Before becoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar made a commitment to double expenditure on the arts. This raised great expectations. It could be claimed that the first step in achieving the Taoiseach's target was taken in the budget last week. Minister for Culture Heather Humphreys secured an extra €13 million for her department. However, this hardly goes much of the way towards lifting the State from bottom of the European league for funding culture, despite all the recent talk about putting the arts at the centre of Irish life.
Although the Minister acknowledged the Arts Council's "crucial role in direct funding", this was not reflected in the €3 million increase the council received. As the main player in providing meaningful support to artists the sum seems mere tokenism. By contrast, the government's new body, Creative Ireland, was granted €8.5 million "to accelerate its programme".
It might be asked whether Creative Ireland is now eclipsing the council which, since its establishment more than 60 years ago, has had a clearly defined function – to fund, develop and promote the arts. Through its autonomy it has been the cordon sanitaire between politics and the arts. This separation of government and its statutory agency of patronage has been important in maintaining the arm's-length policy. In contrast the relationship between Creative Ireland and political power appears to be a close one.
The Arts Council is now unlikely to be in a position to deliver in any satisfactory way on one of the key elements of its still-fresh strategic plan, Making Great Art Work (2016-2025) – a return to giving some organisations greater certainty about future funding, putting them in a better position to plan ahead. Nor can it do much to improve remuneration to artists and create new opportunities for them, as its plan advocates. The €2 million investment in arts in education and doubling of arts money to local authorities will yield positive results. The Arts Council, on the other hand, will have to contend with decisions that will dash those great expectations.