The new Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys
Honestly, I think I may be getting a bit full of myself these days. Politicians just won’t stop saying great things about the arts. It’s been great for my confidence.
Before the most recent general election, the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) held a series of meetings with the candidates in different constituencies. While no Fine Gael candidate was present in Limerick, all of the others spoke to the importance, pride and value the arts brings to the country. Speaking at a recent festival launch in the US, Taoiseach Enda Kenny quoted JFK saying, "I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilisation than full recognition of the artist."
Yet, all is not well between the government and the arts. What was once the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has become the Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht. #ArtsDeptNow is gaining steam, and at the time of writing an online petition calling for the arts to have its own independent Department has raised 12,400 signatures. Claims of the Department being diluted, of arts being an afterthought, of the sidling of culture to a narrow economic remit have caught like wildfire.
Addressing the backlash in the Sunday Times this weekend, Minister for the new Sort-Of-Arts-Department, Heather Humphreys, wrote about the “rumbling of discontent within the arts community (which has) steadily developed into a roar”.
The once rumbly, now roaring arts community has primarily objected to the perceived side-lining of the arts, tilting the Department towards an economic focus. The fact that Ireland funds the arts the least within the EU doesn’t help. The history of the arts at a departmental level is a history of constant name changes, of roles being shuffled, and a close relationship to a larger, more dominant economic briefing. Originally established as a subset within the Department of Economic Planning and Development in 1977, the arts has since been grouped everything from the Gaeltacht to Sport and even Equality.
The Department Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht is, historically speaking, actually nothing particularly new. In fact what we’re witnessing is part of a larger pattern in which the arts dips in and out of shadow of other economic priorities. Claims that the restructuring the brief to include Regional Development and Rural Affairs will strengthen the remit of the arts ignores history, as well as lacking evidence to back up such claims. An independent Department of the Arts would make a serious statement about the importance of culture to society, beyond sound bites and clichés.
The roar doesn’t stop there. Writing in 2015, Fintan O’Toole called for Irish artists to go on strike, in light of the 18% cut to arts funding. The recent #ArtsDeptNow controversy has raised this question again – Jo Mangan of the National Campaign for the Arts, who recently met with the Minister, said, “All of the above options are on the table.”
The strike would mean more than just putting down the paint brush. Roughly, the plan would work like this – A) get the major institutions on board. B) Identify a day, week or month (even year?) well in advance to strike. C) outline a clear and concise message. Should artists strike? Almost definitely. Will it make a difference? That’s a tougher question. What I can say is you can count this columnist as ready to rumble.
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