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Column: Culture was Farmleigh's answer; Dublin Castle was about quick economic wins

Of the two forums on global Irish economics, Farmleigh’s message that culture was the answer to our fiscal woes got lost along the way, writes culture business consultant Anna Walsh.

Anna Walsh Director of Culture Business Consultancy Ltd.

LIKE MOST IDEAS, culture and economics are interdependent. Yet in the national effort to try and restore Ireland’s reputation, political, media and public expectations of the arts are caught up in cultural gloop.

In the last three and a half difficult years, there have been two Global Irish Economic forums and one change of government. In this short time of economic disarray, quite different expectations of culture and the arts have been expressed. Political upheaval and influences apart, is it timely to examine how culture might effectively contribute to the restoration of Ireland’s damaged reputation?

Business is the activity of economics with a clear expectation of return on capital invested. The arts are one manifestation of culture, be it personal, local, national, regional or global. Historically, the unquantifiable political objectives of social cohesion, national identity and prestige justified the investment of public money in the arts.

“Discussions bypassed innovation along with research and development to focus on culture”

Consider the mindset that prevailed pre-Farmleigh. In the run up to the 2009 Forum, global financial collapse had triggered a downfall in the Irish public and private finances. The Administration was in disarray having being lulled into a false sense of surplus. Corruption, a lack of governance, bankruptcy and scandals were corroding the national reputation. Competitiveness had been eroded. Ireland had lost bureaucratic friends through arrogance and extravagance and a general election loomed.

At the first Forum, a few hundred influential business people, entertainers, cultural diplomats and politicians discussed the restoration of national reputation. Unexpectedly, these discussions bypassed Innovation along with research and development, the predictable panaceas for economic ills, to focus on culture.

So how was it that culture came to prominence at Farmleigh, billed as an economic think tank for invited guests mainly from the world of business? Was it simply a lack of political will to directly tackle the deepening national economic and fiscal crises? Or might it have been that delegates, with their international business perspective, had an innate sense of culture’s role in enhancing national reputation and prestige?

“Enhancing national prestige increases the attractiveness of Ireland as a Foreign Direct Investment location”

Professor of Economics, John O’Hagan, presented his views of the economic importance of national prestige in the 2010 Trinity College Dublin Leadership Forum. One simplistic interpretation of the argument in his paper, Arts and Culture – A Future for Ireland? goes as follows:

National prestige is a virtuous circle. Enhancing national prestige increases the attractiveness of Ireland as a Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) location and tourism as well as the perceived value of exports, all of which further enhance national prestige.

To my mind, this unsentimental economic view of the value of the arts underpinned the first Forum discussion.

After the Forum, the media presentation and the public’s perception of the discussion degenerated rapidly into terse exchanges between artists and their public pay masters. While Ireland’s pre-eminent reputation in the arts was seen by the Farmleigh gathering as an obvious means to enhance Ireland’s reputation, it was, and still is, abhorrent to the artists whose value was to be leveraged and monetised in the national cause.

After the Forum, the media presentation and the public’s perception of the discussion degenerated rapidly into terse exchanges between artists and their public pay masters. While Ireland’s pre-eminent reputation in the arts was seen by the Farmleigh gathering as an obvious means to enhance Ireland’s reputation, it was, and still is, abhorrent to the artists whose value was to be leveraged and monetised in the national cause.

“Somewhere between the House and the Castle, expectations of culture shifted”

By 2011, some economic sores had been lanced. Political and administrative minds were trained on national competitiveness. Considerations of fiscal rectitude, debt as well as the restoration of investor confidence in Ireland’s banking system and business ecosystem were paramount. The Forum, opened by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, discussed how to make Ireland “the best small country in the world in which to do business” in a crisp, business-like manner. Actions, outcomes and results of the quantifiable economic variety were the order of this Forum. In contrast to Farmleigh, where culture was a means to positively influence and engage with the wider world, Dublin Castle was all about impact and quick economic wins.

Somewhere between the House and the Castle, expectations of culture shifted. With a few notable exceptions, such as delegate affirmations of the efficacy of Culture Ireland’s Imagine Ireland promotional programme in the US and the proposed World Actors’ Forum in 2013, Dublin Castle deliberations focused on the necessary conditions to restore the markets’ confidence, regain competitiveness and attract investment. A support role for the arts in this bid to enhance competitiveness, even as Ireland’s global business calling card, was downplayed. The arts as propaganda or economic grease were no longer the issues. As a result, no artist was offended. None were engaged either. Depending on the argument, the social glue and economic grease benefits of investment in the arts were randomly combined. Cultural gloop resulted.

“Quantifiable actions with quarterly results prevailed. It’s easy to see why culture wasn’t a priority”

In this Government’s first year, restoring competitiveness was the political imperative. Efforts to support enterprise, attract FDI and drive exports were strenuous. Quantifiable actions with quarterly results prevailed. In these conditions, it’s easy to see why culture wasn’t a priority. However, with national reputation and prestige being key to maintaining high levels of FDI, tourism and exports in fiercely competitive international markets, have the arts some role in regaining national competitive advantage?

One goal in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Statement of Strategy 2011–2014 is “to promote and develop Ireland’s world-class artistic and creative strengths at home and abroad, maximising their societal, economic and reputational value for the country”. This goal suggests a deliberate social glue role for the arts as well as economic grease and national prestige ones too. However, the economic and societal benefits of investment in the arts should be carefully considered if the cultural gloop is not to thicken.

Taoiseach Kenny’s stated objective of “making Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business” might well have a complementary cultural objective. The traditional argument for the investment of public money in the arts, that of social glue, the ties that bind us, one to the other, as we exchange not just goods and services but ideas, meaning and a sense of who we are at home and around the world has renewed relevance. Culture wasn’t just for Farmleigh. Creating a civil society, or more explicitly, making Ireland the best small country in the world in which to live and do business, might both be pre-requisites for success. It’s now time to reach for economic success as well as a civil society, not just one or the other.

Anna Walsh is director of Culture Business Consultancy and has an MA in Arts Management and Cultural Policy from UCD.

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About the author:

Anna Walsh  / Director of Culture Business Consultancy Ltd.

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