ireland, since 2003. The National Campaign for the Arts was founded by Theatre Forum in 2009 to lobby both for public funding for the arts and for its importance. Banotti is its secretary and last year received a special Irish Times Theatre Awards prize acknowledging her campaigning work on behalf of the arts.

Politics are in her genes through strong Fine Gael connections: Mary Banotti is her mother, Nora Owen her aunt. Born in Italy, her mother took her back to Ireland after her marriage ended. “Because I don’t have any brothers or sisters, and it’s just my mum and myself, I have been very involved in the campaigns, maybe more than in other political families when you can kind of be shielded from that,” she says, sitting in the offices of Theatre Forum on Bachelors Walk, which have an enviable view across the Liffey.

“Election campaigns can be great fun. When you’re growing up you don’t think too hard about being thrown outside the church or outside shopping centres or being told to knock on people’s doors. It’s all a bit of an adventure. If that’s all you know, that’s the reality. It was the family business, really. We’re all political junkies.”

The result of knocking on doors and having the language of politics in her vocabulary from an early age means that Banotti is innately confident in any political setting. There are few people currently involved with the arts in Ireland who have the same practical long-term experience of politics.

“I’ve never been intimidated by politicians,” she says. “Having a mother who’s a very strong feminist and a very strong personality helped give me the confidence to think I could go out there and do anything.”

Banotti studied politics and economics in TCD, and did a master’s in film and television in DCU. Her thesis there was on media coverage of the first Gulf War. She then spent three years working for the UN on a voluntary basis stationed in the Gaza Strip in Palestine.

“Once you’re in the UN system you can stay in it. I was offered a posting in Burundi, working on the World Food Programme.” She didn’t take it, having decided that the ongoing “nomadic nature” of the job was not what she wanted.

A number of different jobs followed. All were in some way connected with the arts and media, with a common strand of lobbying running through them.

In Brussels, she worked in public affairs, representing various international television and cinema organisations. Back in Ireland, she spent five years as chief executive of Screen Producers Ireland; an organisation set up to represent independent companies pitching for work at the national broadcast stations.

“A lot of that time was spent battling with RTÉ to give out more freelance production work,” she says wryly.

Her current job at Theatre Forum, which she took up in 2003, is “the job I’ve done the longest”. In recent years, she has seen public funding for the arts steadily diminish.

She chooses her words carefully when asked about the role of the Arts Council. “There sometimes is a frustration that the Arts Council isn’t more proactive, but on the other hand, I think it’s been a galvanising or mobilising action for us to realise the potential for change is in our own hands.

“The main function of the Arts Council is to distribute the 60-million-plus each year. Their role is about securing resources that will go to all arts forms, and individuals and organisation. It’s a tricky line to tread. On the one hand the arts community would like them to be a very powerful advocate, and on the other they’re a semi-state agency that comes under a department, so they can’t be seen to be doing a solo run.”

Once funding started decreasing to festivals, arts organisations and individual artists, Theatre Forum, among others, realised they had to campaign on their own behalf. Passivity was not an option; the National Campaign for the Arts was started in 2009. “I think the theatre community, possibly because of how we work, and because it’s collaborative, absolutely got it straight away. The campaign wasn’t just about our share of the pie, but the overall pie itself.” Banotti name-checks a number of colleagues she credits with making the campaign successful, including director of the Abbey Fiach Mac Conghail, playwright Gavin Kostick, IFI director Sarah Glennie and music promoter and broadcaster Gerry Godley.

“The McCarthy report had just come out. That was a big wake-up call. The idea was never to let the financial crisis get in the way of a good opportunity. We always saw one branch of our work at Theatre Forum as advocacy. It was clear for some time that the arts community wasn’t particularly good at advocating for itself. Everyone existed in their own particular little silo.”

The central idea of the campaign was simple, practical and highly effective. Those involved in the arts countrywide, particularly the performing arts, were encouraged to make contact with their local TDs.

Artists sought meetings, invited politicians to performances, briefed them on what it was like on their side of the curtain. They crunched numbers and translated them into possible constituency votes for their TDs.

It all filtered back to Dublin and made for a sophisticated, multi-layered campaign for awareness of the importance of the arts, aimed at those who had the power to influence where the money went.

Given all this, does Banotti believe artists have a social responsibility to come out of their studios, studies and rehearsal spaces and participate in lobbying? She considers it. “I have to be careful how I put this,” she says. “Not everyone feels it’s their job to go out there and make a case. It would be fair to say artists who are individual in their practice wouldn’t be as networked in to some of the things that were happening.”

What about Aosdána? As a powerful collective of artists, does she believe there is a latent opportunity within the organisation to advocate for the wider community of Irish artists? There is a long silence.

“No performing artist can be a member of Aosdána. They’re deemed to be interpretative artists. And obviously I believe passionately that performing artists are as much artists as Aosdána’s interpretation of what creative artists are, and that’s something we feel strongly about. A body that was set up to honour our greatest living artists should also recognise our greatest performers while they’re alive.”

As for the National Campaign for the Arts: “Aosdána as a body hasn’t taken any position on it,” she says briskly. “They haven’t been involved in the campaign at all. They’re their own body.”

So what of the future for Banotti? Has she ever considered running for political office? “I did, but you have to really want it,” she says, trailing off. “I think the job of an MEP is much more interesting than the job of a backbench TD, which can be pretty frustrating. At the moment, I kind of really love where I am. There isn’t another job out there I’m hankering after.”