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Opinion Basic income for Ireland's artists? It's about time

Arts programmer Naoise Nunn looks at why it’s important the arts are funded – and valued.

LAST UPDATE | 11 Jun 2021

EVERY ON-DEMAND TV series we binged, every book we read, every game you played, every podcast we listened to, every movie we watched and every online performance we enjoyed during the pandemic: they were all created by artists.

Every bit of momentary joy we’ve had through experiencing culture and the arts has also served us as a means to help us understand ourselves, our place in society and what that society itself values at this unique moment in history.

Recent articles and podcasts have been speculating about how the world – or at least the wealthy part of it – might now be looking forward to an era reminiscent of the Roaring ‘20s which greeted the end of the First World War and the Spanish ‘flu pandemic over a hundred years ago.

It’s too early to tell how the complex interaction of politics, culture, society, economics and public health will play out in the coming years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been a profound shock to the global order and it would be naive to assume that our societies will not see unexpected and rapid changes, some of which are already apparent.

For a start, the tone of political and economic conversation has changed. In the US, voters have favoured more rather than less Government intervention in their lives. The new Biden Administration, along with the EU and others, favours multilateral solutions to global problems.

The creeping success of nativist, xenophobic and anti-scientific politics has forced a reluctant acknowledgment that the excesses of capitalism must be curbed to avoid political chaos and climate disaster.

This has, in part, led to the ground-breaking agreement by the G7 group of wealthy countries to reform the global tax system to ensure that the surveillance capitalists of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and others pay their fair share when and where it should be paid.

Governments in the US, Europe and other rich countries have embarked on historically unprecedented levels of borrowing and spending to support their citizens and economies as they endured and continue to endure rolling lockdowns and public health restrictions as well as sickness and death. Traditional worries about debt and inflation have been cast aside.

Fresh perspectives

In our cultural conversations on social media, through journalism and in our happily more frequent face-to-face interactions, there is a growing popular ambition for a type of new humanism that values the dignity and quality of human lives over their economic output.

This is manifesting itself, among other things, in increasing demands for decent affordable housing, more family-friendly working conditions, better funded public services and fresh perspectives on work and society.

Leading or participating in many of these conversations are often the artists whose work has sustained us all through the trauma, anxiety and boredom of the pandemic.

  • SUSPENDED ANIMATION – Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out how we can help artists recover after the coronavirus crisis. See how you can support this project here.

In Ireland, the arts have been historically underfunded, often to a shameful extent, even as governments sought to press artists into action as frequently poorly-paid ambassadors selling the country’s cultural value to tourists and overseas investors.

In recent years, however, successive governments have been persuaded through the work, particularly of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) and the Arts Council, that, if we value our culture and artistic life and the people who create it, we need to fund it properly as a society or lose it and all the nourishment it provides.

This all serves as context for the recent remarkable announcement by Catherine Martin, the Green Party Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, that she had secured a basic income guarantee pilot scheme for artists, as part of the Government’s Covid recovery plan.

The news of the initiative, long campaigned for by the NCFA, was the number one recommendation of the Life Worth Living report, and was warmly welcomed across the arts and cultural sector in Ireland.

In Budget 2021, Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe allocated €130 million to the Arts Council and an additional €50 million for the commercial entertainment sector. Overall, the spending represented a massive 70% increase over the figures for 2020.

The new scheme will mean a guaranteed income of around €350 for thousands of artists and cultural workers who often otherwise rely on precarious and irregular payments. As the NCFA said in their statement welcoming the move:

A basic income for the arts sector recognises the necessity to remove precarity from the lives of artists and arts workers of all disciplines, so that they might develop, create and present their best work for the benefit of all society.

None of this is to devalue the work of any other part of society.

This is a pilot scheme for one of the sectors worst affected by the pandemic.

What it could do is open up the possibility of a more general basic guaranteed income system in Ireland which has the potential to cut the administration of social welfare payments, improve family-friendly working, community engagement and volunteerism and much more that could benefit society.

Our experience of programming the Brightening Air festival for the Arts Council showed us the enormous love and commitment that artists in Ireland pour into the work, often for very modest financial return.

From 150 outstanding applications, we had the resources to programme 15 experiences, but they are intended to reach as many people as possible in Ireland so they can experience and engage with arts projects that make them laugh, cry, smile, well-up, shudder, shiver and dance. 

But, more than anything, we wanted artists, technicians and audiences to come together in a shared communion of hope for the future – for the arts and for our country.

Brightening Air | Coiscéim Coiligh is a nationwide season of arts experiences brought to you by the Arts Council and produced by Schweppe Curtis Nunn taking place from June 11 – 20. See for more.

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