Lack of funds means cultural bodies must do more with less
OPINION:WE DO a lot of things well in Ireland. But one of the things we could do better is to have a calm and cool-headed debate about the future direction of organisations that are funded by the taxpayer and are in place to serve the nation.
One such group of organisations is our national cultural institutions. These bodies – which hold and manage nationally and internationally important collections of art, literature and diverse artifacts on everyone’s behalf – are vitally important components of Ireland’s academic, cultural and artistic heritage.
Some recent commentary has suggested that I’m planning to effectively dismantle these organisations. I am planning no such thing.
My department funds these institutions – not by as much as I’d like, but as much as I can. This year, our cultural institutions and bodies will receive more than €47 million.
These institutions are world-class exemplars of what they do, and rank alongside their international counterparts. I know they could do more with more money, but the funding challenges that I face in my department are significant. This won’t come as any surprise to any person in Ireland – many are doing more with a lot less in their day-to-day lives.
The issue I’m faced with now is how to ensure that Ireland’s national cultural institutions can maximise the funding they receive from taxpayers and be equipped to deal with the range of challenges which will arise in the future.
One of the simplest ways in which we can help the institutions to work in a more effective and efficient way is to encourage them to share common functions. Many of the institutions have individual marketing and human resources departments, while institutions also purchase things – such as insurance or printing services – which may, if pooled, drive total spending down over time.
This, to me, is a common sense approach to co-operation and reform. The three main galleries – the National Gallery of Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) and the Crawford Gallery – have put a detailed proposal together on how backroom services can be shared, and I am considering this at present.
It goes without saying that the core remit of these institutions would not change under these proposals – for example, the National Gallery would continue to exhibit historically important art, while Imma would retain its focus on contemporary work.
The public service reform proposals are not about day-to-day programming or exhibition issues, nor are they in any way a reflection on the dedication, professionalism and commitment of the staff or those who serve on the boards of the institutions involved.
Rather, the plan is about equipping institutions with what they need in terms of structures and support systems to face the challenges of the future and to provide more focused services to the public.
There has been commentary recently about the National Library, National Museum and National Archives. It is worth remembering that – right now – the National Archives is a full part of my department.
The National Museum and National Library worked in a similar way up to 2005, at which time corporate boards were introduced.
I am considering a range of options for these institutions such as sharing back office functions and whether savings and efficiencies would be made if these functions were incorporated into my department.
I also want to examine the governance of institutions and consider how boards or advisory groups operate, whether they offer added value, and whether they might perform a more outwardly proactive and international role in terms of fundraising and philanthropy.
These are just some of the options under consideration, and my department has been engaging with the cultural institutions since the Government published the reform plan last November.
That contact is continuing, and I recently met a group of the chairs of the national cultural institutions to listen to their views.
In a time of tight resources we have to maximise the use of every cent taxpayers give to every institution. These are the times we live in. I cannot accept the idea that examining reform possibilities amounts to an attack on the cultural infrastructure of the nation, as has been suggested by some.
In fact, the idea that any organisation or institution should be – or consider itself to be – above examination for reform is quite unhealthy, and a recipe for a bad deal for taxpayers who fund these institutions and for the public whom they serve.
These institutions perform a nationally important role and manage – on behalf of all of us – resources which are, quite literally, priceless.
My aim is to ensure that these institutions can work in the most effective and efficient way possible so that they can continue to preserve our past and inform our future.
Jimmy Deenihan is Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht