As I write this 10,394 people – artists (of all types), teachers, parents, dog lovers, cyclists, computer heads, gamers, teenagers – have signed a petition calling for the creation of a dedicated department of Arts, Culture and Heritage, adequately resourced, and for the rollout of a national cultural policy to be ratified by those who work in these sectors.
The petition has sparked a flurry of activity in the media, and forced the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht to request a meeting with the National Campaign for the Arts. Be in no doubt, it is the actions and expressions of 10,000+ people that have forced this meeting – not a concern for or an understanding of culture, or creativity or community or “The Arts”.
We have their attention: the only real question is what can happen now?
We all have different ideas as to what should happen. Here’s some of mine.
I reckon the government will do what they’re hard wired to do. They’ll make outlandish promises based on us making the noise go away, but then they’ll kick the can further on down the road. If they’re particularly desperate they’ll throw some money at the problem, they may even throw a lot. But think about this: it doesn’t matter how much water you put into a system; if you don’t redesign the plumbing the water goes to the same places and comes out the same taps.
In truth, I think that money, funding should be the last thing on the agenda.
The petition calls for an adequately resourced department. Now what does that mean? Money? Sure. But it means a department with the the right people, the right expertise, the right knowledge. People who understand the connection, the flow from community to creativity to culture to art; people who understand that Art is fleeting and creativity continuous; people who understand the value of culture and creative practice to health, welfare. diversity, inclusion, and innovation; people who understand that failure is inevitable and necessary, and people who like it – who like to dance and read, and see plays, and listen to all kinds of music, and appreciate the value of graffitti as well as Goya. You need a department that understands the changing social and technological environment, who can see that the centralised funding model is an outdated 19th Century version of royal patronage, and that the 21st century needs something more fit for purpose, just as it needs an updated legislation to deal with the shifting parameters of practice. That’s an adequately resourced department. Then we can talk about Money.
The media have been very quick to turn this into a discussion about “funding”. We need to reject that at every step, because once we’re in that bog there’s no way we can win. Where will the money come from? How can we justify that much with people homeless? etc etc. The “funding” mentality is a hangover from the mediaval princes. It means that politicians can dance around on foreign stages supported by the select few artists who had the good fortune to work for this event.It gives a feeling of power. “Funding” is part of what gives Arts and Culture a bad name.
You want to improve the life of artists? Instigate an artists welfare system similar to that in France, a basic income experiment if you will. Use tax incentives to encourage lower earners to invest in cultural activity – so that a parent can risk €10k on a project and get it all back in tax (I’ve written about this here); use tax incentives for sponsorship, ring fence the national lottery funds so that they are separate from department funds, create a foreign artist withholding tax – as so many other countries have – and ring fence that, let the department or the council or local authority underwrite loans (a very successsful experiment in Europe), nil rate the VAT for culture, etc, etc. There are so many ways to free up money already in the system, so many ways to create multiple funding options and sources and put funding in the hands of the artist, rather than the antiquated, inequitable system that has them all waiting outside the arts council doors, like a scene from On The Waterfront.
Then we can talk about Funding.
But even before that happens we have to change as well. It’s difficult, when you’ve spent years turning out good work in the hope of a centralised funding system bestowing their seal of approval on you in the form of a realistic repeatable grant to appreciate just how dependent we have become. We need to turn our eyes away from the Council, from the department, from the politicians and we need to make work for the public again, with the public again. I was asked recently by Jimmy Fay did I believe that all theatres should be community theatres. I said that any theatre that wasn’t would either fail or require ever increasing subsidies to stay open. We need to break out of the ghetto of the “arts community” and make work for and with people. We need to add real value to people’s lives – not to political super events.
We need to learn to work together – really work together. Build capacity in a way that doesn’t mean sharing a desk. I’ve written about some of them here. There are countless models emerging in the UK, Europe, the US and elsewhere. We need to know what they are, experiment with them and let the policy and the “funding” follow the practice and not vice versa.
And we need to ask the hard questions: what exactly is being funded and what do we want to happen as a result.
There needs to be a National Cultural Policy and we need to ratify it.
And we need to work with every candidate to help them build their cultural understanding and policy.
Then we can talk about funding. About 0.6% in the lifetime of this government starting with 0.3% this year.
We are now close to 10500. We’re up. Let’s go to work. Dream big.