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The Arts – Part of the Problem

Most spending on the arts – apart from community arts – does nothing for the disadvantagedEd Carroll 


Imagination and its armature of artists and non-artists can be mobilised to re-invest and re-set our sovereignty. Precisely because Ireland has failed we can carefully recalibrate the public value of art and culture to reunite the broken circuitry between people and political processes.  In 1877 we established our first national cultural institutions. In 1951 we established an independent Arts Council. Today, we have an opportunity to use the armature of arts and culture to recover a new experience of sovereignty.

To achieve this the dominant economic forms of art and culture have to acknowledge they are part of the problem. Art and culture have never been neutral. This can be evidenced in the share of the art’s cake that goes to the ‘haves’ and the share that goes to the ‘have-nots’. Access and participation in arts and culture by groups experiencing disadvantage has decreased over the last decade.  The consensus around the public value of art and culture has broken down and many ordinary people feel dislocated from ‘official arts’.

Witness-statements to the 2012 Dáil Committee on Arts and Disadvantage provide evidence of this.  Mary Nash, of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, commented: “There are people who are almost proud to say they have nothing to do with the arts”. Liz Meaney, of the Cork City Council Arts Office, suggested: “Large swathes of our society do not engage because they do not believe that they have a right to the State’s resources”.  Orlaith McBride, Director of the Arts Council, reported: “Significant groups of people remain excluded from artistic and cultural life”.

During the same public session, Senator Fiach MacConghail from The National Theatre questioned the Arts Council about one of its recommendations for social inclusion to encompass the arts. He asked: Is that really its position? Is it really something it should be doing?  MacConghail touched upon something symptomatic of the problem with the management of the arts in Ireland. There is a gulf between policy thinking and state action in terms of low levels of participation.  When it comes to public spending, we have no data to indicate the contribution made by the Arts towards making exclusion and poverty impossible.

A US project called ‘Animating Democracy’ supported 36 organisations engaging arts and culture to enhance civic dialogue. Arts-based civic dialogue “brought forward new voices, empowering disenfranchised groups and providing access to public dialogue and decision-making processes to people who had never before felt a welcoming entry point”.

Although we have amazing projects operating on the ground there is no requirement to  measure the impact of arts spending by local authorities, national cultural institutions and the Arts Council. What knowledge we do have is striking. In 2010, the Arts Council received €68 million of which just over €65 million came from the National Lottery. This revenue is gathered disproportionately from lower socio-economic groups. The available data indicate strongly that the substantial public money spent on the arts is regressive, meaning it is a transfer of resources from the less well-off to the better-off.

People with lower levels of educational attainment, social class and income are many times less likely to attend a range of arts events. People over 45 are much more likely to attend no arts events.   There is, however, a lack of centrally-held data. This means that up-to-date information on who needs to be targeted to take part in the arts does not exist. Policies cannot, therefore, be properly evaluated for their effectiveness.

There is no evidence, when it comes to decision-making on public funding of the arts by existing Arts Council members or officers of local authorities, whether such decisions effect greater engagement with the arts by disadvantaged groups in urban or rural areas. It would be very helpful to  liberate our managers of the Arts to answer some straight questions: What has worked in the area of art and disadvantage?  What has failed? How can we be more critical and make improvements?

Of course, no artist requires permission to write a poem, but there are obligations, never adequately fixed by manifesto or handbook, formed through conversations that spindle between the creative bench and the society.

Such conversations drive artists like Séamus McGuinness in his ‘Lived Lives Project’ with families who have lost loved ones to suicide and Ailbhe Murphy in her ‘Tower Songs Project’ about the collective memory and experience of a number of Dublin communities as they make the transition from tower-block living.

Much of the rhetoric of research designates disadvantaged families and communities as damaged and deficient. The community-arts work of Blue Drum and Family Resource Centres operates far beyond the horizon of damage-limitation. Family Resource Centres from Tacú in Ballinrobe to Fatima Mansions in Dublin report that community arts groups are tactically unsurpassed as ways to engage and work with families experiencing exclusion.

In its essence community arts is about representations, oral traditions, performing and visual arts practices, social practices, rituals and events. Community arts include instruments, objects, artefacts, and cultural spaces that communities mark as their own. Community arts take the courage of specific communities and artists who work against the odds of what is validated, popular or profitable. That is why such practices appear on the radar of the official culture long after their culturing in communities, if at all.

There is a need for a cultural rights framework. This would have a capacity to foster many positive outcomes: self-expression, self-esteem, creativity, empathy, civic participation and a whole raft of other vital and necessary human responses that lead to real citizenship, participation and change in a society.

A cultural rights framework  would advocate for systems to take account of the human person, especially of those voices unheard in our society. Such a framework might dare to imagine that this state will make homelessness, household poverty, long-term unemployment, and child poverty impossible.

A new public valuing of art and culture will resist a taboo-centred orientation in favour of the resilience of practices that celebrate family and community sovereignty in Ireland today. Such practices ask: What is a good society? How do the public value art and culture? How can poor families and communities benefit?


Ed Carroll is Director of Blue Drum