In Safe Hands?

Dermot McLaughlin discusses traditional music and the role of the Arts Council
Following the publication in September 2004 of the Arts Council’s document Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts, I wrote an appraisal of this important and refreshing piece of work for the November-December 2004 issue of JMI. Even though it’s a policy document by a State agency I still think it’s a great read! I’m impressed at the sensitive way that it tackled a difficult area and I admire the clarity of its practical and achievable recommendations – everything is attainable and the timing looked really good. Más maith is mithid.

Consumed with enthusiasm and good faith, I was convinced that I was living through one of those breakthrough moments that we’ll all like to remember in twenty years. I also felt that all sides could draw a line under past arguments, animosities and suspicions and I even drew inspiration from the words of Olive Braiden, Chair of the Arts Council, who wrote in her introduction that this policy document would ‘act as our road map’. In my article, ‘The Arts Council and Traditional Music: A Road Map’, I gave an optimistic assessment of what had been achieved and discussed the next challenges.

It’s tempting now – given the controversy over the Hill of Tara and the proposed M3 – to make some sarcastic comment about Ireland’s track record when it comes to new roads, the State and priceless cultural assets…

Looking at the quality of the Arts Council’s performance to date in delivering its policy for traditional arts, I wonder if I was too optimistic. I’m just not sure if the State through its primary agency for supporting the arts will be able to avoid letting us down on this issue, despite some very admirable actions and words. I would like to posit some questions and raise debate about this. Specifically, I want to use the opportunity to look at some of what Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts has been allowed to achieve and at what it has been prevented from achieving by the Arts Council.

Before going into that, however, I think it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of some basic truths about our core subject matter.

Irish traditional music is not heavily dependent on the State for its existence, its health, its reputation or its future. Because of the people who keep it alive, Irish traditional music is adaptive, versatile, resilient and self-reliant to a remarkably high degree. Irish traditional music has a consistently excellent reputation artistically within Ireland and abroad. People involved in traditional music all over the world look to Ireland for standards, inspiration and validation.

It is difficult to name any other area of contemporary Irish arts practice about which you could say any combination of these things with a straight face. The late Jerome Hynes, who chaired the Committee that produced Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts, wrote with brilliant accuracy of ‘the depth and breadth of the traditional arts and the manner in which they have enamoured and inspired people all around the world… Not only do traditional artists enrich our lives and our communities, but their work is integral to the expression of contemporary Irish identity.’

Given this, you would think that it should be a relatively easy task for the national agency for the arts in Ireland – that’s the Arts Council – to get to grips with the traditional arts. Surely things have never been better? We’re told we have a thriving economy; there’s been an end to emigration; national and local Government are spending more than ever on the arts; there’s political support, right at the top, for developing and assisting the traditional arts; we hear frequent positive public statements from the Chair and members of the Arts Council about the traditional arts; we have more and better buildings and venues for the arts; we know from research that many people prefer to attend traditional music events rather than other arts activities and that the levels of participation and attendance are stable and high; there’s an excellent policy document published by the Council itself that has enjoyed extensive buy-in from all ends of the traditional-arts community; there’s even been Arts Council funding for a three-year initiative to support and develop the traditional arts.

That looks to me like a recipe for success.

In fairness to Olive Braiden, her Board and her staff in the Arts Council, it is hard to conceive of a clearer or better road map for the Arts Council and the traditional arts, but the questions now are: does the Arts Council know the purpose of a map, and can it recognise a road when it sees one? For my money the jury is still out on this case and it’s likely to spend at least another night in the hotel.

It would be unbalanced to focus only on the flaws in the Arts Council’s patchy performance in supporting the traditional arts since September 2004. I want to acknowledge and commend some excellent work and progress, particularly in the establishment of the Deis scheme, which must by now have provided significant learning for the Council in how to address systemic problems in the Arts Council’s relationship with the traditional arts. I would also commend the increasingly sensible funding decisions for major traditional-arts organisations and events.* The focus on stabilisation supported by strategic organisational development has been enlightened and effective. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed and disturbed at how the Council has ignored or mishandled so many other fundamentals, including getting and keeping its own house in order in dealing with the traditional arts.

Having a policy, talking about it, securing funding and political support to implement it, and then failing or, as in this case, looking like you’re refusing to do it, can have corrosive effects. It certainly does not inspire confidence. It can suggest defiance as well as incompetence and political naivety. In an area where expertise, reputation and wisdom are as essential to getting the job done as are handling tax clearance certificates, regulatory compliance and balanced budgets then it seems inexcusable that the Arts Council can establish an impressive spending target and then not behave in a way that ensures it retains the expert staff necessary to manage this.

Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts appeared in September 2004 and it specified the reasons for the need to appoint a ‘deeply resourced’ fulltime traditional-arts officer within the Arts Council within six months, i.e. by the end of March 2005. This is the Arts Council’s September 2004 response (p. 36): ‘Furthermore, the Council is committed to ensuring that it secures the necessary expertise and personnel to allow it play an informed role in the development of the traditional arts: the appointment of staff to support the new and enhanced traditional-arts role of the Council is therefore a priority.’ On Friday 25th May 2007 the Arts Council placed a public advertisement for this position. So that’s what’s called a priority, whatever about ramming home the emphasis with that unfortunate ‘furthermore’.

Before this the Council had managed to recruit, but failed to retain, a credible, expert and high-achieving part-time traditional-arts specialist/adviser, Dr Liz Doherty, whose excellent work in implementing Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts is now unfortunately seen by many as the Arts Council’s ‘golden age’ in engaging with the traditional arts. The Council has to date been unable to appoint a successor to Dr Doherty. It is envisaged that the new officer will have a role in appointing the next part-time specialist as part of a ‘team’. Thankfully none of this is identified as a priority (furthermore), so it may well happen.

Since late 2006 or early 2007 – it is genuinely impossible to know – there has been nobody with knowledge, authority or expertise dealing with traditional arts in the Arts Council. You can’t find out what is going on. Even when the part-time specialist/adviser role was there to oversee, inform and help direct the Council’s stewardship of a significant amount of taxpayers’ money, it always felt to me like any progress was made despite the Arts Council’s management systems and not because of them, notwithstanding positive and ambitious statements from An Taoiseach, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O’Donoghue TD, and the Chair of the Arts Council, Olive Braiden. There is a grating dissonance between what Council says at the highest strategic level in the organisation and what it actually does and fails to deliver at executive level – which is where it counts.

I referred once in a media interview on the traditional arts and the Arts Council to ‘the Sir Humphrey Appleby factor’, Appleby being, of course, the character in the 1980s sitcom Yes Minister who was a formidably unctuous operator and a defender of ‘Ministry policy’ over ‘Minister’s policy’. In the Arts Council context, I refer to an official apathy and hostility aimed at thwarting any change to the status quo and frustrating initiative and ambition. I’m sure that I’m right about this. I wonder if many people involved in working at the front line of developing practice and sustainable infrastructure in other art forms would share this impression? Are the problems/development needs of the ‘sector’ actually within the ‘sector’ at all? This is what is generally suggested in the language of interdependence that the Arts Council has adopted in its national strategy as an organisation responsible for developing the arts. Such a strategy is different from what looks like a more logical and realistic approach – funding the development of the arts by artists and arts organisations. Could this reflect a failure within the funding body to align purpose, structure, meaning and relevance? Using the traditional arts as an example, there is clear evidence of Arts Council failure in a resource-rich environment. What does this mean?

On a practical level, included in Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts there is a long list of simple low-cost initiatives in important areas where all that the Arts Council had to do was begin discussions with a number of relevant State agencies and others to help improve the climate or environment for traditional artists and their audience. Does anybody know if any of these have happened? Here are four examples:

>> meet the BCI, RTÉ and the Department of Communications to discuss the place of traditional arts in broadcasting (just think of the way we have benefited from the excellent track record of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTÉ radio and television programming and the tremendous contribution of TG4, who, through the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards, have set the standard for how to honour, in real time, who’s great, who’ll be great next, and who we should look to for standards. That is at the very least what the taxpayer should expect from Aosdána and the Arts Council in the traditional arts);

>> discussions with Government about the role of the traditional arts in the promotion of Irish culture internationally – now that Culture Ireland is established, and its CEO Eugene Downes is in place, the need for such a discussion is more pressing than ever as that organisation’s strategy, style and reach are being developed;

>> discussions with IMRO about royalties and the traditional arts at a crucially important time when multi-platform delivery is going to affect every recording, performing and content-based artist in the world in all genres and forms;

>> building relations with the largest and one of the most significant traditional-arts organisations, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Until the Arts Council and CCÉ start cooperating we are all at a disadvantage.

I am one of many people who vigorously supported the Arts Council’s efforts to resist a political initiative to give responsibility for traditional music to another entity. However, seeing what the Arts Council means by ‘priority’ and ‘responsibility’ in its behaviour towards the traditional arts, it is hard not to feel that we’ve been palmed off with what is nothing more than a blancmange of harmless hollow words dressed with snake-oil. Re-reading Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts, I can’t help thinking that what is on offer is every assistance short of actual help. Sir Humphrey springs to mind again.

If the Arts Council can’t manage to put the ball in the net when Government, the traditional-arts community and the tax payers’ resources are all lined up then what hope for other less advantaged artforms?

The safest hands for our traditional arts belong to our traditional artists and not to the Government or to any State organisation or agency or to any other organisation. However, in today’s complex world, it is unrealistic to expect a community of artists, audiences, other participants and enjoyers to attain their potential totally unaided or, even worse, poorly and grudgingly aided by the State. When there exists a sound policy framework, unambiguous popular and political support and, exceptionally, dedicated funds aimed at developing support structures for the traditional arts within a fixed and short timeframe, then the State’s failure to deliver through the dilatory and careless behaviour of the Arts Council is inexcusable. All of us are paying for this. If the Arts Council can find the good grace to sing out of only one side of its mouth at a time, we’ll listen and may even start to hum along in tune. That could sound really good, provided it’s not ‘Paddy on the Turnpike’.

* I have to declare an interest as a Director of a number of Arts Council-funded organisations including the Irish Architecture Foundation, International Dance Festival Ireland, Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann/Irish Traditional Music Archive, Cairdeas na bhFidléirí, and as an occasional assessor on Deis assessment panels.

This article is an abridged version of the Breandán Breathnach Memorial Lecture to be given at Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, Miltown Malbay, on 7 July 2007.

Published on 1 July 2007

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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