Aosdána: pay and performance

Arts Council would do well to ponder commendable open letter from Colm Tóibín

 

In a recent speech when bestowing the honour of Saoi – Aosdána’s highest honour – on veteran film-maker George Morrison, President Michael D Higgins praised the organisation’s role in making provision for artists who have made life-long commitments and personal sacrifice to contribute to the cultural life of this State. Art, for most artists, does not pay.

Like Morrison, the painter Patrick Pye has had a distinguished career. His work included in a current major exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Arts testifies to that. The withdrawal – and the shameful manner of it – by the Arts Council of his Aosdána cnuas (a means-tested stipend) is hardly the way to treat him at this vulnerable stage of his life. A suspicious mind might regard the council’s attempt to change the long-standing eligibility rules for the cnuas – from “full-time practising artist” to “working artists engaged in productive practice” – as an attempt to get artists “off the books”.

The writer Colm Tóibín made commendable points about the fluctuations of creativity – whether through writer’s block or incapacity because of ill-health – in a recent open letter to the council. It would do well to ponder them. Proposals regarding “international” evaluation of Aosdána membership would remove the intended democratic nature of the organisation and proposed “artistic output” audits reveal a questionable mindset that believes that artists have to justify their existence in purely “value for money” terms.

The establishment of Aosdána in 1981, on foot of a survey of the working and living conditions of artists, was an enlightened development in the State’s relationship with the arts. The organisation was placed under the protection of the Arts Council but the deprivation of livelihood demonstrated in the Pye case falls far short of the kind of care of the individual artist envisaged in the setting up of this “affiliation of artists”. All organisations require reform and updating as well as new vigour, as no doubt Aosdána does, but not with results that place artists in the position of again being mendicants with the begging bowl.

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