To many minds, the notion of the state acting as a patron of the arts is a no-brainer. Of course public money should go to supporting creative industries, they say.
But in a time when hospital services are being cut and school class sizes are set to increase, the question is being asked: “Are the arts a luxury we can’t afford right now?”
This was the premise of a panel discussion held in the Pembroke Hotel on Saturday morning as the Kilkenny Arts Festival got into full swing. Hosted by the festival and the Carlow Kilkenny National Campaign for the Arts, the issue clearly struck a chord as it attracted a capacity crowd of well over 100 people – and not all were in unanimous agreement.
Audience member Blaise Smith, a painter, for example, argued that there is now an “oversupply of artists” and arts managers. He noted that, whereas when he attended art school 20 years ago there were 50 students in his class, “there are now five colleges producing 200 graduates a year”.
“I agree that there is a very positive vibe in the arts, but I also think there is a huge amount of money being spent that doesn’t need to be spent,” he said. In particular, he singled out the awarding of bursaries and said that artists who benefit from them should have to produce a certain amount of work in exchange.
Artist Alan Counihan also said that “to my mind (the arts) are a luxury if they are producing ornaments and if they don’t challenge us ... as a society”.
However, when he pointed out that the Limerick College of Art takes in 300 students each September and this year has 900 students, National Craft Gallery exhibitions manager and curator Ann Mulrooney said there were benefits beyond just producing people who make art for a living.
She cited a UK study that tracked art-school graduates and found that their background in creative thinking had led to success in their various careers even if they were not practising artists.
This tied into the message of panellist Finbarr Bradley, a former economist and bond trader who is now interested in creativity and innovation – and who was described as a “Renaissance man” by panel chairman Pat Cooke. Mr Bradley argued that creative skills are vital in the current “digital age” that is replacing the “industrial age” of manufacturing-centred work.
Arts and humanities have a vital role to play in education – not just science and technology – he said, because critical and creative minds will lead the way to sustainable prosperity. There is no point in just teaching students knowledge and facts that they could simply find on the internet, he pointed out. “In a globalised world culture becomes more, not less, important,” he said.
Using as an example Aran sweaters that are sold for hundreds of euro in Milano and Saks Fifth Avenue – “they are not selling sweaters, they are selling the place” – he said Ireland should tap into the areas where it has an advantage over mass-producing economies. “We should start with what we are good at,” he said.
The debate about arts funding often focuses on whether to maintain the levels of euro spent, but panellist Gráinne Millar of the Temple Bar Cultural Trust suggested that the time would be better spent considering how to use the money so that disadvantaged or overlooked sectors of society benefit, and not just those who are better off.
She pointed to studies showing that cultural participation has a profound impact on psychological well-being, quality of life and life expectancy, but she asked: “Who is actually benefiting from the public subsidy of the arts, and how are they benefiting?” She cited research showing, for example, that the beneficiaries are “strongly biased towards the disproportionately well off.”
Ideally, she said, policy makers should target people in lower socio-economic groups and make the arts more meaningful to people in their daily lives.
Ultimately the discussion about arts funding has to include economics and facts and figures, even if as panellist Gerry Smyth of The Irish Times pointed out that “most artists don’t want to get into the discussion about the economics – there are people who do reports about that, and that’s fine”.
Various figures were brought up – such as the example that the craft sector has contributed over half a billion euro to the Irish economy – but the non-monetary value is at least as important, many speakers noted.
“There are other reasons why not investing in the arts is a huge risk, and it’s to do with the soul of the nation,” Mr Smyth said. “I think asking the arts community to tighten its belt is a bit like asking a skeleton to tighten its belt.”
In the end, Deputy Ann Phelan offered a piece of advice to those seeking public money for the arts: “Don’t think the Government underestimates the value of the arts, but when you come looking for funding and we say, ‘Can you quantify the arts?’ do try to have it in black and white. That’s what will save the funding.”
Because of the large turnout and limited time on Saturday, there were many in attendance who did not have a chance to express their views. To address this, the group intends to convene a less formal discussion with the hope that all those interested will become involved and pick up the discussion again.