In the two weeks since the remit of my department was expanded from arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht to include regional development and rural affairs, a rumbling of discontent within the arts community has steadily developed into a roar.
An online campaign calling for me to establish a standalone arts department — something which, constitutionally and otherwise, is quite simply not within my gift — eventually managed to catch the attention, and garner the support, of the Oscar-nominate director Lenny Abrahamson, one of the finest examples of what is possible when there is long-term investment in Irish creative talent.
While I do not agree with the premise of the campaign — that our arts and culture are somehow being diminished or sidelined by this government because they are now part of a bigger department with more clout — I do understand and appreciate its genesis.
The arts suffered hugely during the economic crash. The arts budget was cut severely, first by the Fianna Fail government from 2008 onwards, and then by the Fine Gael-Labour government, of which I was a member. Cutbacks were unavoidable and, as we are all aware, were felt across every sector in receipt of public funding. It will take time to reverse the damage.
I was fortunate enough to come into the Department of Arts in 2014, when our public finances were beginning to improve. I have increased funding to the arts year on year since then, and hope to do so again in the forthcoming budget. The programme for partnership government contains an important commitment to progressively increase funding for the arts, with specific reference to the Arts Council and the Irish Film Board. I will be seeking support from cabinet colleagues to make good on that commitment.
Through the clamour and campaigns for more funding for the arts, positive developments are sometimes overlooked. The outgoing government got little credit, for example, for starting a €30m investment in the National Gallery of Ireland, at a time when our finances were still in a fragile state. I was delighted to be able to announce a €10m investment for the National Library last year, an institution which has been overlooked and neglected by almost every government since it first opened in the late 1800s.
However, without doubt, the most positive contribution my department has made over the last two years, the one with the widest impact, has been the programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The commemorations were a triumph of culture and creativity, a burst of artistic expression, and a collective and honest exploration of our heritage. The arts community shone through the commemorations in a way that swelled the country with pride. From the grand spectacle of RTE’s Centenary on Easter Monday night, to the small, yet powerful impact of community theatre productions, we have reconnected with our culture on a scale not experienced in decades.
In the wake of the centenary events we have an unprecedented opportunity to seize upon the renewed passion, connection and pride in our culture and our heritage. That puts an onus not just on the government to show its commitment to our culture, but also on the sector itself to look outwards rather than within.
The arts community and the government are never going to be harmonious, nor should they be. The nature of cultural expression is rooted in a desire to push out boundaries, to ask difficult questions, and to challenge those in power. But as we begin charting a course in new political waters, the arts community has a choice: to condemn this government, based upon an unfounded belief that it has no regard for the arts, or to work constructively together and bring forward ideas in the best interests of the sector and the wider community.
The government invested significantly in the 1916 commemorations this year. I want to see that funding maintained for the years ahead and reinvested in culture and creativity. But the discussion cannot just be about funding, as important as it may be. As we move into the latter half of the centenary year, we will transition from a period of looking back to one of looking forward. A key theme of the centenary programme is “reimagine”; a rallying call to ambitiously reimagine Ireland’s future. What better medium than our culture to drive that conversation?
In tandem, I will be prioritising the publication of “culture 2025”, this country’s first national cultural policy. It has been in train since last year, and the strategy has been led by the arts and cultural sectors from the ground up, through a series of consultation days.
Culture 2025 will set out a vision for our cultural sector over the next decade. 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. The publication of the cultural strategy will provide us with a fresh opportunity to assess our cultural output and highlight its hugely positive benefits.
We are renowned around the world for our incredible cultural legacy, but 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?
Yes, more funding must be provided but, at a time when prosperity is returning, let’s underpin that with a determination to illustrate that cultural activity is a vital part of Irish society.