One morning in 2004, I rang the bell at Abbeville’s in Kinsealy and Charles Haughey answered the door. The house was quiet; he seemed to be alone. We sat in a small study lined with books at the front of the house. I was there to discuss a possible paper that his family had encouraged him to write. He was careful. Unlike “Garret the Good,” he snorted that he wasn’t a “historian guy.” But as a hesitant first step, he had agreed to hire someone to research some of his most important achievements.
As a way of talking, I mentioned that I had been to a cabaret show at the Focus Theater the night before; Ronnie Drew had been a surprise guest and had sung On Raglan Street in memory of Luke Kelly. “One of those coincidences that life is so full of,” Haughey said as he handed me a letter. It was from Drew thanking Haughey for attending the opening of the Luke Kelly Bridge in Fairview. The letter was dated 1985. It was at the top of a small pile on his desk.
I began researching the first of those key achievements – the founding of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 1990. The project was controversial: officials and heritage experts were skeptical about the proposal to rebuild the 17th-century Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
Haughey’s energy and dedication were key in overcoming the resistance. Declan McGonagle, the museum’s first director, told me that Haughey “put himself clearly over the line of fire” in the museum’s defense. But Haughey fell ill shortly after I began researching it, and the memoir project was abandoned.
It came back to me while reading last week Taoisigh and the Arts, the new book from journalist-turned-professor (and current Arts Council Chair) Kevin Rafter. Haughey pops up big. Rafter shows that he was both exceptional and typical: only John A. Costello, who oversaw the founding of the Arts Council, had anything like Haughey’s commitment to the arts. Yet the way in which his commitment to them was inseparable from self-interest and patronage was emblematic of how other Taoisigh, when committed, tended to approach the arts.
Two anecdotes stand out. The Arts Council remained chronically underfunded for decades. In 1992, Albert Reynolds appointed Tom Kitt Minister of State for the Arts.
Typically, a minister’s role is to lobby the cabinet for improved funding for his sector; Kitt campaigned with the Arts Council for increased funding for projects in his constituency. (Presumably many other politicians did as well.) In the meantime, Reynolds bypassed the Arts Council and directly funded a theater company in his constituency from the Department of the Taoiseach.
In 1987, Haughey chose a poem by Rosita Boland to grace his official Taoiseach Christmas card. Boland was not paid. “A case of champagne was mentioned, although it never materialized,” Rafter writes. Quoted, promised champagne, forgotten – how does that reflect the artist’s experience with the state?
There were innovations along the way, such as the tax exemption for artists and later the creation of Aosdána to honor and support the country’s best artists (both were Haughey initiatives). But the work of the vast majority of artists and writers in Ireland has long been poorly paid and precarious, as is well illustrated by a cursory detail from Rafter.
One of the most important protagonists of these artists was the poet Anthony Cronin, who was an influential advisor to Haughey. Cronin, unlike Haughey, lived modestly; but his daily salary as a government councilor from 1987, 170 euros, is still more than many theater actors earn today.
But something has changed. The Arts Council’s 2020 budget was €80 million, still below its pre-crisis peak of 2008. Then the pandemic hit. It initially seemed like this would be a huge blow to the arts, but the sector responded by going online quickly and resourcefully, the government responded by dramatically increasing funding, and the Arts Council responded by developing innovative ways to help Funding to pass on to artists. (I was among the many who benefited.) “No political leader in the history of the state had previously sanctioned this level of funding,” notes Rafter.
Seen in a longer historical context, this increase is less striking: the percentage increase in funding for the arts since 2000 is similar to, for example, education or the judiciary and far less than for health.
However, according to another metric, this change in wealth is astounding. Funding for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) has for decades been higher than that of its counterpart here: in 1958 Rafter Documents spent £31,000 while we spent £20,000; In 1966 they spent £118,000 while we spent £30,000; In 1980 they spent £1.22 per capita while we spent £0.81.
Last year ACNI’s budget was just €21 million, less than a fifth of its southern counterpart’s budget, according to data collected by the Analyzing and Researching Ireland North and South (ARINS) project (I’m a member of the ARINS Advisory Board) – and that included lottery funding. ACNI calculated that without Lottery funding, per capita Arts Council funding was £5.38 in the North but £28.52 in the Republic.
One of the things money is spent on is “basic income”. For the next three years, 2,000 artists, randomly selected from more than 8,000 applicants, will each receive a weekly basic income of 325 euros without conditions: they don’t even have to make art.
In theory this is a pilot project for wider roll-out of a basic income scheme, but I find it unlikely that the ingrained conservatism of Irish policy making will tolerate this. But there is precedent for this in art: it’s practically a mass version of the Aosdána grant, the cnuas, and I think it could take root in art – to our mutual benefit.
On Thursday evening I went to the national stadium to see it Awaken, a show by thisispopbaby company as part of the ongoing Dublin Fringe Festival. It was theater turning our dead Taoisigh in their graves: a mixture of club culture, circus, costumes and spoken word -“river dance for club queens,” as critic Sara Keating put it in the Irish times.
On stage were 14 daring talents in everything from boxing accordion to aerial hoop to pole dancing. Any of them would have developed this talent at considerable cost and opportunity cost and could hardly have pursued a predictable study or career path.
They were the greatest possible argument for a basic income for artists: What society would not be enriched if it gave such people time to develop their art?
The point of basic income for artists, and the point of adequately funding the arts, is not that they enrich society economically (although they probably will). The point is that good art enriches us all, and the opportunity to participate in creating and observing art is a central part of our citizenship.
American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, like many other artists, has a track record of civic activism. “In the beginning I thought culture should have a place at the table of business and politics,” he said financial times. “But I now think that culture is the table from which politics and business can thrive.”
In other words, culture – or the arts – is the foundation upon which the rest is built. For all his flaws, Haughey understood that; some in the current administration are doing the same. Perhaps the Irish poet will no longer be quoted, champagne will be promised and forgotten.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/art-enriches-everyone-so-lets-support-artists-41997186.html Art enriches everyone, so let’s support artists