The support, or lack thereof, for the Irish arts

Eoghan Funge examines the plight of young Irish creatives, in what seems to be an increasingly hostile environment.

Over the past few years, an enormous amount of distrust has been detected when it comes to Ireland's funding for the arts. The deeper into the pandemic we got, the less Irish artists felt that they were being supported - funds and supports being put in place felt ‘performative’ to many. For a country that is built on a culture of music, art, creativity and storytelling, it seems right now that artists and storytellers no longer feel part of that same culture. It feels now, more than ever, that the Irish sense of creativity is being lost. Recently the directors of the much beloved Scene + Heard festival announced the cancellation of its 2023 season. Scene + Heard is an Irish theatre festival which focuses on bringing new artists, concepts and creations to the fore, pairing with theatres across the Dublin area, most notably, Smock Alley. 

In a statement released on the 8th of September, Scene + Heard co-founders Cliona Dukes and Caoimhe Connolly said: “It is with great frustration and heavy hearts that we announce that our baby, Scene + Heard: The Festival of New Work must come to an end. This decision is simply down to Arts Council funding. Like you, we also needed support to continue and we have been denied.” The statement proceeded to acknowledge and thank what the co-founders called their “artists, makers and creators” who “have repeatedly demonstrated the magic of live performance, the undulating chemistry that develops between performers and audiences in a dark room, and the connections that are made during that experience.” As anticipated, the response to this statement was full of well-wishes toward the festival’s creators, and criticism of the Arts Council for what many called “Its core values”. One person stated that “It's clear this council, while awash with money, is focusing more on perception than benefit to the country”, while another responded by advising the founders to “be proud of what you’ve done. You have been failed by a system focused on making money, not art.” 

In an email exchange between myself, Clíona and Caoimhe, we discussed the decision to deny funding to the festival. They explained that under guidelines, you must have completed 5 seasons as a festival before requesting Arts Council Funding - this would have been the first year that Scene and Heard would have qualified and, due to its growth over recent years - relied upon this approval. They have said they “can no longer rely on crowdfunding”, stating that “this small model of the two of us, our designer Ste plus some technical crew, has been necessary to allow us to get this far, but as the festival has grown - now there are changes we need to make”.  As to the “why” of it all - why were they denied funding, both founders said that the application was denied based on an administrative loophole - a mistake that the council have since admitted to and have reviewed this process. The University Observer reached out to the Arts Council Team but the Council denied our request for comment, stating they do not provide comment on individual organisations. 

With the response from the public being one of great dismay and upset, it came as a relief that Dukes and Conolly got to release a newer statement on the 10th of October, announcing that while they had not received their full grant, and they are now 2 months behind, they have been given partial support toward putting on the festival of New Works (Scene + Heard) and they are now taking applications.

While this story has a happy ending, it is unfortunately part of a larger problem - the issues facing young Irish artists and creatives in this country. It has long been known that Ireland’s arts and culture infrastructure is underdeveloped. However, now more than ever it is being reflected on as arts groups across the nation try to get themselves back on their feet, following a difficult two years of online performances and productions.

This year the Dáil invited Rob Donnelly, President of The Association of Irish Musical Societies (AIMS) and Frank Foley (AIMS Secretary) to discuss the importance and influence of amateur musical theatre on the arts industry here. In their presentation titled “The Future of Musical Theatre Education in Ireland” Rob and Frank stated that

“We have over 14,000 members performing in on average 800 productions a year from full scale musicals to concerts and pantomimes. Our audiences average 1.2 million. Although we are seen as an amateur organisation, we stage shows to a very professional standard with an average cost of 40-50K. We also employ many technicians, musicians, directors, and choreographers. Along with many lighting operators, sound technicians, set builders/painters, costume suppliers, props, hair and makeup crews, stage crews, Front of House teams, kitchen staff there could be on average 100 people working on every production.” 

They also state that AIMS has over 100 member societies - with as stated above, 14,000+ members annually under this umbrella. They discussed the impact of the pandemic, describing it as ‘devastating’, and said that the absence of these platforms left a ‘huge void in towns and villages all over the country’. Donnelly and Foley brought forward concerns around the funding and recognition of musical theatre in education in Ireland. They also discussed how the main route for many Irish students is moving to another country, primarily the United Kingdom, to pursue their goals of working in the industry. Among other things, the team also discussed the recent recognition received from the Arts Council, to provide support toward developing a programme titled “Mentoring & Performance Critical Appraisal”, a pilot programme which is currently running, and will be completed in summer 2023. They say it is their goal to continue developing this project, but they cannot do this without the full support of the necessary structures. 

Overall, these two examples of the need for support in Ireland are just the slightest echo of what is a larger cry for help from the professionals and amateurs in our country. The disparity between the supports available for education and creativity in the arts and theatre industry, compared with those available in sports education, is looked at as completely unfair and in many ways condescending. It is a feeling shared by many young people in Ireland that they would be better off supporting and providing their talent to the structures over in the United Kingdom, where at least there are mentorship and education programmes they can pursue. While here - spaces like The New Works Festival (Scene + Heard), musical theatre spaces and societies and general theatre education are underdeveloped, neglected and underappreciated. Even though our own president - the representative of our state, is a published poet and dramatist, we still fail to acknowledge the route of experience gained through learning in the arts.