A New Irish Ministry for the Arts (Or, Through a Hedge, Backwards)


upon hearing the cabinet reshuffle news

(*update 11/5/16: thanks to RTE Arena for having me on air yesterday to speak about this: piece begins at 4:00. Please consider signing the petition to reconfigure a new arts ministry started by John O’Brien)

Like many in this country, I’ve been patiently waiting for our warring political factions to hammer out some kind of resolution to the election impasse. Listening to the radio, getting my young kids ready for school in the morning rush, stopping for the occasional eyeroll as the merits of this-or-that coalition is debated… waiting.

Finally on Friday, the new Cabinet was announced. Some familiar faces, a few surprises, and then the biggest shock of all: the newly configured Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht. Cue my disbelief.

In what other European country would such a combination be acceptable, or even logical? Have the arts (and heritage, which seems to have fallen off a cliff) really fallen so low in government estimation?

Call me an optimist: in the triumph of hope over experience, I’ve perpetually believed that as the economy improved, our government might turn again to nurturing the cultural life that has actually sustained us during these last few, depressing years of recession. That it might recognise how, in spite of resources slashed and professional expertise often discredited, folks working in our cultural sector have continued doing what they love and believe in, often at great personal expense (both in terms of morale, and financially). Playwrights and novelists haven’t stopped writing; actors and musicians have persisted in performing; artists continue to create work that makes us think and challenges us to look at the world anew. Museum workers, even in their dwindling numbers, welcome school groups across the country; volunteers keep heritage sites open and welcome visitors with a cup of tea; our national collections and archives continue to paste over the cracks, and keep institutions functioning in the face of disappearing funding, threats to their independence and the hiring moratorium.

What about the near-incessant stream of 1916 centenary events? Who do the government think have been producing the talks, performances, exhibitions, public events that have attracted thousands over the past few months, with many more in planning? I’m of the personal view that the commemorations have been incredibly rich, dramatically expanding public narratives that were previously frozen by polarised political ideologies. We can be proud of our centenary year to date – but this is because of the creatives (artists, archivists, academics, etc) and the willing public who have made it so.

I’m flabbergasted, frankly. Some will say the cabinet reshuffle doesn’t matter: power has, and always will, essentially rest with the senior civil servants who actually run the Department of Arts & Whatever Else You’re Having. But I happen to think it does matter. Do we live in a society that believes in the integrity and value of our cultural life? Why haven’t we been given a government department and minister that signal a central (not peripheral) willingness to cultivate and protect our much-lauded reputation as a small, global, cultural powerhouse? All too often it feels that Ireland’s cultural richness has not emerged because of government support: it’s happened in spite of it.

What does this active disregard feel like on the ground? Let’s just look at one slice of this – Irish museums –as I happen to be finishing writing up the results of the Irish Museums Survey (to be published in the next month). Funded by the Irish Research Council and undertaken by the Irish Museums Association and UCD, it’s the first time in a decade any statistics have been collected on the museum sector (these aren’t officially collected, by the way). The more sophisticated analysis will come later, but here are just a few insights into what eight years of budget cuts have achieved (some from the survey, and others from my own experience):

  • In 2015, 300,000 visited the Natural History Museum of Ireland (ah, the Dead Zoo! Beloved of generations everywhere, and annually in the top ten most visited free attractions in Ireland). It had no dedicated education staff, and only 2 curators (one of whom is the Director).
  • 40% of the budget of the National Museum of Ireland system has been slashed since 2008. Let that figure sink in.
  • Thousands of tickets have already been pre-booked for the (free) exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the National Gallery of Ireland, which opened 5 days ago. Yet a large proportion of the gallery has been closed since 2011: despite government declarations it would reopen in 2015, and then 2016, it’s now slated for spring 2017 (maybe?) Apart from the loss of public access to national collections, this also means we’ve had a talented museum director (as we are lucky to have in Sean Rainbird) compelled to manage a mostly-closed museum.
  • As part of the Museum Survey we asked 100+ museums across the country (small and large; urban and rural) what impact budget changes have made over the past five years. Here is just a small sample of the responses (more to come!):
    • Our heating was removed
    • Reception staff annual leave has to be covered by curatorial staff
    • A reduction in staff numbers from 28 to 5
    • Difficulty in paying electricity and public liability
    • A 70% drop in our programming budget
    • Unable to repair damaged roof and flood damage

Such accounts could be multiplied many times over, if extended to the visual, performing, and literary arts. And yet – on 28 March at the conclusion of RTE’s acclaimed broadcast Centenary, President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to the centrality of Irish culture as inspiring the new State:

From that foundation, that cultural and literary awakening, Irish artists known and appreciated throughout the world have emerged, and continue to emerge. Tonight we celebrate not only our rich cultural heritage, but also its contemporary expression, our new imaginings, and the many creative ways in which we are telling our stories. For ours is a story still in the making.

This year, as we celebrate this important centenary and reflect on what we have achieved, we are committing ourselves to continuing the journey of imagination, committing ourselves to sustain the artistic work that will form the next chapter of our story.

A month later, and we’ve been presented with the new Department of RDRAAG to carry this ‘national story’ forward. Perhaps no acronym has ever been more fitting.


20 thoughts on “A New Irish Ministry for the Arts (Or, Through a Hedge, Backwards)

  1. Orla Kennedy says:

    Well said Emily. It’s believable, unfortunately. However… watch the fragile political space .. ‘me thinks the centre cannot hold’ as oppositional power plays may end in a call for another election. Otherwise it’s a bit too depressing!

  2. Siubhán Mc Carthy says:

    Well said Emily. Rather than honouring the really vital role the Arts have to play in Irelands ‘cultural’ (and REAL) life; this reshuffle will turn the creative wealth into an an ‘also ran…’

  3. echoechodance says:

    Also in the north, at the NI Assembly, the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure has been merged with Social Development to create a new ‘Department for Communities’. Arts has been erased completely from the departmental title!

    Ailbe Beirne

  4. markcullen12013 says:

    Well said Emily. Arts funding in this state have been appalling low for a while now. We are getting 6 times less than the EU average spend on the Arts. The economic arguments for the arts have been repeatedly made, but fall on deaf ears with the last gov. and we can only expect a continuance of the same with this new ministry with the same (MIA) minister. Yet, what are we the artists and the public who enjoy the arts going to do about it? I dont believe enough has been to date. We need to do something collectively that will not allow to this situation remain as it is. Fintan O Toole in the Irish Times as early as January 2015 signaled that a more direct action is needed – “Why have the arts been disproportionately affected by austerity? Because they’re a soft touch” FOToole http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/culture-shock-why-it-s-time-for-irish-artists-to-go-on-strike-1.2053120
    I motion we (the artists, the orgs, and the public) should do something collectively in early autumn when the new Dail is back from its holidays and well before its first budget. What that something is is up for discussion – but lets make it effective by being across the whole arts field.

    • Emily MFG says:

      Thanks for your reply Mark — this came up also at a group conversation about the national arts policy I attended last week. I agree that a few days of direct action would be a powerful symbol and reaction, especially if extended across the entire spectrum of arts and heritage; I wonder what the appetite for this approach within the sector would be? The NCFA has done trojan work the last few years, but it seems other tactics are necessary – we have to be honest, and admit that campaigning to date hasn’t really worked as hoped.

      • markcullen12013 says:

        Hi Emily. The NCFA has been done excellent work in producing the research that arms our arguments, however the economic arguments are not listened too. I agree with Stephen Hadley that there is an issue of jeopardy in terms of the arts still providing the ‘goods’ & ‘services’ regardless of the funding environment – and in some cases offering better arts for less money. The problem is we have never withhold our work, possible out of a fear that nobody would notice/care about this issue enough to support or take notice of us. I dont think withholding our work would be the best option. However I believe that we should do something public – something spectacular that will capture public opinion. Last year the gov divided up a 4.5 billion surplus and gifted the arts an extra 4.5 million – that amounts to about the price of a Mars bar for each citizen of the state. Perhaps as an idea made real we could make a participatory sculpture on O Connell St with these mars bars demonstrating a) that we can come together as a sector to start a campaign (ie this could be an initial salvo to be followed by others) and b) that the levels of funding in Ireland are paltry and disrespectful towards our traditions and inclinations as a deeply artistic island.
        The shocking levels of funding will worsen if we do not do something about it. Your blog is part of the solution. Lets get people talking about what needs to be done.

  5. Rothklee says:

    Great piece. Well said. Unfortunately the Irish State seems to revel in the free efforts of volunteers around the country. The people who feel it’s important to keep certain elements of Irish culture & heritage alive; the people that provide support & funding to many entities – children’s hospitals, citizens support services, NGOs – all watch sorrowful while each Government funds elsewhere. The political agents thrive on our enthusiasm to keep what’s important alive, while throwing the necessary money at what we will gladly leave behind.

  6. Steven Hadley says:

    Hi Emily,

    Many thanks for an interesting article. A couple of comments (from a Northern Irish perspective):
    (i) As has been noted, we have been through a similar issue in the north with DCAL. The point was made then (by Peter Robinson) and warrants repeating. Titles of Govt Departments are reflective of the work that department does and, in reality, of the budget allocations associated with that activity. As such, and given the % of budget spent on the arts in NI, having ‘arts’ in the department title would be odd, as it sits (from memory) about 25th in the list of departmental responsibilities.
    (ii) There is an issue with cultural workers of all types continuing to produce the same level of outputs with less funding, and therefore resource, available. This is compounded by too many in the sector being in thrall to instrumental-outputs-as-advocacy. We end up in the bizarre situation (evidenced in Belfast) where arts organisations are cut, produce their events anyway, then promote how much more successful those events were than in the year previous (with festivals this usually means adding on a neat 10k in audience numbers from the previous year’s figure). What this essentially says is ‘you can have a better output for less money’. That is hardly an argument for reinstating, much less increasing, public subsidy.
    (iii) The arts like to see themselves as unique in the public sector. In terms of listing the effects of cuts they are not unique, and any such list could equally be achieved in other sectors. You then run up against comparisons with education, health etc which are unhelpful to the arts cause.
    (iv) It’s an obvious but important point that “Ireland’s rich cultural heritage” should not be confused with the much more recent and short history of public subsidy for the arts (which in the UK is really on 70 years old). An argument in favour of the former is not de facto an argument in favour of the latter.
    (v) Possibly the most interesting (and worrying) point (from a cultural policy perspective) is that this is the first time in a decade any statistics have been collected on the Museums sector. How does the sector (en masse) expect to engage with a process of evidence-based policy making without any evidence? re: the thousands of tickets booked for the da Vinci exhibition – who has that data and how is it being analysed?

    In many respects the arts are collateral damage in the much wider neo-liberal project of rolling back the state begun with Thatcher. In order to combat (or better make itself exempt from) such an ideological project much stronger arguments will be needed around cultural democracy, social justice and capital.

    • Emily MFG says:

      Hi Steven, many thanks for your very considered comments! I’ll respond to a few of your points, though of course I understand many are more specific to NI.

      i) Yes this is true, but the symbolic significance of titular ministries is far from superficial. A good example is the recent folding of the NI Department of Employment and Learning into the Department of the Economy, and what this signifies about the perceived role of education (paralleled by the steady rise of neoliberal-inflected governance at QUB and UU, for example).

      ii) I agree, but a reasonable solution doesn’t seem to halt productions or fold organisations entirely without a fight… this is a double bind with no simple answer.

      iii) I don’t think the arts see themselves as unique at all – and in fact, I actually think the effect of the cuts isn’t always as obvious or widely known (see your point ii). Comparisons will always be made with health, education etc. but it’s not a zero sum game. I think what your comment implies however, and what I agree with, is that the arts & heritage have been less successful at garnering support outside of the sector itself. We need to take a hard look at why this is so, and what can be done about it.

      iv) I don’t quite agree with this argument these two can be held distinct, since the maintenance and sharing of material heritage is now dependent on public subsidy. It won’t necessarily continue to exist without that support.The inability of many museums to meet national accreditation standards owing to a lack of conservators, for example, is one demonstration of this.

      v) Yes. This is the result when no government department in the Republic has accepted full responsibility for supporting the museum sector: for example, the Museums Officer post in the Heritage Council has been vacant since 2009 (or thereabouts). This research on Irish museums has come about from my own initiative and work with the Irish Museums Association (I’ve been on their board since 2009), and a funding opportunity that arose from the IRC. The IMA itself is run on a shoestring, through very small grants from the Dept. and the Heritage Council, voluntary contributions from our membership, and the extensive volunteer work of its board, as well as its manager (the only paid position). Re the da Vinci exhibition – those tickets are being booked through the NGI directly; I don’t know to what extent they plan to use that information, I’m afraid, although it will no doubt be useful since very few shows there are ticketed. Other research on the subsidized arts sector (apart from heritage) comes from the Arts Council and other resource organisations (Theatre Forum, Visual Artists Ireland, etc.) but the lack of systematic research on the arts is a long-acknowledged problem in the south.

      • Steven Hadley says:

        Thanks Emily. A brief response to your response (last week of teaching beckons…)
        (i) Symbolic significance is interesting but imagine a lack of empirical evidence on that front (?). In historical terms, England has only had a department with arts (‘culture’) in the title for 19 of its 70 years of public subsidy. Be interesting to see if funding stats correlated in any way with that for better/worse. In NI we only had DCAL as Stormont (in)effectively copied the structure at Westminster. The civil servants will tell you that it’s just all pragmatic efficiency decisions, though I fully take on your point about QUB and UU and agree wholeheartedly.
        (ii) Agree, and halting productions would just annoy arts attenders and ergo be self-defeating. In NI we have suffered years of salami-slicing (or weak leadership as it’s otherwise known) which has rendered the effects of cuts largely invisible.
        (iii) I have to disagree with you here, because it is a zero sum game. Too much arts advocacy and rhetoric has co-opted the instrumentalist agenda to the extent that arts organisations now think they can actually achieve all the things they claim they can (in health, education, social inclusion, crime etc), despite repeated academic work citing a lack of evidence and in denial of the opportunity cost that goes with arts funding. But yes, absolutely, support from outside the sector!
        (iv) Agree that they are now co-dependent, but fundamentally an argument in support of one is not an argument in support of the other. A case in point: the argument was recently made (author shall remain anon) that because so many people like the Beatles, that shows how popular culture is, ergo my festival should be funded. Sorry, no.
        (v) Sounds similar to the north! I think (no, fundamentally believe) that the key issue of one of relevance and of democratic reach. We have seen this week how colleagues in England have addressed the CMS Select Committee –
        This is the key issue – my article here also: http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/article/democratising-arts.

        It’s not about people in the arts sector being inside the castle looking out, nor about ‘looking at it from their perspective’ being outside the castle looking in. It’s about no more castles.


      • Emily MFG says:

        Thanks again Steven – I’ll keep this brief too! — but just to note I’d take care extrapolating arguments concerning instrumentalisation and ‘elite’ culture drawn from the British context to Ireland: arts policy has evolved differently here, and the ‘castles’ metaphor perhaps not quite the right fit!

      • Steven Hadley says:

        Absolutely *all usual caveats apply*. Would be really interested to explore that point more.Can each part of the island learn from the others cultural policy history? I bet the symposium was last week and I missed it 🙂

  7. Mairead Ryan says:

    I wonder what a Cultural Constitution would look like and does any country have one. If we were to have one I wonder what people would like to see in such a constitution. The new mongrel Department is clearly ridiculous and I expect unworkable. Good article and interesting to hear your interview on Arena.

    • Emily MFG says:

      Hi Mairead, thanks for your comment – I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘cultural constitution’, but certainly Ireland is unusual in Europe for having no official cultural policy. Plans have been in train to develop one here (Culture 2025) but it’s been many months since we’ve had an update on this process (http://www.ahg.gov.ie/arts/culture/culture-2025-2/)

      If you’re interested in comparing Ireland to other countries, Compendium is the main source that summarizes cultural policies across Europe: http://www.culturalpolicies.net/web/countries.php

      • Mairead Ryan says:

        Well it shocking to realize that we don’t have an official cultural policy but it certainly reflects the attitude of our political system to the importance of culture and the arts. I will try to attend the meeting in October to inform myself further and thanks for the links

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