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

beyonce-tears

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.

 

Next Week: Visual & Material Culture of Famine Conference

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Just a wee note about a conference I’m co-organising next week (14-16 March), hosted by Maynooth University and organised/funded as part of the NWO-funded International Network of Irish Famine Studies (of which I’m a core member).

Registration is free! If you’ve an interest in Famine studies, visual/material culture, or historical memory, please feel free to register and come along.

We’ve a fantastic programme that includes seven panels of top-notch papers, five keynote speakers (including me, speaking on Evidencing Eviction: the Visibility of Irish Poverty, 1870-90 on Weds.), and a range of special events, including:

  • A reading by acclaimed Irish author and Aósdana member Evelyn Conlon, whose most recent novel, Not the Same Sky (2013) draws on the social and material history of the Earl Grey-assisted emigration scheme, reimagining the story of three young women from amongst 4,000 Irish girls sent to Australia between 1848-50.
  • A presentation by Moonfish Theatre Company, whose stage adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s Famine novel Star of the Sea has been on a sell-out national tour.
  • A talk by screenwriter and playwright Hugh Travers, Maynooth University’s Screenwriter-in-Residence who has been commissioned to write a sitcom on the Famine for Channel 4.
  • A special tour by curator Donal Maguire of the National Gallery of Ireland’s forthcoming exhibition The Pathos of Distance, a collaboration with artist Sarah Pierce exploring the visual history of Irish emigration.

All details (including travel, accommodation, and full schedule) are on the conference website.

The Creative Museum: Extending Participation through Collaboration (23/24 October, Belfast)

Greetings! I’m back from my annual leave and will be updating the jobs page shortly have just refreshed job/internship listings.

The Spy at the Gate by Pauline Cummins, 2014 - part of These Immovable Walls: Performing Power at Dublin Castle, curated by Michelle Browne. Photo by Joseph Carr.

The Spy at the Gate by Pauline Cummins, 2014 – part of These Immovable Walls: Performing Power at Dublin Castle, curated by Michelle Browne. Photo by Joseph Carr.

I wanted to share details of a special Irish Museums Association event I’m co-organising with Dr Victoria Durrer of Queen’s University Belfast. It’s absolutely FREE for students and members of the IMA, and very low cost for other attendees:

23 -24 October – The Creative Museum: Extending Participation through Collaboration: Queen’s University Belfast

This two-day event will bring together artists and museum professionals to explore the opportunities, complexities and negotiations that take place when museums and artists in dance, visual arts, sound, and theatre collaborate to create unique visitor experiences. This event will present and examine – through a series of talks, practical examples and site visits – some of the approaches taken by museums in the Republic of Ireland (ROI), Northern Ireland (NI), and further afield, in creative collaborations with the broader arts sector. It will aim to discuss how organisations can enhance their relationship with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary culture.

Speakers include:

Lar Joye, Assistant Keeper, National Museum of Ireland – Art and Industrial Division
Louise Lowe, Artistic Director, ANU Productions
Professor Pedro Rebelo, Director of Research, School of Creative Arts (incl. SARC), Queen’s University Belfast
Katie Green, Founder and Director, Made by Katie Green
Margaret Henry, Chief Executive, Audiences NI
Michelle Browne, Visual Artist and Curator
Hugh Maguire, Director, The Hunt Museum
Nigel Monaghan, Keeper, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History Division
Emily Mark-FitzGerald, Lecturer, School of Art History & Cultural Policy, University College Dublin

The second day of the event is dedicated to site visits and tours that will introduce participants to the cultural venues and offerings of Belfast — it will be open to explore! A full list of options will soon be available on the event website. The event coincides with the Belfast Festival, and we’ll have ticket options available.

Thanks to sponsorship from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, we’re able to offer this event for FREE for students & IMA members, including registration, and free transport from Dublin – Belfast (return). Attendees will be responsible for accommodation (1 night – many inexpensive hostel options available) and the networking dinner (optional).

Registration is open here: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/the-creative-museum-extending-participation-through-collaboration-tickets-17807925986

Our previous north-south event reached capacity, do register asap. Attendees are also encouraged to book accommodation soon, as it’s festival season in Belfast and can get very busy. Hope you can join us!

IMA Conference: Museums in Society: Navigating Public Policy (Belfast, 27 Feb – 1 March)

This year’s Irish Museums Association Annual Conference will be of particular interest to folks keen on exploring cultural policy, with its theme Museums in Society: Navigating Public Policy. It’s in Belfast from 27 Feburary – 1 March at the Ulster Museum. Concessions for students etc. are very generous, and it’s always a highlight of the year for me! The full programme, speakers’ biographies, abstracts, fees schedule and booking form are available on www.irishmuseums.org/annual-conference.

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Artsmanagement.ie round-up: 20 August 2013

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Counting down two weeks until the new UCD term begins: autumn is upon us! Which also means the arts scene is warming up again…

The programme for Culture Night is launching today; the growth of this event is nothing short of astonishing; it’s the biggest night of the year for Dublin and many other towns who’ve adopted it. Unmissable.

The Dublin Fringe Festival also recently announced its line-up. As director Roise Goan’s swan song, it’s packed full of treats. So difficult to choose highlights, but I’ll be booking/attending Anu Productions’ Thirteen cycle (13 performances/events reflecting on the Dublin Lockout); Fit/Misfit (collaboration between Mexican and Irish dancers); Lippy by Dead Centre; for a bit of light relief, David O’Doherty and Maeve Higgins both have shows; and Brat Kids Carnival for my kiddies. For starters.

The centenary of the Dublin Lockout is receiving lots of attention at the moment – especially from Anu Productions (both at the Fringe and part of the brilliant, almost sold-out Tenement Experience) – but many other related events are listed at http://1913committee.ie. Some of the most interesting include Pallas Project’s A Letter to Lucy, a response to 1913 by a group of contemporary artists (Anthony Haughey, Deirdre O Mahony, Mark Curran, Deirdre Power, Jennie Guy, Brian Duggan) in a number of locations around Dublin (until 21 September). The Labour and Lockout exhibition at the Limerick City Gallery also looks fascinating (on until 1 October). Finally Temple Bar Gallery & Studios has issued an open call for workshop proposals for its Workers’ Cafe: from 10 October – 2 November, their exhibition space will transform into a participatory venue and cafe, hosting events and workshops connected to the subject of labour, economy and exchange.

We’re smack dab in the middle of Heritage Week – their listing of events is like a phone book! There’s something going on in every corner of the country — check in to your local museum or heritage centre to see what special programmes are on offer this week.

The most recent NCFA research colloquy in Kilkenny last week featured Dave O’Brien from City University London speaking on the evolution of evidence-based policy making in the UK, with a response by John O’Hagan (TCD, Economics). The session made for a lively debate on the pros/cons of evidence gathering methods and their use by decision-makers (some of the debate was captured via twitter – #ncfacolloquy). The next colloquy will take place in October: these are well worth attending if you’ve an interest in the arts sector, policy-making and the role of research.

Who else is worn out from all of the appeals to vote for projects that are part of the Arthur Guinness Project scheme? Their dire daily voting mechanism has been clogging up inboxes and feeds over the past few weeks, but Jim Carroll has a bigger bone to pick in his Irish Times blog. His critique of the scheme has attracted a huge number of comments: well worth a read for the range of arguments coming from all perspectives.

Temple Bar Gallery and Studios is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a forthcoming book Generation – 30 years of creativity at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, which recognizes the important contribution it has made to Ireland’s visual arts community. Its upcoming exhibition False Memory Syndrome proposes a series of alternative histories for TBG&S, touching on institutional memory, archives and materiality.

Heads up: the Arts Council is looking for new Arts Advisers in Architecture; Circus, Street Arts & Spectacle; Film; Opera; Theatre; and Traditional Arts. Applications close on 26 September.

Lots of new listings on the jobs page, but of particular interest may be the facilitator roles for the Turner Prize 2013 in Derry/Londonderry as part of City of Culture. Derry’s been playing a blinder of late, with an estimated 430,000 turning out for the Fleadh last week. Following a tumultuous summer in Northern Ireland, an interesting article on The Detail blog explores why Derry and the CoC events may hold out hope for the continuation of the peace process.

In the category of you-couldn’t-make-it-up, last week the DUP’s Peter Robinson published a rambling open letter on the subject of the controversial re-development of the Maze prison and its proposed ‘Peace Centre’. The satirical website Loyalists Against Democracy were on fine form with a swift response.

Once again, Dublin City Council has announced plans to redevelop Dublin’s Victorian fruit market (located between Capel St and the Four Courts). We’ve heard this plan before over the years — there’s widespread agreement this is a fantastic idea, but with a proposed opening date of 2015, the proof will be in the pudding.

It’s been a bumper summer for Irish Architecture, and both the Irish Architecture Foundation and the Irish Georgian Society have moved into new digs: the former to Hatch Street near the NCH, the latter in the old Civic Museum on South William Street. In related news, Dublin Civic Trust is sponsoring a conference on the future of Dublin’s Georgian Squares (13 September), to be held appropriately in the ballroom of the former Assembly Rooms of the Rotunda Hospital on Parnell Square.

Finally, some great news in the world of open access: the Getty Museum in LA has joined the Rijksmuseum in The Netherlands as one of the world’s major museums now offering open access to a massive number of images of its collection, free of restriction. As the Rijksmuseum’s head of digital collections has remarked, “If they want to have a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image of Vermeer on toilet paper than a very bad reproduction.” Words to warm any art historian’s heart!