Why funding for the arts and heritage must extend beyond 2016

Nuacht /

The level of public engagement in the 1916 Centenary commemorations reveals a large and growing appetite among citizens to participate in the cultural life of the nation. 

The level of public engagement in the 1916 Centenary commemorations reveals a large and growing appetite among citizens to participate in the cultural life of the nation. 

The public’s imagination has been ignited, releasing a really positive energy that we would be very foolish not to harness for our own benefit, at home and on the international stage. Now is the time to create a legacy fitting of the Centenary, making a commitment to Irish culture and heritage, past, present and future, commensurate with its essential value to the whole of society.  

To those of us working in the sector, the extent of public interest in matters cultural comes as no surprise. The demand for community arts and heritage projects has grown massively over the last ten years (though funding has decreased equivalently), and is nowadays as much about community repair and place making, as it is about imagining and creating new and better futures. 

People instinctively know the importance of cultural literacy, cultural astuteness, and the power of the culturally-enlivened imagination. Heritage is in the DNA of the arts in Ireland. Between them they offer diverse contemporary audiences fresh perspectives on old and sometimes jaded vistas. This is how the future is imagined and realised. 

Grand events, like the 1916 Centenary are worthy of celebration, but are not a substitute for the on-going, day-to-day resource and infrastructural requirements of the cultural sector. In an increasingly pan-national, homogeneous and virtual world, it is imperative that government prioritises and supports ground-up initiatives that contribute to community well-being, and champion inclusivity, creativity, resilience, self-knowledge, imagination and cultural acuity.

The Arts Council and Heritage Council have been doing just that.  These two statutory and independent bodies are mandated to develop and support the arts and heritage in Ireland, and propose policies and priorities for these naturally overlapping sectors. Both organisations are heavily networked among professional practitioners and communities. We work among communities on the ground, applying approaches are forward-looking, empowering, and tailored to existing social structures.

Increasingly, the projects we support represent community initiatives directed at cultural life and socio-economic recovery. The public knows that the two are interconnected.

Our country has unrivalled heritage and landscape. These are not abstractions. In every artist, in every stone wall, thatched roof, monument or plasterwork ceiling, and in each expression of poetry and painting, is a specific context of place and interest.

By being pigeon-holed for performance on festival or exhibition days, the energy that artists, heritage and culture, in its widest sense, can bring is diminished and under-achieved. We champion not just the specific interest of the Arts and Heritage Councils, but the wider, inter-play of ideas and substance between our heritage, our national collections, and cultural institutions. 

It is not simply that our sectors have been starved of resources over the last nine years; as noted already, during that time the demand for our services and support has increased exponentially. The gap between the demand and the resource is widening by the day, with the result that uniquely important opportunities to mobilise communities and promote active citizenship to help address serious social issues of alienation and stagnation, while simultaneously fostering creativity, are being squandered. Piloted projects that, by empowering communities, offer huge dividends and should be rolled out nationally, have instead been mothballed because of the lack of resources.

It’s puzzling why this is so, given how crucial the arts and heritage are to our economic prosperity. All recent Government policy documents on tourism, agribusiness and rural development highlight this fact. To quote just one: “The focus of tourism policy must be to maximise the export contribution of tourism, while protecting the invaluable assets that are our natural, built and cultural heritage” (Growing Tourism to 2025). 

It is now essential that this centrality and significance of the arts and heritage is acknowledged by government in the new political order that is now emerging, and in the next Programme for Government that will eventually be formulated. Implicit in such a policy commitment must be reasonable and sustained financial support for these sectors.

This year a total over €48 million was allocated by government to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to fund Ireland 2016 Centenary commemorations. These are being marked in magnificent and thought-provoking style. We call upon all politicians, and especially those in our next government, to make the enlightened decision to commit this budget on an ongoing annual basis to that Department so that, complementing the work of the established cultural institutions, the Arts Council and the Heritage Council, and the communities we work with can deliver a better future for us all. 

Sheila Pratschke is Chair of the Arts Council and Conor Newman is Chair of the Heritage Council.