‘Exactly what are the arts good for?’ No cultured person would dream of asking such a nonsensical question, would they? It’s not just about ‘what are the arts good for’ – of course it’s not – and yet if we can’t even frame a response to a simple question like that, if we can’t put a value on the work we do, then how do we expect our politicians to justify the spending of ever greater millions to the taxpayer?
I ask this, of course, because we are faced with an upcoming election, and already there are the stirrings of agendas being trotted out for inspection and voices being cleared for passionate advocacy, and the thought did cross my mind that maybe this once we should put a value on what we have to offer. But will we? It seems we are very good at getting worked up about situations in this or that art form or area of practice, but less good at making the case for what might be termed ‘a culture of culture’, particularly with those that matter – the politicians, the media and, most crucially, the general public.
Artists and arts organisations have never been so well represented – the Forum for Music in Ireland, Theatre Forum, the Association of Professional Dancers in Ireland, Visual Artists Ireland – and yet it is the nature of these organisations that they will represent the interests of their members first and last, and never more vocally than in the run-up to an election. Whencollectively we could be getting the message across that the infrastructure for arts nationally, despite extra funding, is poorly resourced and woefully planned, we have individual sectors producing their own detailed wish-lists to be thrust under candidates’ noses, faxed to party headquarters and proclaimed loudly on any spare airwave or corner of newsprint that will have them. Could there be anything less likely to win over the general public to being positive towards the arts?
It’s enough to make you moan and shake your head and hope that the person who’s doing all the shouting is including you in their plans. What else can a working artist do? Well…
We could remind ourselves that from our experience art is good for us, and that in the 1950s few people apart from teachers thought that a second-level education was any ‘good’ to children from working-class and farming backgrounds. We know that, like education, an interest in the arts can only be created by time, by a certain discipline, but above all by constant exposure to stimulating experiences that motivate the individual to explore further. We could also do worse than refer to the recent Champions of Change report, which is available on the Arts Education Partnership website, www.aep-arts.org. The report comprises a longitudinal study of 25,000 school students in Chicago using a number of different methods, in each of which they compared the performance of students learning in an arts-rich educational environment – ‘learning in and through the arts’ – against those where the emphasis was on a different specific approach to learning – ‘community focused’, ‘sports focused’ – as well as traditional methods. The results showed that not only did an arts-led approach yield the greatest improvement in academic performance in every area of learning measured, but that the improvement was most marked in students from the most educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.
We might also consider a couple of other things. For instance:
>> Despite our reputation for culture, Ireland has below average participation rates in nearly every non-commercially driven cultural activity according to a recent (2003) Eurobarometer survey of cultural trends in the EU15. These included: playing an instrument (8th); attendance at a traditional music concert (11th); listening to classical music (12th); attendance at a dance performance (13th); reading for pleasure (9th); writing creatively (9th). At the same time Ireland
was 2nd at watching television and going to the cinema, and 1st for listening to the radio and attendance at sports.
>> According to the EU’s website for funding of the arts, www.culturalpolicies.net, in 2004 – the most recent year for which they have figures – public spending on the arts and culture in Ireland amounted to approximately €57.50 per head. The only country out of the EU15 that boasted a lower per capita figure was Greece, and even then the figures for that country related to 2001. The UK figure for 2003/4 was €164, which placed them 6th on the list, and at a time when per capita spending power in Ireland was 15% higher. The figure for Belgium in 2002 was over€300.
>> While funding for artists from the Arts Council and Local Government has inched its way up in recent years, the funding from the Department of Arts Sport and Tourism for ‘Cultural Infrastructure’, i.e. buildings, increased nearly 300% in 2006 and will be maintained at the same level in 2007, and is equivalent to nearly 75% of the Arts Council’s programme budget in each year. The vast majority of this extra cash will be taken up by the ACCESS II programme which aims to develop existing facilities, and provide new signature buildings for the arts, but all on the basis of organisations and institutions tendering for their own project, and without anyone seeing the need for a plan or an overall strategy, except presumably a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ mindset.
We could then each contact our own representative artists’ organisations and urge them to shelve those plans they had for a sit-down demonstration in Kildare Street to protest at the state of music/dance education/touring to the West and instead ‘sit down’ with the organisations representing all the other artforms and draw up a list of principles common to all workers in the arts, a set of principles that would be more philosophical than a wish-list, general enough that they could command a maximum of support among arts organisations and artists, but detailed enough that any politician who signed up to them before the election could be held to account afterwards. And in order to keep the message as clear as possible to limit the list to a maximum of ten principles – well, it was enough for Moses.
Pretty simple really. A manifesto, or charter. Let’s call it chARTer07, a statement of principles that could be emailed to every member of every representative organisation, and be freely available to download from their websites. Something that the vast majority of arts organisations, and arts workers, and supporters of the arts could sign up to, and which could be presented to each political party, to their spokespeople, to every candidate standing in 2007 as a challenge to them to take a stand on the future development of the arts in Ireland. It would take maybe a couple of meetings to thrash out a list of principles that everyone, or the majority, were happy to sign up to, and after the manifesto was launched people might volunteer to attend as many meetings of the candidates around the country as possible, so as to ask them all where they stood on chARTer07.
And what kind of statements of general but specific principles might such a chARTer contain?Readers of the JMI might like to contribute their own two cents worth, but here, to get things rolling, would be a few of mine:
>> that all art is good for all of us;
>> that access to culture and the arts should be a right not a privelege;
>> that as members of the EU Irish citizens are entitled to a level of cultural provision comparable with our european neighbours;
>> that learning artistic skills is as important in a child’s education as learning computer skills;
>> that there should be a statutory level of provision of non-school based arts facilities for young people and children at local level;
>> that there should be minimum guaranteed funding on a multi-annual basis for the Arts Council and other arts development agencies;
>> that every government department should be required to do an audit of cultural activity under their responsibility and submit a regular plan to the Department of Arts Sport and Tourism as to how this activity will be developed.
To begin with everyone would have their own priorities. What matters most is that the final ten should command the maximum support, be simple enough that even the most electorally challenged politician could get their head around them, and that they are not specific to any one art form.
There are now only six months to the election. What are we
The writer would like to point out that while he would of course support the establishment of a ‘chARTer’ for the arts in the run-up to the election, his membership of the Labour party, and his involvement in the drawing up of that party’s policy paper on the arts, art4all, renders him uniquely unsuited to the task of co-ordinating it. Sorry.
Published on 1 January 2007