Art is key to national health and merits financial support
Universal basic income for creative industries would pay us all great dividends
Cultural engagement produces engaged citizens, helping to shape reflective and empathetic individuals, giving them a greater understanding of themselves and their lives, and an appreciation of the diversity of human experience.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She put the amount at £500 a year – about €37,000 in today’s money.
In Ireland, an artist looking for financial support is most likely to rely on State funding channelled through bodies such as the Arts Council, Culture Ireland, Local Authorities or Screen Ireland.
Back in 2016, Sally Rooney was awarded an Arts Council Emerging Writer bursary to support her while editing her debut novel Conversations with Friends, which went on to be subject to a seven-party auction for the publishing rights. Rooney says, “It would be difficult to overstate how crucial this period of editing was in the development of the novel.” Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, was published in September 2018, the TV series based on the novel was a 2020 cultural phenomenon, and the rest is history.
Such publicly funded financial supports provide artists with the time and resources to think, research, reflect and create by releasing them from financial commitments. It is literally “buying time” for the artist. It’s hard to see where such support could be sourced from anywhere else but the State.
This year, in response to Covid-19, the Government significantly increased its support for arts, culture and live events and Budget 2021 continues this trend. So it is understandable people may ask why should the arts get so much support, when so many sectors get little or no public funding.
Money spent on the creative industries is vital and entirely justified in both cultural and economic terms
Money spent on the creative industries is vital and entirely justified in both cultural and economic terms – the number of people who work in the creative industries, (the wider arts sector alone supports almost 55,000 jobs), their importance in supporting our tourism, hospitality and inward-investment programmes, how they matter to local communities and economies across the country, and the way in which our creative output impacts on how the rest of the world views and engages with us.
But people’s personal experience of the arts is also something of great value and importance. The arts move us, comfort us and help us to interpret life itself – they are both powerful and beautiful.
A 2016 UK Arts and Humanities Research Council report, Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture, considered the value of arts and culture to individuals and society. It didn’t just look at high art, but also at commercial film, music and books, at young people getting together in bands, at amateur drama, choirs and book clubs, as well as those engaging in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.
It found that cultural engagement produces engaged citizens, helping to shape reflective and empathetic individuals, giving them a greater understanding of themselves and their lives, and an appreciation of the diversity of human experience and cultures. This research is UK-based, but I see no reason to think that Irish engagement with the arts would produce significantly different results. Comprehensive research has also confirmed the individual and social value of the arts in the production of health and wellbeing.
For me, a sector that delivers such valuable outcomes is a special case and worth supporting. Ireland needs its citizens to be engaged, empathetic, and healthy, now more than ever.
But why does that mean that the State has to financially support the arts? Why don’t artists and writers and film-makers just sell their work and support themselves from their earnings during their reflective, creative times?
Most are freelance, moving between self-employment, PAYE employment and periods of no employment at all
The answer lies in the insecure employment and low and irregular earnings of people in the creative sectors. Most are freelance, moving between self-employment, PAYE employment and periods of no employment at all. They experience income insecurity, cash-flow problems, even poverty – and this before Covid-19. In 2016, Visual Artists Ireland research found that 76 per cent of those surveyed were earning less than €10,000 per year from creative and non-creative work. A 2018 Theatre Forum report found that one-third of artists and creative practitioners in the performing arts earned less than the 2018 minimum wage of €9.55 per hour.
Financial stress impedes creativity. The pressure to “get a real job” to earn a living makes it difficult to find time and energy for the artistic and creative work. Many who do engage full time in low-paid or non-paid artistic and creative work end up putting the rest of life “on hold”, in order to prioritise artistic or creative activity.
The disruptive effect of Covid 19 has made such financial insecurity a condition of life for almost every artist and cultural worker. This is why, in Life Worth Living, the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce report, our key recommendation proposes piloting a three-year universal basic income scheme for the arts, culture, audio-visual and live performance and events sectors. UBI is not payment for artistic and creative work; rather it recognises the precarious nature of the sector, and people’s need for financial security. With UBI, there is no need to apply for social welfare when there is no money coming in from work. UBI increases freedom to practise all kinds of art and creative activities, including work that is of deep personal interest, or of direct social benefit. It also encourages entrepreneurship, as people in receipt of it can take on work and earn taxable income on top of their UBI.
UBI will not automatically create a greater appreciation of artistic and creative work. But it would help to give it the support and recognition it deserves. In this time of crisis, UBI will keep the sector intact and avoid an exodus of talent and experience. At the best of times, public funding for arts and culture sustains the sector. In these difficult times, it ensures its very survival.
As we emerge from under the shadow of coronavirus, art, music, drama, dance, film, and live events can give us back some of that enhancement and vitality of life that has been stifled during severe social restriction.
Barack Obama put it succinctly: “The arts are what makes life worth living . . . They aren’t extras.”
Clare Duignan is chair of the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce and is a director of The Irish Times