There’s an art to it

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Seán Delaney discusses why the government’s increased budget for the arts is too little, far too late.

Earlier this month the Irish government released a robust and comprehensive budget for the coming year, in doing so emphasising the importance of keeping Ireland’s economic interests stable during the Covid-19 pandemic. This was not an easy task given that as I write this we are once again in a full lockdown and it is becoming increasingly clear that it will not be the last lockdown this country experiences. 

The Arts and Culture sector has been particularly devastated since the pandemic took hold in Ireland in March. In particular, performance art was the first to be hit during the pandemic and has not been able to recover since March due to the restrictions on public gatherings. The effect of the pandemic has been felt right across the arts community from large organisations to individual artists. The arts sector was already known as one wherein individuals could not be guaranteed a stable income and the impact of the pandemic has only exasperated this problem.  

So what exactly has the 2021 budget promised the arts sector? In terms of pure numbers, the arts sector in Ireland is to receive €50 million for the commercial entertainment sector. This is the first time this particular sector of the arts industry, one which employs over 35,000 people nationwide, is to receive aid from the government. The Arts Council is to receive €130 million, aimed at aiding individual artists, freelancers, festivals, and organizations. Screen Ireland (the body in charge of film and television in Ireland) is to receive €26.2 million from this budget, a €9 million increase from the previous year. Furthermore, €78 million has been allocated to the Gaeltacht and Irish language sector, and €40.733 million has been allocated to TG4. That’s the pure numbers, the funding for the arts has been increased by approximately 70% in 2021 compared to 2020. 

However, the National Campaign for the Arts has pointed out that while the increase in funding is welcome, many talented artists and freelance arts workers were not accounted for in the budget. They particularly point to concerns over Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP). While they welcome the income disregard that allows workers to earn up to €120 a week without losing the PUP, they pointed out that the government’s 'Living with COVID' plan extends as far as the end of next year, but PUP is to be phased out in April 2021 which will leave those who are reliant on the payment in a precarious situation. 

Looking at the numbers alone, however, does not provide the full story. While the increase in spending on the arts is more than welcome, one does have to wonder if it is far too little too late, and who exactly is benefiting from this funding? The arts sector has struggled for years in Ireland as a result of negligence from the government. What the arts need isn’t millions of euro thrown at it when it’s on its knees. The arts needed sustained funding for years leading up to this point, easier access to funds for creatives (particularly those not yet established in the industry), and affirmative action in regards to the cost of living and rent prices in Ireland’s cities. Ireland has been an incredibly hostile place for artists for years, and unfortunately throwing money at it now isn’t going to help that environment in any way. 

The money that has been allocated to ‘save’ the arts in this budget may very well do so. However, the current trend in the governments approach to the arts will ensure that the arts industry in Ireland will never grow. The funding allocated may sustain already established artists and organisations, however, the absence of a stable income or future for artists may be impossible to overcome. The arts industry in Ireland will never grow in a meaningful way without a seismic shift in the government’s approach to arts and artists. While the Irish government has restrained from running an insulting advertisement recommending that artists retrain like the United Kingdom has, its actions speak to the same point. 

One must also wonder if the actions of current governments will be felt heavily in the arts not only now but later. What young person will actively pursue a career in the arts knowing what little support they will get from the country? Who will be our artists in the future? The answer of course is always the same, people who are born wealthy enough to weather the storm or lucky enough to somehow find a path through it. 

I believe it is an unfortunate truth that Ireland prefers its artists dead. It prefers to leave the arts completely alone and then capitalize on the few that somehow manage to breakthrough. If you can’t monetize your art for Yankee tourist money, the government does not want to hear about it. The arts are expected to provide with little to no support from the government and are decried for having the audacity to see themselves as a legitimate industry just like any other in the country. Where the government happily parted with €64 billion to bail out negligent banks in 2008 they won’t even entertain the possibility of providing a stable income for Ireland’s artists. Funding for the arts is always the first to go and the last to come back but is expected to be thankful for what little they get in the meantime. 

The latest budget is not only too little too late for the arts monetarily, but also represents an ideology that is ultimately destructive. It has been a long-held belief in public discourse that the arts industry is a nice thing to have but ultimately disposable when it comes down to it. It’s a belief that has fostered an acceptance in the industry for practices and conditions for workers that simply would not be accepted elsewhere. This is an acceptance of financial instability, an acceptance that you may often have to work for next to nothing or indeed nothing, an acceptance that you are lucky to be working at all and not to complain. 

We need to start valuing the work of artists in Ireland. We need to create an industry that fosters and rewards the unique talent produced in this country, not expecting their parents' wealth to sustain them until they become ‘established’. We need to stop taking for granted that the Arts will always be there to be enjoyed and that they should be happy with any support they get from the government. This pandemic has shown just how fragile the Arts industry is, and emphasised the unstable conditions in which many artists work. The government’s increased funding to the Arts and Culture sector is welcome but largely inconsequential if it is not followed by sustained support for our island’s talented artists, young and old, new or established, rich or struggling. This must happen. Artists around the country were already on their knees before this pandemic hit and if something does not change we will ensure a stale and uninspired future for a country famed for its artistic talent.