So, now we know it. The Arts Council is efficient. The Evaluation Unit of the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht produced a Value for Money and Policy Review of the Arts Council that examined its activities from 2009 to 2012. It found: the Arts Council “operated efficiently in a difficult climate by applying a principle of small funding cuts, widely distributed to maintain the ecology of the arts sector in a challenging period”. The Arts Council was commended “for its response to the economic crisis by significantly reducing administration costs; overhauling its organisational structures; and developing on its RAISE initiative”, which helps arts organisations to diversify funding streams.
The Review used the Programme Logic Model proffered by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This defines the inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes of an organisation, constructed through a sequence of cause and effect between strategies and actions undertaken and benefits achieved. The approach never questions the starting points – the goals of the organisation.
The review, damningly if perhaps inevitably, fails to define or address the societal value of the arts, though it is a central part of their agenda to question the values that underpin each generation.
The review fails to balance values of efficiency and equality. The regressiveness of National Lottery funding of the Arts Council is nowhere considered. Those with higher incomes benefit more from, while those on lower incomes pay more for, public provision of the arts.
The Review is concerned with diversifying funding for the Arts, in particular from private and philanthropic sources. It endorses festival platforms such as the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, the Tiger Beer Dublin Fringe Festival and the Absolut Vodka Galway Arts Festival. These are ultimately platforms for the drinks industry.
The review claims without evidence that there has been a societal outcome of a more inclusive society
The Review suggests that “international evidence in evaluating effectiveness and developing performance indicators is not applicable to the Arts Council”. Only solipsism can ground a view that the Irish arts are so particular that they can learn nothing from international comparison.
An unconvincing guff-rich narrative flows. The objective “to improve access to and participation in the arts across all communities” was achieved through a “diverse range of…targeted arts initiatives supported” (outcome) and “provided a range of arts programme throughout the country” (result). In tracing such indicators the review claims without evidence that there has been a societal outcome of a “more inclusive society”.
What the Arts Council wants to achieve from its agenda of public engagement is unclear. The review of access and participation, including public awareness; of participation, including by socially excluded groups; and of the geographical distribution of arts programmes; considers what is on offer rather than what has been experienced.
Indicators are assessed using data from the Target Group Index, compulsory feedback from the Arts Council’s funded-client base, from box-office analysis for performing-arts, from hits on Culturefox.ie – the online guide to Irish cultural events and from commissioned surveys.
The measurement of performance is based on data gathered from funded organisations’ activity and feedback reports. They systemically avoid the impact on those excluded from the largesse.
The Arts Council’s largest grant scheme operates on an invitation only basis, and funds organisations like CREATE, Age and Opportunity, Disability and the Arts, and the National Youth Council of Ireland. These groups have traditionally dealt with ‘communities of interest’ for which the Arts Council has a particular responsibility to improve access to, and participation in, the arts. The review ignores the role of a broader civil society, outside these groups, in delivering on the public good through culture. In contrast the Arts Council of England has observed that “healthy ecologies are very dynamic” which means “funding cannot be locked up in one group of organisations”.
The review focuses on effectiveness not vision, and has an impoverished approach to inclusiveness, equality and the public interest. There is an alternative narrative.
Ed Carroll is a Director of Blue Drum which works with others in an imaginary space where culture, politics and community collide.