The cultural agenda


THERE HAS been a good measure of recent praise for the role of the arts in Ireland. This renewed sense of their primacy in our society is welcome, though the recognition that the Irish imagination is one of our greatest assets probably has more to do with their reputational value at a time when Ireland’s image as an economy lies in tatters.

However, it has to be asked: can the arts continue to flourish in such a dire economic situation and survive the oncoming tide of budgetary cuts that seems inevitable? The answer is that they must be given the means to do so – and there is an onus of duty on the new Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan as well as the just-appointed director of the Arts Council Orlaith McBride to keep culture high on the agenda.

The challenges the new director is likely to face may well require a more tough-minded, even combative, approach than heretofore. A failure to nurture that seemingly intangible resource, the creative spirit, would have implications beyond the work of the artist because the benefits and payback extend to innovation and entrepreneurship and into the wellbeing of the wider community. At this time of year, the many festivals that form part of the summer calendar are a testament to the undiminished appetite for what culture has to offer. The undoing of the achievements and stability of the past decade would be an enormous setback.

On matters of arts policy, Fine Gael presented an impressively ambitious and thoughtful document in its pre-election campaign. The Minister has already signalled his desire to give our literary arts – the cornerstone of our cultural reputation, it could be argued – a boost through the establishment of a literary centre that would enhance Dublin’s cultural network. This is a worthy response to the city winning the title of Unesco City of Literature and whether the putative centre is located in Bank of Ireland’s College Green’s branch, as imaginatively suggested, or elsewhere it is a project that deserves to be made a deliverable priority – but only if realistic funding can be assured. The mess that the failure to establish a national opera company has created should be a salutary lesson – and so too the recent demise of plans to create a new Abbey Theatre and develop the National Concert Hall.

Public funding for the arts should not be viewed as a disposable ideal – they have been our success story. As much as there is an economic justification for such support, their social value is probably beyond price.