The government’s funding announcement for the arts last week was unprecedented, and there are lessons to be learned from the way in which it came about, writes Toner Quinn.
The scale of the funding increase for the arts and music sector in last week’s Budget was so significant that it is important to understand fully what happened.
The government gave €130m to the Arts Council, plus another €50m for the live entertainment sector. To put this into context, the Council’s funding had peaked at €83m during the Celtic Tiger, thirteen years ago. When the economic crash hit in 2008, the government cut arts funding every year for seven years, by 30% in total. The infrastructure that relied on it was enfeebled. With less work, artists changed careers or emigrated. In those years, it seemed that no matter how strong an argument the arts sector put forward – for creativity in the digital age, for the economic impact of the arts, for its importance to tourism – it had little impact on the state. Politicians listened attentively but did little and muttered about ‘difficult decisions’.
But then in 2016, the centenary celebrations for the Easter Rising shifted opinions. Politicians and civil servants noticed how culture reached into every part of society, and it could bring the country together. The Brexit vote the same year presented another challenge that culture could assist with; winning over friends in the UK and Europe. The government began funding significant music events abroad, such as Imagining Ireland in London and Other Voices in Berlin. It began appointing Cultural Ambassadors (Martin Hayes and Ruth Negga, for example) and, more recently, Cultural Officers in London and New York. At the same time, the economy was improving and with it a slow rise in arts funding. By 2020, the Council’s budget had risen again to €80m, but there was no accounting for the thirteen years that had been lost. Serious damage had been done, and, despite all the arguments, there was little prospect of significant growth beyond that figure. The government’s thinking could also be unfocussed. It launched the Creative Ireland initiative in 2016 rather than fully restore Arts Council funding, which supports artists directly, and, in 2017, Leo Varadkar said he would double arts funding while campaigning for his party’s leadership, but then prevaricated once elected, which led to, in the then Arts Council Chair Sheila Pratschke’s words, ‘huge disappointment’ with the 2018 Budget.
Nonetheless, in 2018/19, Ireland began heating up again culturally, with the launch of the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards, Irish National Opera and Trad Ireland, Galway becoming European Capital of Culture, Music Generation’s expansion, new initiatives from Sounding the Feminists, the growth of New Music Dublin, and more, and yet the perennial problems remained. The cultural calendar was full but artists were still struggling to make a living; there was always enough to pay everyone else but never enough for them. Serious questions started to be asked. The Arts Council launched its ‘Paying the Artist’ policy, but it was difficult to see how it could have an impact without more funding in the ecosystem. Music groups started to realise that they would have to join together to do something.
And then the pandemic hit. Artists and arts organisations feared the worst. They had been here before: Economic crisis. Recession. Cuts. Career collapse. Would funding for the arts and music face a wave of cuts again? The memories of what happened a decade ago galvanised the community. Fundraisers were launched, conversations opened up, but at the same time, something else quite extraordinary happened.
Instinctively, artists and particularly musicians started sharing their work online, not for money but because they sensed the depth of the shock to society. They wanted to reach out to people. The public, separated from their networks of friends and family during lockdown, scrolled through their social media feeds in the evening and found moving, open performances from artists at home, and they felt the sense of community it brought. They commented, praised and shared. They didn’t feel so alone anymore. Something had changed; it was possible to create a sense of community in the midst of a plague, and musicians and artists, those who had lost so much, were at the heart of it.
A moment like this could never have been planned or predicted, but it set up what was to happen next. On 3 April, when the Arts Council and the Department of Arts announced the ‘Ireland Performs’ series part-funded by Facebook, and grants of €3k for artists to produce online work (an inadequate response to the collapse of the live performance economy, and in contrast to the Council’s initial positive response which was to bring forward funding), there was a ferocious backlash from artists, and this time the people, the politicians and the media were with them. Asking musicians to perform for payment from the scandal-magnet Facebook was a particular low point.
In the Dáil, the Dublin TD Richard Boyd Barrett exclaimed in frustration, ‘Imagine going through the last two months [without music, comedy, film, theatre]… It’s too awful to even contemplate. … Life would not be worth living.’ The Galway TD Catherine Connolly accused the government of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – ‘the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes … So we treasure the arts… but then practically we give them very little.’ The National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA), which had not managed to have a significant impact in the years up until then, suddenly had a groundswell of arts community and public and political support under it, and it had the right committee and a new chair in place, Angela Dorgan. It issued a 13-point plan to save the arts sector at the end of May, and, at the same time, Maureen Kennelly, the new Arts Council director, brought in influential names such as Lenny Abrahamson and Martin Hayes to lend weight to its case. In a matter of weeks the outgoing government announced an additional €25m for the sector. Such swift action for music and the arts had never been seen before.
The subsequent change of government at a key moment in the pandemic was incredibly fortuitous. The last government wanted to end on a positive note with its €25m, and the new administration clearly wanted to make an impact. Two weeks later, we had a new Minister for the Arts, Catherine Martin, a singer who studied music in Maynooth University. She announced the establishment of a taskforce for the culture sector, another €5m for the Council, and in September another €6m for the music scene. The NCFA then issued its budget submission in September, calling for a huge €135m for the Arts Council – an unprecedented request in extraordinary times. The Arts Council’s pre-Budget submission asked for the same amount, and backed it up with ominous industry projections from the financial consultancy EY – unemployment in the arts and music in 2021 would be far higher than in the rest of the economy. A month later, Minister Martin announced €130m for the Council, a 63% increase on the 2020 amount, plus €50m for the live entertainment sector.
After years of struggle, and in the middle of a global health crisis, suddenly the value of cultural work seemed to have been recognised. The news amazed and relieved the arts community, even if they felt it was long overdue. The next day, at a live-streamed Oireachtas Committee meeting on the arts, in which Dorgan and her colleagues fielded questions for ninety minutes, it was remarkable to hear the senators and TDs each tell of their own personal and family connection to music, dance and theatre. They name-checked the local musical society and dance school, the live-music bar and Comhaltas branch, the Christmas panto and local festival. All of these events and organisations had been affected by the pandemic, and the politicians saw the impact on their own children, families, friends and communities. ‘When that buzz is gone, it’s not the same,’ said the Cork TD Christopher O’Sullivan. Wexford TD Johnny Mythen said that online performances during the lockdown had ‘kept a lot of people, including myself, sane’. Galway TD Ciarán Cannon talked about his friends in the music industry whose careers had been devastated. ‘It took the pandemic to get the cog turning in our heads,’ said O’Sullivan. The arts always had an image of being disconnected from people’s lives, but the pandemic disrupted that and it seems everyone could start to see the connections.
There are other aspects to this remarkable period. The pandemic revealed things about music and the arts that the arts sector and the Council had probably never appreciated fully up until then. Firstly, digital streams became an instantly effective and, in the main, previously overlooked way of reaching out to those who would seldom go to a live music venue or theatre. The technology had been there for years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic struck that artists and promoters truly seized upon it. In order to stay in people’s hearts in the future, live-streaming directly into their homes has got to be a key part of the music and arts scene.
Secondly, in its previous campaigns, the arts sector and the Council had fixated on the economic importance of the arts and the big international successes, to the neglect of the local. It was not the lack of big national events that upset people during the lockdown; it was the closure of the local dance school, the pub session in their village, and the summer festival in their town. The lesson is clear: local arts need to be given much more attention and prominence. With its new funding, the Arts Council has to take a serious look at its regional distribution of funds, who it is funding, and who it is not.
Finally, it had already begun, particularly in the work of Theatre Forum and the NCFA, but the necessity of the arts and music community coming together in a consistent way to protect its artists and infrastructure is now clear. The arts community had tried before to enact change, but it grew weary at the lack of impact. They know now it is possible.
Musicians and the arts community are facing huge challenges right now. €180m does not change everything, but if they can make it through this pandemic, and hold on to what they’ve learned, there is a sense that they may emerge in a stronger position to face the future.