Why are Artists Poor?

The Dáil debate on the motion put forward by Fianna Fail’s Niamh Smyth was an historic event.  For me the most exciting aspect of it was that the words Culture, Creativity, Community, Arts, and Heritage were used with almost equal frequency. This is an important development, signalling a fundamental shift in language and understanding.  The in-principle support offered by all TDs was to be welcomed and banked for the future. Enormous congratulations are due to the NCFA for their tireless lobbying.

The language from the Government benches was unambiguous. There will be no dedicated department of Culture Arts and Heritage; there will be no Minister of State; we all love the arts; more money will be made available as the economy improves.  That last phrase was repeated several times from the Government benches.

If that is the case then what possible strategy can be put in place now to address the ridiculous conditions under which the majority of artists live and work? How can we stop being poor?

I was intrigued by a number of statistics and equations being bandied about yesterday.  Because if they’re accurate, and if people are rational, then the poverty problem can be addressed without waiting for a National Culture Policy and without a single extra penny going into the Department budget.

Several TD’s – including Micheál Martin – cited the argument that of every €1 invested in the Arts the Government gets 70 cents back in direct and indirect taxation. The remaining 30 cents generates €2.50 in the economy – an eight fold return on the 30 cents.

This is clearly an excellent return, but it is possible that within Government Accounting (which is annual) there quite simply is not the cash to increase central funding to Arts, Culture and Heritage.

So, we have the arts, culture, heritage sector, which is allegedly a bit of a money-making machine, but there is insufficient cash in the Government coffers to take advantage of it. How do we find the money to feed the machine? The answer of course is tax incentives – although only Michael Collins TD mentioned these yesterday.

Consider an incentive of 120%  tax relief on a  personal donation of €5,000 for cultural, arts and heritage projects. (Australia used something similar to kick start their film industry in the 80s)

I give revenue give me Arts Org gets rev gets 70% adds to the economy Gov gets approx 40% in tax Net Gain to Revenue
5000 6000 5000 3500 12000 4800 2300

Consider the wider implications of a scheme like this. It means that every person or organisation engaged in a community/cultural/artistic activity can raise money for their work. Every single one of them. Further, it incentivises local businesses and individuals to go out and look for such projects, creating a valuable network between creative and business communities and practice, developing social capital, encouraging a real exchange of skills, creating tangible and intangible value and developing audiences. Further, all of the money being raised is going straight to creative and cultural activities without the need of central administrations or costly grant processes.

If the figures are accurate, and if the decision-making process is rational then clearly this should be enacted without delay. If it is not enacted then the figures need to be disproved or we need to accept that the decision-making is irrational.

The other advantage of this model is that it fixes a major flaw in the centralised funding model: centralised funding cannot support everybody or everything. By its nature its resources are limited and it must make choices, and in order to make choices it must impose criteria.  Reliance on single, centralised sources of funding are in part responsible for the dreadful working conditions and endemic poverty experienced in the culture sector – conditions which were highlighted by several speakers at the debate.

Effectively we can address the current low level of resources, we can build communities and social capital, we can develop sectoral capacity and we can expand audiences now with a single simple piece of imaginative legislation without waiting for policies to be completed or the economy to improve.

Outsourcing the funding in this way means that everybody gets access, everybody gets an opportunity, everybody gets paid. Something a centralised model by itself can never achieve.

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