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Confusion fuels need for mediation

The Arts Council is moving in on Aosdána's Toscaireacht but nobody knows just why, or even how

Not entirely due to its own efforts, Aosdána has often been more associated with controversy and letters-page hullaballoos than its members’ artistic fruits – perhaps most darkly in 1997, after writer Francis Stuart’s horrific remark on Channel 4 that “the Jew was always the worm that got into the rose and sickened it”. Back then, at the annual Aosdána Assembly, Máire Mhac an tSaoi (backed by her voluble late husband Conor Cruise O’Brien from the public benches), failed to effect Stuart’s expulsion from the organisation, before promptly resigning herself.

Another rash of negative press broke out in 2014, some of it snippy about the comparative obscurity of many members (and the non-membership of many renowned Irish artists).  Some was in the spirit of “what do Aosdána do to earn their annual €2.7 million?” – although the famed Cnuas is no king’s ransom.  Some pieces were error-riddled and uninformed; others convulsed by loathing of Aosdána’s exclusive, self-electing nature and its easily-ridiculed bardic pretensions and the orotundity of its Gaelic nomenclature. This was the case with Village’s Kevin Kiely piece. Mannix Flynn made rather technical arguments about democratic deficits in Aosdána’s selection of its Saoithe (or “wise ones”). Most disconcertingly, an FoI request from the Sunday Times led to a great deal of personal and financial information being released by the Arts Council (with some members given a chance to redact), although in the end, very little was published.

Aosdána’s very gestation is deeply contested.  Brian Kennedy’s surprisingly engaging Arts Council-funded history of the Arts Council, ‘Dreams and Responsibilities’ (1990) recounts how, back in 1980, when most artists worked part-time or in penury (despite Charles J Haughey artists’ tax exemption under the 1969 Finance Act), an Arts Council report moved Haughey to consult his arts advisor, the late Anthony Cronin.  According to Kennedy, the first suggestion came from the Arts Council, then headed by Colm Ó Briain, to extend the old Ciste Cholmcille annuity for destitute artists to deserving working artists. Haughey told the Arts Council he wanted established artists to be spared demeaning annual applications for assistance.  Ó Briain proposed to Cronin a rolling-funding scheme called An Torc for 100 creative artists; Cronin suggested 150.  Haughey took ownership and ran with it.

Kennedy contends the Arts Council then developed the proposal into “an affiliation of artists” to honour those who “had made an outstanding contribution to the arts”, and to help them devote their energies fully to their art.  Free from political interference, the new Aosdána (the name suggested by Arts Council member Máire de Paor) would be self-governing through its elected administrative body, the Toscaireacht; while distinguished members could be selected as Saoithe (wise ones), with a symbolic golden torc conferred upon each Saoi by the serving President of Ireland.  While election to Aosdána is a life-time honour, the Cnuas (now €17,180 annually) for five years is means-tested (members must currently earn less than €25,000 from their art, so total allowed tax-free earnings is a decent €42,180); while the Cnuas is unique in that, unlike any other Arts Council grant, Cnuas-holders must relinquish other state benefits and any gainful employment other than artistic. Yet it is not a pension, and must be-reapplied for every five years.  About 150 now receive it; while the membership limit has expanded to 250 (247 currently filled)

The Arts Council approved Aosdána in September 1980. Haughey launched it in March 1981, and the first invited 89 members were soon baptised – for Ó Briain “the culmination of six year’s work” by the Arts Council.  Yet these were volatile political times. In 1982, newspaper articles appeared suggesting Haughey wanted to eject Ó Briain from the Arts Council.  Kennedy claims Cronin approached Arts Council Chairman James White to express this, but White refused; asserting the Arts Council’s independence, which was ultimately rewarded with a healthy 25% increase in government funding.  A FG-Labour government took over in December 1982, and in April 1983, Aosdána was inaugurated at its first General Assembly, attended by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, along with Haughey and Jack Lynch.  Three weeks later Ó Briain resigned as Arts Council director.

Ó Briain stands by all this, but muses that “this narrative was ultimately overtaken by the ‘grand political vision’… you have to realise there was a real atmosphere of fear at the time”.  He doesn’t refer to widespread rumours, around the febrile time when FF TD Jim Gibbons was violently assaulted by Haughey supporters the night of the `Club of 22’  leadership challenge in October 1982, that Haughey once threatened to arrive in that way of his and personally shut down the Arts Council.

Cronin always hotly contested Kennedy’s account. Soon after his book was published, there was an infamous conference where displayed copies had printed corrections affixed with an elastic band – instantly christened the “intellectual condom”. Then it emerged that unsold copies had been shredded by the Arts Council during Haughey’s last term as Taoiseach. The Arts Council’s stated reason was to save space in its roomy Merrion Square offices.  In 1993, the new Arts Council chairman, Ciaran Benson immediately ordered it reprinted in full, and it is now online.

Somehow this legacy writhes at the bottom of the current imbroglio between the Arts Council and Aosdána.  The Arts Council still maintains it established Aosdána; but while the role of Registrar was traditionally occupied by the sitting Arts Council Director; it is now delegated to an “acting Registrar” Arts Council employee, with a part-time assistant.  Many Aosdána members hold that Cronin and Haughey forged its basic architecture, then nested it with the Arts Council for administrative and Cnuas-disbursal purposes, and that the Arts Council suffers from “institutional amnesia”.

Within the arts, it didn’t help that in 2008 (when Aosdána members Theo Dorgan and Colm Tóibín sat on the Council), the annual Cnuas leapt from €13,000 to €17,180; with a corresponding rise in the artistic-earnings threshold, which made many more members eligible.  When the Crash finally slammed through Ireland, most artists’ incomes were savaged; meaning yet more eligible applicants for the ring-fenced Cnuas eating an ever growing percentage of Arts Council spending while the Arts Council’s budget allocation plummeted from €85 to €55m, spreading grisly austerity – and seething envy – across the arts sector.

In September 2015, Arts Minister Heather Humphries launched her department’s ‘Value for Money and Policy Review of the Arts Council’ report; prepared by TCD Economics Professor John O’Hagan atop a cross-departmental committee of bean-counters. It made an econometric “case-study” of Aosdána – on which, bizarrely, Aosdána was not consulted. O’Hagan concluded that the Cnuas in its current form was an inescapable “non-discretionary”, “demand-led” burden on the Arts Council’s resources, with “largely unquantifiable benefits” which were “not measurable”.  At a time of constrained funding, he pointed out, the Cnuas was one of the few funding streams to enjoy an absolute increase over the period reviewed (€0.6m), and stressed “the need to demonstrate outputs for the investment”.  He recommended considerations of how to measure and publicise Cnuas-holders’ output; as well as setting caps on Cnuas funding and/or varying the level of the Cnuas.

A month later, when Arts Council Chair Sheila Pratschke met the Toscaireacht, only one Toscaire had even heard of the Value for Money report; yet Pratschke also cited the Arts Council’s 2014 ‘Inspiring Prospects’ strategy document (which declared Aosdána an affiliation and not a formal organisation) in calling for reform of the Cnuas.  Claiming that Aosdáma was the Arts Council’s second biggest client; she expressed determination to push the existing balance of 80%:20% between “non-discretionary” and more flexible “discretionary spending” for other individual artists and projects.  Cnuas reform, she suggested, could right that balance towards 70%:30%.

Over a complex 18-month kerfuffle of meetings and heated, sometime legal correspondence, the Arts Council’s chronology since is often at sharp variance with Aosdána’s; especially after the Arts Council’s now-infamous and “confidential” Aosdana Review Document was sent to the Toscaireacht on November 4th 2016.  This “humdinger” impelled Mary FitzGerald, Chair of the Toscaireacht, to write back to clarify nothing had been agreed with Aosdána, reminding the Arts Council that such profound changes could not be effected without a unanimous decision by the Arts Council.

The major change proposed by the Review Document was to Cnuas eligibility, redefining “full-time practising artists” as “working artists engaged in productive practice”. It proposed that elderly artists who failed to meet this criterion would be offered informational assistance in claiming their pension entitlements from the State, with perhaps the Ciste Cholmcille to supplement such shortfalls. More shockingly, non-elderly artists “temporarily incapacitated due to ill health” would have their Cnuas suspended and would not be eligible for the Ciste.

Alongside a new Orwellian “full audit” of artistic work for all five-yearly Cnuas renewals; the Arts Council now proposed to conduct annual “sample audits” to confirm “productive practice”.  The Aosdána pension scheme would be “phased out”; while the VHI scheme would be instantly discontinued for Aosdáma members who were, after all, not staff employees of the Arts Council.

The Arts Council would take over the membership-nomination process with an external panel of high-profile national and international “individuals/experts” nominated by both Arts Council and Toscaireacht who could nominate new members – using a new “scoring system” of, say, “A: must shortlist”  to “D: doesn’t meet the criterion”.

The shocked Toscaireacht now faced a true shake-up which they feared was the beginning of a dismantlement of the Cnuas in particular; plus the kind of “quality control” that would add “bling” to the membership.  The possibility of a significantly increased Arts Council workload was not revealed to Arts Council staff; apart from the acting Registry staff.

Alarmed that the Arts Council was going beyond its remit, removing legal entitlements and wresting self-governance from Aosdána, the Toscaireacht sought advice from former Attorney General, John Rogers SC; who found that such fundamental changes were at odds with the “clear intent conveyed by the Aosdána Foundation Documentation”.  While it seems that Aosdána is nowhere enshrined in any law or statutory instrument, such “Documentation” remains something of a mystery.  Yet Rogers advised the Toscaireacht not to engage the Arts Council in discussions on such swingeing proposals.

But troubling signs had emerged that the Arts Council was unilaterally implementing its Review Document proposals ultra vires. The annual tax-returns process involved repeated calls and letters to artists, badgering them for ever-more-detailed submissions with complex forms and online registrations to verify income. Artist were becoming forced to pay accountants and tax consultants, driving elder members to distress (and consideration of resignation) in their attempts to satisfy the Arts Council’s auditors with “the complete income picture”.  Some felt accused of dishonesty; others objected that Revenue officials had declared their returns were perfectly fine; and that Revenue, not the Arts Council, was the sole arbiter of tax affairs; while the Arts Council should by rights not have access to such detailed personal and financial information.

FitzGerald cannot discuss the many elderly artists she assists through extreme illness and such distress, yet now she says she now deals “night, noon and morning” with those swamped by the ever-expanding, information-harvesting bureaucracy, even for annual “audits”.

Artist Brian King spent the first three months of this year consumed by the annual “audit”, fearing not only the loss of the Cnuas, his sole income, but also of its honour. After the Arts Council finally cleared his returns, King – despite living alone with limited mobility and vision after a near-fatal illness – returned to work, dreaming new land-art installations while panoramically photographing the seafront near his home with the help of his daughter.  He died, aged 74, in mid-April. 

Patrick Pye at opening of ‘As Above, So Below’

There was also something unseemly about the anxious five months of “review” of his Cnuas that Patrick Pye (88) endured before the Arts Council informed him in April that he no longer qualified.  Though demonstrating he had produced works of artistic merit in the last 5 years, Pye had admitted his failing sight and infirmity, which the Arts Council seized on.

Advising his “likely” eligibility for an old age pension (c €11,500) from the Department of Social Protection (DSP), the Arts Council offered to top it up to €17,500 with the Ciste Colmcille (while the DSP independently advised that any such modicum would be deducted from Pye’s pension). Undaunted, Pye works on, assisted by family. His pieces in IMMA’s impressive current show, ‘As Above, So Below’ have attracted much attention; while his painting ‘Pity for the King of Friday’ has just been accepted by the Vatican where it now hangs outside the offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Quite why the Arts Council visited such rigours on such a warmly regarded artist is beyond public relations logic.  The Pye family, having been denied an appeal, have heard no more from the Arts Council; and are considering legal action.  Lest the Arts Council set a precedent with his case, Pye went public two days before Aosdána’s General Assembly on 24 April: the same day Colm Tóibín’s open letter of protest to the Arts Council detonated across the media. 

The General Assembly unanimously passed motions calling for the Arts Council to restore Pye’s Cnuas; withdraw its Review document; and to provide the Toscaireacht contact details of all Aosdána members (which the Arts Council was withholding, citing data protection legislation).  The Assembly shared the Toscaireacht’s deep concerns about the proposed changes to Aosdána’s electoral processes and Cnuas payments; but found the climate of conflict highly undesirable, recommending “a fresh start to discussions”.

Toscairí such as composer Michael Holohan have been researching the online minutes of Arts Council meetings back to discussions of the Review Document in October 2016, all of which is “redacted” under heavy black blocks under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 –  other than that “Brian Maguire, [Aosdána member], declared a conflict and left the meeting. Members agreed all recommendations. An appendix is attached to the Minutes”. (No such appendix appears).

“Worse, in the minutes for 22 March 2017, which evidently considered Pye’s Cnuas, following “detailed discussions” and legal advice, “members agreed not to award a Cnuas to [redacted]. Brian Maguire, Council Member, asked for his dissent to be recorded. Minutes also record Members agreed “not to award a Cnuas to [redacted]”.

“Additionally Members agreed a Working Group comprising Council members would be established to review Aosdána procedures… it was agreed that the Toscaireacht should be written to and informed of Council’s approach. Members agreed that a communications briefing should also be prepared… Following detailed discussions Members agreed in principle to make two awards under Ciste Cholmcille to [redacted]”.

This means Pye was not alone – another elderly Aosdána member had suffered the same plight, but the Toscaireacht are mystified as to who this is.  Meanwhile, Maguire, cold-called by Village on a mobile phone at Berlin airport, fumingly professed himself “caught by confidentiality” and unable to comment.

The most recent minutes available are for the Arts Council meeting of 26 April, which record that “Members were updated on ongoing matters including the deliberations of the Arts Council Working Group. Members agreed that there was a need to open formal communications, without pre-conditions, with the Toscaireacht. Members agreed that representatives from the Council should include John McAuliffe, one other Council Member and the Director… Members also agreed there was a need to appoint a mediator agreeable to both sides to progress the process”. –This is followed by a substantial paragraph, again totally blacked out.   On the Cnuas, minutes record: “Members approved the recommendation…. An appendix is attached to the Minutes” (again, no appendix is evident).

While Arts Council Chair Sheila Pratschke’s Irish Times article (May 13) finally announced that the review document was “off the table”, despite repeated requests from Village no further comment is forthcoming from either Pratschke or Arts Council director Orlaith McBride, who sat on the Arts Council for two terms, before becoming its director in 2012. Her contract has been renewed up to 2020

With the Arts Council now seeking mediated negotiations, the Toscaireacht are even looking at mechanisms like the 2003 Arts Act’s provision for the Minister to establish “special [advisory] committees” within the Arts Council.  After a spirited Dáil spat about the absurdity of the situation with Minister Humprheys on May 2, Joan Burton is due to table another question on Tuesday 13 June; while John McAuliffe, Arts Council Vice-Chair – although seemingly not writing in that capacity – has just made overtures via email to the Toscaireacht about mediated meetings. The Toscaireacht is considering its options, while no one can be enjoying the stand-off. 

Written by Mic Moroney