Kick Starting the Core


Noel Kelly CEO / Director of Visual Artists Ireland discusses the situaion now facing both individual visual artists and visual arts institutions in the context of the recession – and argues that now is time of great opportunity and well as challenge.

Visual artist’s have never had such a high profile with Irish politicians, as they do today. Very much along the lines of Richard Florida’s well known model of the ‘creative / smart economy’(The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life 2002) Ireland has started to market itself as a place where the creative gesture is both valued and encouraged. It is now generally agreed that the cultural and creative sector drives development of infrastructure and innovation; and moreover that culture-based creativity is linked to the ability of people (notably artists), to think imaginatively and metaphorically, to challenge the conventional, and to call on the symbolic and affective to communicate.

Culture-based creativity has the capacity to break conventions – the usual ways of thinking – to enable the development of new visions, ideas or products. The spontaneous, intuitive, singular and human nature of cultural creation enriches society.

With a deadline of September 2009, the Taoiseach’s Innovation Taskforce called for proposals on how we in Ireland can respond to this notion of the creative economy.  And certainly the words spoken by politicians and industrialists alike at the Farmleigh forum (September 2009) would lead us to believe that our cultural identity is at the core of not only ‘Brand Ireland’ (excuse the term), but also central to the revitalisation and recovery of the national economy.

Ireland’s creativity has been recognised at an EU level, with the appointment of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to the position of EU commissioner for research and innovation. As the Irish Times noted on Saturday, 28 November “European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has described Irish commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s work as incoming research and innovation commissioner as a core part of his drive to promote recovery in the wider EU economy.  Welcoming Ms Geoghegan- Quinn’s appointment to a “hugely important” portfolio, Taoiseach Brian Cowen noted Mr Barroso’s move to prioritise new sources of growth based on the “knowledge triangle” of research, education and innovation.”

However while this acknowledment Ireland as a centre of creativity is encouraging, we also need to look in more detail at the underlying situation..

Firstly, as has been seen recently reported, in the EU:

  • The Cultural & Creative sector[i] turned over more than €654 billion in 2003.  In comparison, Car manufacturing industry was € 271 billion in 2001 and ICT manufacturers was € 541 billion in 2003 (EU-15 figures)
  • The sector contributed to 2.6% of EU GDP in 2003.  In comparison, Real estate activities accounted for 2.1%.  The food, beverage and tobacco manufacturing sector accounted for 1.9%.
  • The sector’s growth in 1999-2003 was 12.3% higher than the growth of the general economy.
  • In 2004 5.8 million people worked in the sector, equivalent to 3.1% of total employed population in EU25. Total employment in the EU decreased in 2002-2004, employment in the sector increased (+1.85%).[ii]

In Ireland, the recently released Arts Council Commissioned Economic Impact Report reveals that:

“Funding from the Arts Council to organisations around the country of €76 million supports more than 3,000 jobs, generates a turnover of €192 million and sends €54 million directly back to the Exchequer in the form of income, VAT and other taxes.

The economic impact of the wider arts sector is also greater than anticipated, with a Gross Added Value of €782 million, total expenditure of €1.8 billion, 26,519 jobs and tax revenue of €352 million.

The report also demonstrates how the arts play a significant role in the creative industries, where Gross Added Value is calculated at €5.5 billion, and total employment is 96,000.”

We can add that arts jobs are indigenous and spread countrywide. And individuals working in the arts are creative, flexible and innovative – exactly the people valuable to the ‘smart economy’. Cultural tourism contributes E5.1 billion to the Irish economy; and represents the only part of the tourism sector that has seen growth in recent times.  Taking into account economic multipliers, the ‘value added’ dependent on the cultural and creative sectors in 2008 was €11.8 billion, or the equivalent of 7.6% of total GNP; with the added fact that employment dependent on the cultural and creative sectors combined in 2008 was 170,000 or 8.7% of total employment in the economy.  This represents a return on direct exchequer expenditure of €330m.

These are valuable statistics to have at our disposal as Visual Artist Ireland continues to lobby for the support of individual visual artists. Especially so at this time, when there is at best apathy; and at worst there is a blatant propagation of notions of artists as freeloaders on state resources. The voices who would speak against the arts and cultural sectors frame the debate in emotive and misleading ways – for example pitching the argument in terms of a choice between hospital beds and support structures for the creation of cultural works that give Ireland its identity and visual artists a living.

But, let’s move back from all of this, and look at what is at the very core of Visual Artists Ireland – you the individual artist.  We have all been privy to many chats, conversations, and discussions over the years looking at how we see ourselves within the widersocial and cultural context. In many of these discussions there have been fair points made that unless artists fit into certain models, then society and the art world potentially leaves us behind.  In some of these discussions, I have heard many times that artists must be seen as ‘social workers’ in order to have value. I think we have moved on from these types of concerns, but as the opening lines of this article suggest, artists perhaps now have to contend with being seen as economic indicators.

Many times artists have said to me that they reject the use of economic language – they see its usage as an assault on everything that the visual arts truly stand for. Whether or not we agree or disagree with this position is irrelevant at the moment. I believe that a momentous opportunity has arisen that offers visual artists and the cultural sector as a whole the opportunity to both have our voices heard and to bring about change in our society. Therefore, I believe that this is a time when we must set aside our differences and give a united voice that supports the visual arts contribution to Ireland’s recovery.

Visual Artists Ireland, as an artists’ representative body, is the only dedicated voice for the visual arts in Ireland today. There is no equivalent organisation representing visual arts venues, workspaces, museums or galleries working on a day to day basis to ensure that the creative visual arts are top of political agendas.  We do of course acknowledge the work of the National Campaign for the Arts – as they represent a large multitude of all art forms – but as has to be the case with such a broad spectrum of interested parties, their campaign can only focus on what we all have in common. As with other individual organisations within the National Campaign for the Arts, Visual Artists Ireland broadens this by also including what specifically makes the needs of the visual arts different to other art forms.

So, this brings me to what Visual Artists Ireland are actually asking for – and what we need your active and vocal support on. In the visual arts sector we see: highly qualified graduates; internationally recognised talent with a high reputation for creativity; a highly mobile and internationally engaged group of professionals with a motivated and highly independent work ethic. Accompanying this we see that: in the core art form areas there is a dependency on state subsidy, particularly in the early stages of career development; arts organisations with limited budgets and high staffing deficits; a decentralisation due to living and workspace costs and a deficit of affordable quality workspace provision.

Based on these factors, Visual Artists Ireland has put forward a range of proposals to government. These include undertake a series of initiatives to encourage local government and to state bodies to take advantage of existing ‘community employment’ schemes to create a focused and specialised programme designed for creative and cultural sector graduates and those registered with Social Welfare. This is in keeping with a Keynesian concept of full employment (The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money – John Maynard Keynes) that includes artists as leaders and innovators. As well as this we want to see the broadening of tax incentives to industry who undertake support of visual artists and artist led initiatives. VAI has also called for the creation of cultural districts that are funded through existing structures and broadened out through local tax revenues and private and corporate involvement. We have also argued for the need for the creation of new opportunities for international exposure and dialogue through existing state and semi-state structures – for example in partnership with Enterprise Ireland and Failte Ireland. And overall, Visual Artists Ireland has made the case for the creation of a society wherein the dependence on state subsidy is removed through long term strategic repositioning of the visual arts within the national curricula.

It is important to note that these are medium and long term goals, but we feel that they are absolutely necessary so as to build a society that really supports the individual artist in a meaningful way, and not present our group of people – visual artists – as a begging bowl within society.

By necessity, at the time of going to press the number of words available for this article was limited. But will elaborate on each of these initiatives in forthcoming editions of the VAN; and also through local area discussion groups that we have started to roll out across the country. In the meantime, we are always happy to talk about these items and you may contact us at the office for further information.

Noel Kelly
Director / CEO Visual Artists Ireland


[i] CORE ARTS FIELD:  Visual arts, Performing arts, Heritage. CULTURAL INDUSTRIES: Film and Video, Television and radio, Video games, Music, Books and press. CREATIVE INDUSTRIES AND ACTIVITIES: Design, Architecture, Advertising. RELATED INDUSTRIES: ICT manufacturers, Cultural Tourism

[ii] THE ECONOMY OF CULTURE IN EUROPE Study prepared for the European Commission

(Directorate General for Education and Culture) October 2006