Challenges for arts policy


FINE GAEL’S pre-election document on arts policy wisely acknowledged that supporting our culture today leads to “a wealth of dividends tomorrow”. It can be assumed that this consideration had a bearing on recent budgetary decisions, particularly the modest reduction to the Arts Council – less severe than might have been expected in the circumstances – and credit is due to the Minister for that achievement.

It is to be hoped that the same consideration will prevail in the future, but that relatively good news comes with the caveat that over the next two budgets up to €12 million in savings are yet to be found in the culture pot. The council is faced with the difficult task of setting its priorities in its grant allocations, and those decisions will have wide-ranging implications.

The funding responsibility for opera having been deftly passed back to it by the department, the council must now ponder how to undo the damage done by the failure to establish a national opera company, as well as the cost. That of course was not the only grand plan scuppered: the curtain came down on relocation of the Abbey Theatre and a new concert hall silently remains on the drawing board. These announcements were disappointing, but so too was the failure of Dublin Contemporary – the showcase of contemporary art – to emulate the excitement and quality of the Rosc shows of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The campaign by the sector that now precedes every budget provides tangible evidence for the economic payback on modest investment in the arts. An investment “repaid many times over”, as the Minister acknowledged. The wider impact of Irish artists and companies abroad – for example the exposure that comes with the recent Golden Globe nominations for Irish films – is testimony to the value of support for the film industry that arose out of the reforming Arts Act of 1973. At home, the success of Ireland’s Year of Craft in 2011 shows the kind of foresight the State can show in its nurturing of cultural development – without a government decision almost 50 years ago to improve the quality of Irish design through the pioneering establishment of the Kilkenny Design Workshop this year’s celebration of Irish crafts would have been either poorer or a non-event.

If there was a pre-eminent, and joyous, occasion on the cultural calendar, it was the recent handing over of Seamus Heaney’s papers to our National Library. This literary trove will further distinguish and, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny astutely expressed it, add its “aura” to this remarkable institution. Heaney’s papers remind us that literature stands as the art form for which Ireland is best known and represented; though this was hardly acknowledged in recent meagre funding to the library.

Unfortunately neither foresight nor consideration are words that come to mind in the thinking – or lack of it – behind the newly resurrected notion of amalgamating the library and the National Archives. Similarly the proposed merger of the National Gallery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Crawford Gallery is an unnecessary and bureaucratically driven reform that can only destroy these institutions’ distinct nature, function and identity.