Plays and protests
Abbey Theatre error on 2016 and fallout between the Arts Council and Government reflects badly on cultural priorities
Controversy and the Abbey Theatre seem to go hand-in-hand, as if there is in the DNA of our national theatre a button that triggers moments of notoriety. This week’s protests about the lack of equality for women in the arts may not have matched the “Playboy riots” but they certainly represent another seminal moment in the theatre’s history.
The near invisibility of women in its 2016 commemoration programme ignited the angry social media campaign (#Wakingthefeminists) that led to the Abbey event. But the demands of those present quite correctly and legitimately extended to much broader issues of “equality and economic parity” in the sector generally.
Although Abbey director Fiach MacConghail “fell on his sword” in promising to address the issues raised and foster change, the theatre now has much to do to fulfil that commitment. That this should be part of his legacy is a great pity, especially as he has overseen a series of long-needed reforms in other aspects of the institution’s management as well as delivering a significant box office profit of €1 million for 2014.
The fact that the Arts Council refused funding for the Abbey’s programme of events next year may have nothing to do with its lack of gender balance; nonetheless the Department of the Arts came forward with the necessary support. But it did so at the same time that it denied the council levels of additional funding it badly requires.
It has been suggested that the long-established policy of arm’s length dealing between government and the council no longer exists. If there has been any doubt about that, there is none now with the revelation that Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys rebuked council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke for daring to publicly express the council’s disappointment at the financial allocation given to it in last month’s budget.
Someone needs to remind the Minister of the council’s autonomy. Neither the Abbey’s gender blunder nor the Minister’s act of blatant political interference have been good for the arts.