Part II – In Every Crisis an Opportunity….for the Government

The Uplift petition launched in response to the downgrading of the Arts brief and the complete denial of Culture and Heritage as areas of significance or interest has now gathered 12,400 signatures.  It has prompted unparalleled media coverage, a brilliant social media response (with some really creative threads), and is rapidly turning into a political hot potato. The support for this petition is unquestionable and its importance to people (not just “the arts community”)  is undeniable.   Well done everybody.

What the Minister and the Taoiseach – and the whole of government – need to realise is that this is the single greatest opportunity they have ever been offered.

It is an opportunity to redesign the culture, arts and Heritage sector, and build a department and associated agencies, legislation and funding tools that will create a thriving, sustainable sector capable of creating real wealth, real jobs, and real social value in terms of health, education, welfare, and innovation. An opportunity to create a cultural sector and  policy that would be a shining example to the rest of the world.

That would be a magnificent legacy.

So, Minister, Taoiseach, elected representatives. Have you the desire to leave that legacy? Have you the Leadership to grab this opportunity and turn it to the advantage of the whole nation?

Because those are the real questions you have to answer now.

Unfortunately,  as we have learned in today’s Sunday Times article, Minister Humphrey’s does not have the power – personally or constitutionally – to create a Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage.  We further learned,  in one of her twitter responses,  that she does not have the power to make any budgetary guarantees.

She does say that “The government invested significantly in the commemorations this year. I want to see that funding maintained for the years ahead and reinvested in culture and creativity.” It’s good to see that she’s taken on this idea presented to her department by the NCFA (and I’m sure others) before Christmas;  she also said that she will be “prioritising the publication of “culture 2025”, this country’s first national cultural policy”.  So she can meet that demand, although she has said nothing about it being ratified by the sector. Why is that latter bit important in the petition? Because she describes the plan as being “led by the arts and cultural sectors from the ground up, through a series of consultation days.” I really don’t think that the majority of the cultural sector would agree with that description – which is why its important we get to ratify it.

Most troubling of all is this “I want to see culture as a core component of the work of
government, so that when developing policies it considers the potential impacts on the arts”  First, its the impact of culture on all other sectors of government that needs to be assessed (and what is at issue in this campaign), and second the sentence moves from a consideration of culture to a consideration of arts – as if culture and art  meant the same thing – which they do not. (The kind of lazy  thinking that underlies the call for a properly resourced department).

So, when faced with this extraordinary opportunity, the government have done what we always knew they would: they called some people they knew into the ministers office, listened to our concerns, uttered some reassurances, made no commitments, bought some time for themselves, waved the possibility of a few bob at us later this year (big if, we’d have to behave ourselves), and put Minister Humphrey’s into the disgraceful position of having to admit that she was powerless, unable to affect the department, unable to guarantee any minimum budget and unable to offer the National Cultural Policy to us for ratification.

Finally the Minister (or one of her advisers writes) it “…is time we focused more on the positive impact of the arts at home. Why not promote our wealth of contemporary culture as an asset when we are seeking to attract some of the world’s best companies to invest here? We should ask how we can promote more creativity in our schools to broaden the minds of our pupils and help them develop their talents for future challenges. How can we encourage greater participation in the arts and culture to improve health outcomes, particularly in mental health? How can cultural activity ensure vibrant towns and cities, and how can the arts and cultural sectors contribute
to the challenges facing rural Ireland, which form part of my expanded department?”

Quite apart from the fact that this statement reveals the most shocking level of ignorance of so much work done by the cultural sector over the last 30 years, it also ignores the fact  this has been called for by the Cultural sector since I started in the business over 25 years ago! Countless, countless of my colleagues have devoted their lives to achieve these outcomes while successive governments have favoured the vanity project and the photo op.

The reason it hasn’t developed to the level the minister calls for here? Because we have NEVER had an adequately resourced department in terms of people, ideas, knowledge, processes and money. Because the legislation prevents it and downgrades it, and because the system of state patronage (I can’t grace it with the term investment – or even funding) is a 19th century relic of patronage and  incapable of delivering it. So broken is this system of patronage that any additional money they throw into it this year will trickle through the existing channels to the same destinations. It will achieve nothing – and that nothing will be used as an argument to cut funding again in the following years.

So every action so far has been predictable, and every comment and statement that has been made by the Minister and her advisers supports the desperate need for an adequately resourced department of Arts Culture and Heritage.

The opportunity is still there for this government. We are ready to work this. It may take, as Eugene Downes suggested on twitter,  an all party action to achieve it.

All they have to do is display courage, imagination and Leadership.


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