Open up

By Mannix Flynn

There has been criticism of Aosdána since its inception. Most of it is trivia and resentment, ill-informed and personalised. I’m very proud to be a member. I’m entirely supportive of the idea of Aosdána. I have absolute respect for all members and their work and most importantly I am very grateful to taxpayers for the money that is well spent on Aosdána members’ activities. Without this money it would not be possible for me and many other artists to make our work and subsist.

So: long live Aosdána. However, there are certain issues for members to seriously consider. The Cathal Ó Searcaigh controversy, for example, was badly handled and mismanaged by the ten-member Toscaireacht which sets the agenda for Aosdána. We cannot ignore transparency and accountability.

The title of Saoi (‘wise one’) is the highest honour that the 250-odd members of Aosdána can bestow upon a fellow member. No more than seven living members can be so honoured at one time. The honour is conferred by the President of Ireland in a ceremony during which a gold torc is placed around the neck of the recipient. Seóirse Bodley, Brian Friel, Camille Souter and Anthony Cronin currently hold the title. Edna O’Brien, William Trevor and Imogen Stuart recently got the nod, with Stuart awaiting ratification.

Currently, if a position is vacant for one of the Saoi, all it needs is for certain insiders in Aosdána to get together 15 members to put a name forward to guarantee the elevation. A number of individuals can, and often do, conspire to get the first nomination in before anybody else realises what’s actually going on.

We are not, as members, informed that there is a vacancy or given the opportunity to present a candidate of our choice. The danger is that a kind of belligerence and cultural dictatorship will undermine Aosdána. Its decline and possible downfall will be by its own hand.

Aosdána had to consider a clear and unambiguous motion about its electoral process presented by me to the annual general meeting in March 2015:

“That this assembly of Aosdána agrees to change the existing nomination procedures for election of Saoi to the more participatory and inclusive process whereby all members are contacted by the registrar and asked to put forward their chosen nomination in writing. Each nomination must be made, in writing, by fifteen members. The names of candidates whose nominations have been made according to the rule would be put to a ballot of the membership and the candidate with the highest number of votes be deemed elected”.

But again the members of Aosdána, given the chance to be democratic, accountable and progressive, buried their heads in the sand. The motion fell.

What is it that turns artists into fearful cowards who abstain from right choices at the slightest whim where there is any risk of discomfiture? Something strange happens to them when they sit in assembly or become parts of institutions. They become ultra-conservative, indifferent, even snobbish.

The present members of the Toscaireacht and indeed its Chairperson know that the process now used for the election of Saoithe is dangerously flawed and subversive of due process and equal opportunity. At this year’s general assembly, long-time member Theo Dorgan argued against the motion, saying that it was an honorary position which shouldn’t be tarnished by being in any way competitive. The problem is that the present guidelines in Aosdána are silent on the method of election.

Certain members suggested that I compromise the motion by agreeing that there would be an announcement or a call for nominations for Saoi but I wasn’t going to water down the principle of the motion. If Aosdána is to be anything, it needs to be embracing and courageous, even daring; it needs to grow up and practise what it preaches, to realign its vision and make itself more relevant to the Ireland of today in all its forms and manifestations. Aosdána is in grave danger of becoming as closed as any of our institutions when it needs to go in the opposite direction. It should never be slow to change any of its processes that need to be changed. I want to see Aosdána a confident assembly of artists at the height of their maturity and process, sharing their vision, work and company with fellow artists and society.

Aosdána in practice has always tried to distance itself from the issues and politics of the day. It has always refrained from challenging Government and indeed the Arts Council and arts institutions. It is time now for Presidentially-endorsed Aosdána to justify itself. To challenge itself on its fitness for purpose, on whether it has advanced the ideas of its inspirational founders or instead become a closed clique of status-anxious artists. I will continue to pursue progress rather than perfection within Aosdána. And I will always choose criticism first, over fake comradery and solidarity.

I will not be voting for any nominee for Saoi until the present undemocratic process is righted. •

Mannix Flynn is an artist and member of Aosdána in addition to being a Dublin City Councillor