The Culture 2025 plan poses important questions for the arts in Ireland

Declan McGonagle: ‘A national policy is the State speaking and one of the opportunities here is for whatever is said, and heard, to become part of the DNA of the State’s approach to culture’

Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys launched  discussion document and consultation process.   Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys launched discussion document and consultation process. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

 

The launch, last week, by the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD of a discussion document and consultation process that will inform the development of “Culture 2025”, poses a number of strategic questions which merit full engagement and equally strategic answers from the sector and a wider public.

The development of the Culture 2025 policy (http://tinyurl.com/qbq46ua) provides a generational opportunity to create the first cultural policy for the State – and represents a challenge to the sector – and for the State, to think in the long term about culture.

We are often trapped in a debates and arguments about how much – simply in financial terms. This is not surprising because resources matter, but the launch of this initiatives needs to be understood as an invitation to consider the purpose of an invested culture, the “why”, and not just how much and what for?

A national policy is the State speaking and one of the opportunities here is for whatever is said, and heard, to become part of the DNA of the State’s approach to culture. This needs the fullest engagement by the whole cultural sector, however defined.

My own working definition of culture is whatever people make and do to add value to the quality of their lives, including but not limited to the arts. I would argue therefore that the beneficiary of policy, of any policy, has to be wider society and this objective is referenced clearly in the discussion document.

The question is, what will a national policy do? If policy is about why and not just what, then what gets done is still the responsibility of autonomous cultural organisations and institutions. Policy articulates, projects, advocates and nourishes, but does not prescribe. Policy is about values driving the expectations of citizens, who should then seek the realisation of those expectations in cultural experience and participation. This is not just about the cultural sector and the sector’s purpose, it is about a larger shared purpose.

There is specific reference in the discussion document to the decade of commemoration, rightly, because what happened in 1916, leading to the founding of the State, was a consequence of a discourse in cultural space, about identity, power and a national narrative, having been transferred to political space.

This narrative was and is much debated, but the point is that connecting cultural and political discourse can effect real change, in the “real” world. One could argue that a similar transfer of cultural discourse about identity and power took place in Northern Ireland in a particular period and led to the peace process. Imperfect though it may be, it is evidence of how an engaged cultural process can contribute to the transformation of political and social space. If possible then, why not now, in a period of resetting of expectation and ambitions and a new narrative needed, in which an engaged cultural narrative is crucial?

Crucial, because culture is the glue of social cohesion and is how we create and sustain empathy. Culture creates empathy and empathy creates society. Without a sustained culture there is no empathy and without empathy there is a diminished society. So the stakes are very high in this period.

That is why it is so vital that this process of policy-making involves consultation, as provided for in this process, because a concept of society as a field of reciprocal relations is central to a national cultural policy.

Under a policy the arts, heritage and media can be sustainably connected to education and to health and wellbeing, grounded in a field of reciprocal relations. A new first-time cultural policy can take account of a shift – underway for some time now – in our understanding of, and provision for, culture, as inclusive rather than exclusive: a shift from rhetorical to reciprocal models of cultural practice, provision, experience and understanding.

It is this dynamic that merits the investment, the validation and the advocacy that will come with a policy. This is where new possibilities and the new necessary forms are emerging in the field; in the validation of the participatory as well as the consumer model of culture and cultural provision . . . an ecology, in effect.

The new dynamic, which includes the immersive nature of new technologies, speaks to the demand side of that ecology where the ecology embodies the interdependence of social, economic and cultural capital in our society.

In generating expectations it is important that there are cross sectoral/cross departmental strategies, as outlined in the discussion document, because culture should be everyone’s business. In particular, culture should involve the closest possible relationship with the emancipatory dimensions of education, from early years to higher education, and should be in the bloodstream and therefore the funding stream of every department of Government.

In higher education, in general, and in art and design education, in particular, a retreat to the “studio” and to received thinking, resistant to change, about where value lies in practice, will not provide for the creative practitioners of the future. What is required is the fullest engagement with real world learning to meet the challenge of difficulties in traditional patterns of resourcing and understanding. Engagement, exchange and inclusion are key imperatives in this.

Policy cannot be locked down to single-source funding issues. Public funding is, anyway, essentially a guarantee, not of great art . . . artists are the guarantors of great art . . . but of public value, in the making of which, makers and doers, of course, have to be supported.

In as much as the launch of this discussion document on Culture 2025,and the consultation process, represent a momentum towards that goal of public value – to be delivered in response to enhanced cultural expectations on the part of citizens – then it is a process to be welcomed and to be engaged with fully.

Declan McGonagle is Director of the National College of Art and Design

To have an input on the National Cultural Policy discussion paper, see

www.ahg.gov.ie/en/Culture/Culture2025 or email culturalpolicy@ahg.gov.ie

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