Keeping The Arts Centre Stage


Economic performance and the generation of wealth may well be the criteria by which we gauge our condition and sense of wellbeing. But the life of the imagination and the creativity of artists and writers make an equally enriching contribution to our general quality of life. Artistic achievements often bring cause for pride and jubilation.

Jubilation, however, has not been much in evidence of late. The past year has been a period of change, challenge and unfinished business that will test the commitment of government in this area and the abilities of the arts community itself to act in a cohesive way and overcome what often seems like timidity and fear, or indifference, when it comes to making its case or standing up for its cause.

The departmental reorganisation after this year's election - amalgamating arts with sport and tourism - and the funding cutbacks dictated by the economic downturn have left their scars. Notwithstanding the stated commitment of the Minister, Mr O'Donoghue, to his arts brief, there is already at least a perception that the arts is now more tangential and that the ministry - which marks its tenth anniversary in the coming year - has been relegated.

The Arts Plan 2002-2006 set out an idealistic expansion programme but its ambition to increase funding to almost €80 million annually by 2006 will now be more difficult to achieve in the wake of the recent Budget, which took expenditure in the opposite direction.

But the plan, published last April, had other strategies: it signalled that the Arts Council was no longer willing to be merely a funding agency and stated that it saw its role changing to one where it would become "a partner in what is now a joint effort" and sometimes even " withdrawing altogether from a funding role to one where the focus is on general guidance and development."

On the evidence of the recent grant allocations, these strategies are now taking shape as part of a fairly radical overhaul of disbursement policy. Faced with its funding shortfall, the council appears to have taken the opportunity to implement its new thinking with robust effect in some instances over a range of arts events, organisations and venues.

Such a course does give rise to legitimate concern about the emergence of an Arts Council that could become overly prescriptive - with those who adhere to Merrion Square dogma being rewarded as favoured clients. While the council has a duty to evaluate and monitor in a way that ensures that the tax spend in any area of the arts is merited, such a development would hardly be a partnership approach.

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In fairness to the Minister, the scale of the recent cutbacks might have been more severe - and he came to the defence of the Film Board after it was selected for abolition. His decision to dismantle the "standing committees" proposal in the Arts Bill - which he inherited - showed a willingness to listen and engage.

For this he must be commended but we still await word of what precisely Mr O'Donoghue now intends, as well as a clear and comprehensive articulation of his views on broader policy and the role of the arts.

The Arts Bill was the first update in legislation for this sector in 30 years and contains a number of radical changes to arts infrastructure. Quite rightly, the commotion that it provoked has heretofore been focused on the establishment of three standing committees, particularly the contentious one proposed for the Irish traditional arts. However, there is an aspect of this Bill which appears to be slipping by without the scrutiny it warrants. The plan to give the Minister responsibility for formulating "overall State policy on the arts" is a move in the direction of the kind of political control that could easily open the door to future infringements in an area where independence and freedom of expression are paramount.

Mr O'Donoghue has already stated the importance of being "in a position to direct the Arts Council to comply with ministerial or Government policies." No matter what guarantees of non-interference the current Minister might provide, this is a dangerous proposal, to which the arts community has failed to respond with adequate force.

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Looking ahead, these are issues to be resolved. There are, too, some exciting prospects: a new Dublin International Film Festival in the spring, a major festival that will take Irish culture to China, the evolution of ideas that will transform Cork into an exciting and worthy Capital of Culture in 2005 and a new director finally taking over at the Museum of Modern Art who will, hopefully, erase memories of the recent public acrimony in that institution.

However, it is the future of another cultural institution, the National Theatre, due to celebrate its centenary in 2004, that requires urgent clarification. The Abbey has - and much through its own fault - missed one opportunity of substantial funding to rectify the deficiencies of the existing accommodation.

The Minister's preference now seems to be some form of public-private endeavour to create a new theatre on the present site. If he can achieve some way of going forward with this idea in 2003 - and provide assurance that such a formula is in the best interests of the National Theatre - it will be to his credit. Equally, the time has come to know when, or whether, we are finally going to have an Irish Academy of the Performing Arts.