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Una Mullally: Arts need more than just mere funding

Cheap rent and studio space would foster creativity but Dublin forces its artists abroad

Public galleries were closed under level three restrictions and one study shows quarter of all jobs in the arts could be lost by the end of 2021, but can unused car parks offer a lifeline for some artists? Video: Enda O'Dowd

It goes to show the extent of the crisis we are living in that landmark budget announcements came and went with a whimper. Opposition parties floundered to pick holes in an abundance of spending and funding. For the arts, a sector that has been crying out for support over the last few years, the money that was forthcoming would have been seen in other years as a bonanza, as radical, but this year is now framed as life-support. In last year’s budget, funding for the Arts Council increased by €5 million to €80 million. Already this summer, an emergency €25 million increase was announced, and in the budget another €25 million. There’s also €50 million for the live events sector, a sector which has had to learn fast how to ask for and get money, considering the commercial success of live music in Ireland, for example. It rarely requires State support. That’s a lot of funding, and next will come questions about how it’s distributed, and who will benefit.

The work done by the National Campaign for the Arts, along with the newly formed Epic event production industry working group, deserves praise, not least for managing to carve out a space for arts, culture and events to be framed as important, in what is an incredibly noisy conversation about which parts of the “economy” are falling apart and need urgent assistance.

The biggest boost to artists in the budget would have been a rent freeze and rent reductions

Funding for bodies such as the Arts Council is vital. But along with the very necessary top-down measures, we have to look at what needs to be done from the bottom up. The broader picture is not just about increasing funding for established artists, promoters, companies and workers, but creating the conditions from which artists can emerge.

The most helpful support for artists anywhere is cheap rent. The biggest boost to artists in the budget would have been a rent freeze and rent reductions. But Irish governments involving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil refuse to disrupt the earnings of landlords, as we can also tell from the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS), some of which will go into landlords’ pockets, as customer-facing businesses – including those related to arts and entertainment – still have to pay rent when they’re closed.


Inhospitable capital

In June, Dublin was again named the most expensive city in which to live in the euro zone. The average monthly rent in Dublin is over €2,000. Add to that the cost of living generally – the expense of a meal in a restaurant, of a beer in a bar, of a cup of coffee; the lack of inexpensive food markets; and the price of transport, childcare, houses, studio rental, insurance, and so on – and you have a very inhospitable capital city for artists. In 2018, 30 per cent of artists and creative practitioners in the performing arts in Ireland earned less than the national minimum wage, according to a report published by Theatre Forum.

A report published by the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency in 2010 surveying the income of Irish authors, found that almost 60 per cent of writers earned less than €5,000 from writing-related income. Some of the most promising musicians in the country are forced to work other jobs to get by. The most frequently cited ambition of people making music that is so good they sell out gigs, get massive crowds at festivals, and even tour internationally, is that they simply want to make a living from their art. The higher the cost of living, the harder that is.

The generation that moulded this country is being denied a stake in it

The migration of artists from Ireland is as much about the cost of living as it is about opportunity. That’s why Irish artists move to affordable cities, such as Berlin, Glasgow and Lisbon. We should consider our cities as habitats. In recent years, the habitat of artists in Ireland has been decimated. As global capital took over the development of our cities, the things that emerged from the last recession – independent venues, studios, small and scrappy creative spaces – were literally bulldozed. The capital has lost an incredible amount of cultural infrastructure, from theatres to clubs, squats to warehouses, and most importantly, artists themselves, who, unable to live in a country that won’t facilitate their ambitions, flee.

Grants application

The central generational, cultural, political, economic and social schism in contemporary Ireland is that the generation that moulded this country is being denied a stake in it. This feeling is at its most acute when it comes to our young artists, many of whom feel gaslit by a country they’re trying to enhance creatively and culturally, yet can’t afford to live and play in, and for whom opportunities around accessing space and building their own scenes are very limited.

From the Arts Council’s point of view, while they may engage in an existential reflection about widening their remit to include people who feel – rightly or wrongly – locked out of their funding, very practical changes to their application processes would address their accessibility. It’s often said that those best at filling out applications are at an advantage when it comes to accessing funding, rather than the “best” artists, and that’s true to some degree. Changing the Arts Council application process would be easy, and incredibly helpful to those who are less fluent in the language of applications.

But if we don’t create the conditions for artists to emerge, then by the time they get around to being funded, only those who came from privilege and wealth will have survived, and while they can afford to be artists, we will all be poorer if we are denied the perspectives and creativity lost to stifling economic forces.