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Column Irish art and culture is being failed by lazy, inept leadership

Our Arts minister is unable to represent his department with any real knowledge, and is therefore failing to exploit what could be a multi-billion euro industry, writes Eoin Lynch.

THE RECENT CONTROVERSY surrounding the inaugural City of Culture was a perfect opportunity for the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan to step up to the plate and show some long overdue leadership. Unfortunately, the Minister simply confirmed what many observers have suspected for quite sometime now; that he is in the wrong job.

Events in Limerick got off to a well-publicised start with the artistic director and two festival programmers resigning over numerous issues, one of which was tension between the creative team and the CEO – who had been appointed without any due procedure. She, too, later resigned. However, the board that oversaw this fiasco is still in place.

Minister Deenihan was notably quiet during the fallout. His contribution totalled a single press release, after much of the controversy had already blown over, and a radio interview on RTE’s This Week programme in which he deflected responsibility from himself and stated that he only knew what was happening from what he “had read in the papers”.

An inability to represent the Arts with any real knowledge

The Minister’s advisers must surely have winced at the point of the interview where he awkwardly referred to the famous French street theatre company Royal de Luxe as “a puppet show I think’” Admittedly, most people you meet down the pub on a Friday night aren’t going to know much about Royal de Luxe, but the majority of theatre professionals will know that they are a street theatre company. Is it unreasonable to expect that a minister representing the arts would know it too? It may seem like nitpicking, but it highlights the fact that Minister Deenihan does not appear comfortable when representing the Arts.

The two main issues around Jimmy Deenihan’s incumbency are a lack of leadership and an inability to represent the Arts with any real knowledge. Despite the Coalition policy of austerity it is apparent that other ministers are fighting tooth and nail for their departmental budgets not to be cut. Minister Deenihan seems content to sit back and allow his department take one for what he considers to be the greater good of the country. Whenever he is drawn on the specifics of cuts to the sector, he is quick to refer to the wider sacrifices that the people of Ireland are making.

When recently asked by Clare Daly “if he will restore the 30% cut in arts funding which has taken place over the past five years, as a necessary measure to protect our culture and local artistic jobs and centres”, the Minister responded: “Difficult choices needed to be made in this year’s budget. As has been made clear, this budget is above all about strengthening our economy, creating jobs and exiting the bailout”.

The Minister has also made certain recommendations to Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan about the Arts, but despite requests from various organisations such as the National Campaign for the Arts, these recommendations are not in the public forum. Why the lack of transparency?

Professional background is important

The current mishap that is Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is easily tracked. Having entered political life after a glorious career as a Kerry footballer (he was part of the five-time winning All-Ireland Kerry team), Jimmy Deenihan entered local politics as a member of Kerry County Council. He was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1987 as the Kerry North representative. In 2010 he became the Fine Gael spokesperson for the Arts, Sport and Tourism which, considering his background on the pitch, made certain sense.

However, when Fine Gael came to power in 2011, Enda Kenny retitled several departments and what was erstwhile the Department of Sport, Culture and Tourism became the Department for Sport, Tourism and Transport, with a Department for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht being established. Even Deenihan must have scratched his head at being passed up for the Sports posting. He has never looked comfortable as a spokesperson for the Arts, and deserving of a ministerial post as the party members may have believed him to be, he was not high enough up on the FG food chain to take the responsibility of Sport, Tourism and Transport, which went to the ever-ambitious Leo Varadakar.

Admittedly, Deenihan could have turned the job down; but since when do cabinet members turn down a ministerial post based on a gross lack of knowledge concerning the department they are taking over? From John O’Donoghue to the late Seamus Brennan to Martin Cullen, none of the recent ministers with responsibility for the Arts have had what could be considered a professional background in the area which would qualify them for the job.

The fact that politics and arts do not mix particularly well in Ireland has become more problematic in recent times, and it is a problem that must be addressed for the sake of the Arts in Ireland. People involved in the Arts, or the much spoken about “arts community” are not apolitical, on the contrary many artists create work in order to question, disrupt and reflect what is happening within the political system. However, many feel that becoming too cosy with the establishment will hinder their ability to question how we, as a people, are governed.

The potential to become a multi-billion euro industry

And yet people involved professionally in the arts are more than a “community”, they are part of a multi-million euro industry, with the potential to become a multi-billion euro industry. This means that a stronger engagement with the establishment becomes very important, if not essential.

So how do we move forward? There is no quick answer to that, but people working within the Arts must begin to consider a number of questions.

Firstly, if not Jimmy Deenihan then who?

Looking around the ministerial or even cabinet table there is no single person who jumps out as a suitable candidate for the role of Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Politicians who are also artists, such as Michael D Higgins, are a rarity. Notably when President Higgins was in office as Minister for the Arts he re-established the Irish Film Board, dissolved Section 31 and set-up the most interesting television station in the country, TG4. He essentially created the ground work for a thriving sector. Where will the next person with such vision come from?

Secondly, at a time when the Arts is in need of strong leadership and knowledgeable representation, which is more dangerous; an inept minister or no minister at all? If the ministerial post is gotten rid of, a stakeholder board made up of representatives from arts organisations could be put in place to administer government funds. Such a stakeholder organisation already exists in the form of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA).

The NCFA is an organisation that has tasked itself with forming a long-term strategy for the Arts in Ireland. If this organisation was given the powers outlined above there would, no doubt, be long and difficult debates about who should receive money – regional arts organisations would surely relish the opportunity to have their voice heard – but at least knowledgeable parties would be making the relevant decisions. Some will undoubtedly balk at the irony of the NCFA taking up such a role. Founded in 2009 the NCFA was set-up to tackle recommendations in the McCarthy Report that the Arts do not need a ministerial representative. However, it could be argued that the McCarthy Report was a political tool conceived to scaremonger, as opposed to a practical guide to running an economy. Now is a time for practicality and unity within the Arts Community.

What is clear is that structural reform is needed, the recent events in Limerick have highlighted this. The time for that reform is now.

Eoin Lynch tweets at @Eoinlyncho and blogs at www.theartsblog.

Column: Limerick City of Culture must not be allowed to fail

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