I met Mary Hanafin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, and Sport, in the lobby of the Pavilion Theatre before a forum in Dun Laoghaire designed to give people in the arts a chance to feed ideas into the government’s cultural strategy. I was impressed by her warm congeniality and obvious enthusiasm for her job, but when I quizzed her on the logic of combining three of the country’s profitable but seemingly unrelated activities into one government department, I wasn’t convinced that even she saw the relevance of sport to the arts. I suppose it all comes down to definitions. What is ‘culture’, after all? According to Wikipedia it is
• excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities;
• an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior and;
• the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.
That’s quite a range of responsibilities she’s got there! And how can you combine all the many and various aspects of ‘the arts’ into one amorphous lump and somehow give that word any real meaning? Being a cynic, I suspect that this was all a tenuous marriage of convenience driven by ulterior government motives, and that culture and sports were simply there to create revenues from tourism. By the time the event had finished, I had come to my own conclusions as to why at least 90% of those in the audience were wasting their time and what really needed to be done.
Mary: It all looks good
Mary launched the event with a sparkling explanation of what her department was doing, how it was supporting the arts and what progress had been made. She was followed by a nice lady from the Arts Council who waxed lyrical about how much it supports artists, handing out grants, developing partnerships with business and so much more. She could barely tear herself away from the microphone to allow the discussion to start. Brilliant, I thought; all is well in the world of the arts in Ireland. As a relative newcomer to the country, I was almost convinced.
Artists: We’re dying on our feet
The story that the audience had to tell was so different it was hard to believe it came from the same planet as the two nice ladies on stage. There were complaints about high costs—rents, rates and more—and lack of facilities. The general picture was of dispirited artisans passionately trying to operate on hopelessly inadequate budgets in an environment of minimal, if any, support from government and the Arts Council. Many felt abandoned by a system that was unresponsive and cumbersome. However, all this was expressed with polite deference to, and even appreciation for, Mary’s genuine attempt to reach out to the arts community. Expressions of frustration were understandably muted, as the two ladies on stage represented potential resources and investment in their arts endeavours. Where else could they go for essential support?
As Mary herself admitted, only about 10% of the arts community received any support from the Arts Council, and she was, understandably, trying to maximize the effect of the scarce resources available. Considering the 90% left hanging, however, she faced an impossible task.
Strong culture—the foundation for growth
Ireland is well-known for its rich cultural heritage. But it’s also had its share of strife, hardship and Catholic condemnation, resulting in a pessimistic mentality that has left the country morally, emotionally and financially bankrupt. Add to this a disorganized arts community and things don’t look too good. Not only that, but many arts practitioners often have a weak business model. But that’s okay, because the true value of the arts is not in their business potential. The arts are there to enrich our lives, to challenge fixed concepts, to entertain us and to enhance our leisure time. They form the bedrock of a country’s culture and they are drivers of social change—something Ireland badly needs. Yet, at this event, it was clear that art was being sidelined and marginalized.
By definition, creativity is dynamic. It’s not enough for the country to concentrate on developing the traditional arts—as wonderful as they may be—into blockbuster tourist moneymakers. New ideas birthed in the studios and workshops of struggling artists all over the country need to be embraced and developed. Doing so would benefit the whole of society, helping to mend broken communities and inspire and uplift individuals. It would also foster innovation and improve quality of life by empowering those who embrace a truly creative path. Politics, finance and business cannot create the fundamental shift that Ireland needs to undergo, because that kind of profound change starts in the hearts and minds of every individual, and the arts are crucial to that process. Ironically, politics, finance and business would also benefit from such a process.
The true value of the arts—for everyone
One of the reasons for organizing the Dun Laoghaire event was to try to bridge the communication gap between the Arts Council, government and artists. But there also appeared to be a communication gap between and among artists and their communities, seemingly driven by a feeling that the arts are a non-essential add-on to life—a ‘spare time’ activity and something to keep the kids occupied. Many of those in the meeting stressed the importance of encouraging children to take part in the arts but failed to recognize the pressing and largely ignored need for adults to do the same—thus reinforcing the notion that the arts are somehow not a ‘serious’ activity. Artists are ranked in terms of ‘young’, ‘emerging’ and ‘established’—preposterous and damaging labels that merely serve to establish elitism and market value. However, until each individual—not just professional artists—acknowledges the personal value of their own unique creativity, and starts to nurture and express their right brain, the arts will remain in the sidelines. The true value, relevance and importance of the arts as a central pillar of society will never be realized. And unless artists become organized, empowered and relevant in people’s lives, they will never gain the status they deserve or be fully integrated into the everyday cultural landscape.
Back a strong culture for success
Governments are transient. Culture is enduring—and it’s much bigger than government. Even if the funded 10% became 20% or 30%, that wouldn’t fix things for the arts, let alone society as a whole. Equally, establishing a few shiny high-tech innovative companies won’t turn the economy around. But of all the things that a government can do, supporting the arts arguably has the greatest potential to resuscitate the soul of the nation. In doing so, it will generate the human platform for cultural growth, enabling everything else to move forward in healthy ways. It’s a difficult one for ministers to get their heads around and act upon, preoccupied as they are with firefighting, but it’s a dynamic, creative approach to bolstering the country’s morale, empowering innovative individuals, and ensuring the nation’s success.