As part of its “Global Ireland” programme, the Government last week announced its intention to promote Irish arts and culture to “new audiences across the world”. This week it was revealed that many of the artists it might be depending on to help achieve this objective are struggling to make ends meet.
No one working in the sector will be surprised by the finding in the Theatre Forum survey that a third of artists earn less than the national minimum wage of €9.55 per hour. Some 83 per cent are paid flat fees regardless of hours worked. To call the conditions under which many in the arts operate “precarious” is an understatement in the extreme.
The suggestion by choreographer Liv O’Donoghue that most artists are “living in poverty” is all too accurate for many of them. Allied to poor pay and conditions is the inability to provide for pensions or health insurance and, in many instances, a mortgage. Their lives are frequently one of sacrifice for the sake of their art.
It is hard to point to anything in official policy of recent years that seeks to redress this situation on the ground by ensuring financial dignity and security for our artists. Yet the Government continues to exploit the sector as a tool of promotion and branding.
The newly-created role of culture director in the Department of Foreign Affairs is further recognition of how potent the arts have become in stimulating interest in Ireland. That role – additional to the existing costs of administration of the Arts Council, Culture Ireland and Creative Ireland – begs the question: how much of cultural funding is now devoted to the State's own bureaucratic processes and functions in this area?
There may be no simple solution, as Theatre Forum acknowledges, but the Government should take heed of the words of President Michael D Higgins: “starving artists in attics may make for entertaining operatic librettos, but such a myth is as destructive of social values as it is of the individual artist’s life”.