At the end of last week Tania Banotti of Theatre Forum Ireland published the organisation’s response to the Arts & Culture Plan unveiled by Minister Brennan at the end of February, available on TF’s website and in Friday’s Irish Times. The piece expressed concerns about the purpose of the plan (given that an Arts Council plan is already currently active) and questioned its emphases on economic benefits and symbolic (rather than strategic) gestures:
On closer examination, the Minister’s document is not so much a plan as an extended statement on the current artistic landscape, and the activities of the national cultural institutions (such as the Abbey, the National Concert Hall, National Library, National Gallery and IMMA) in particular. One big question it raises is how much his Department, and by extension the State, values the arts for their intrinsic worth, and how much they see the arts as a social tool or as a plank of cultural tourism. The arts are an important economic contributor, and they can – and do – play an important role in terms of social inclusion. However, the arts are not primarily an instrument of economic or social policy. This can’t be allowed to become their primary function, or the only basis on which they are funded.
While the Minister comes under criticism for the instrumental tenor of his department’s plan, I think it less convincing to counter with the ‘art for art’s sake’ argument.
Clearly the funding of the large national institutions, which takes pride of place in the plan, involves much more than social agendas or economic stimulation, although the latter two are of obvious concern to a governmental minister. Indeed the piece later goes on to praise the Minister’s support of the Abbey’s rescue plan, arguably the most recent visible (and expensive) affirmation of a national institution’s place within our cultural heritage. I also don’t agree that the ‘plan’ issued by the Minister is out of place given the active Arts Council ‘Partnership for the Arts’ agenda, since the Department is responsible for a wider remit than that of the Arts Council– particularly in its support of the national institutions. Given the infrequency with which the Department issues any broad statements on culture the arts, it is useful in any event to have this articulation of their priorities. The labelling of the Department’s statement as a ‘plan’ might have been overstepping the mark, as it lists achievements and intentions rather than a sustained strategic vision twinned with implementation measures developed through consultation (as with the Arts Council).
However Theatre Forum’s op-ed importantly highlights the gap between capital spending on arts centres nationwide, and the resourcing subsequently allocated for their successful functioning:
If these new buildings, rightly celebrated by the Minister, are not to become painfully visible white elephants, then touring needs to be properly resourced and on longer-term funding cycles.
This is indeed an issue of great concern, especially given the recent economic downturn… the possibility of such flagship spaces sitting forlorn and empty is one that still must be addressed, although the Arts Council’s Touring programmes are attempting to ameliorate the problem. Likewise Banotti draws attention to the lack of progress on connecting education and the arts under the policy umbrella– probably the most persistent problem in Irish arts policy– and is rightly dismayed.
The review of the plan praises government initiatives like Culture Ireland and the funding arrangement for the Abbey, but ultimately has especially strong views on the subject Arts Council funding levels and an implication present in the Minister’s Plan that he will be issuing policy instructions to the Arts Council:
… we cannot welcome the level of funding that has been given to the Arts Council. The National Cultural Institutions – which are directly funded by the Minister’s department – all received significant increases in their grants for 2008. The Arts Council did not. […] The arts community is calling on the Minister to honour previous government commitments of €100 million for the Arts Council. To do so would finally, after years of underfunding, put the sector on a stable footing.
There’s one other thing that gives cause for concern. The relationship between government and the Arts Council has always been defined by the arm’s-length principle. […] How does this sit with the Minister’s declaration that he intends to issue a ‘policy instruction’ to the Council that it should place a strong emphasis on certain areas when carrying out a mid-term review of its own plan, Partnership for the Arts 2006-2010?
A second opinion piece published in yesterday’s Irish Times agreed:
The Minister’s stated intention to issue directions to the council on arts-related matters would set a dangerous precedent and a serious breach of the arm’s length principle that would warrant a much more robust and widespread protest from the arts sector as a whole.
As it’s just been announced Martin Cullen will be taking over from Seamus Brennan under new Taoiseach Brian Cowen, a response from the Department looks doubtful– as does the emergence of Brennan’s promised ‘Statement of Strategy’ from the department and ‘position paper on arts, culture and philanthropy’.