VAN July/August 2012: New Directions


Kerry McCall: On June 21, 2011, you were announced as Director of the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaoin and you took up your position in September. As your first year draws to a close, it seems an opportune time to reflect.

Orlaith McBride: When I came into this position, it was very clear that I was from the world of education, of young people in the arts. The values you bring to a job remain with you but in assuming this position I have responsibility for all art forms and areas of practice. These are all valuable and critical to the overall arts infrastructure in Ireland, and it is our responsibility to support them all. I took up my position mid-way through the current strategic plan and I’ve been able to use my strategic planning and policy background to consider what needs done. Two key priorities have emerged: access and education. There is significant provision in this area across all art forms, but the Arts Council recognises that work is still needed, particularly in bringing the world of education into the realm of the arts sector. The Arts Council is committed to increasing public access to the arts. Arts Audiences is one initiative that is building and developing audiences. The other side to this coin is broader access to the arts. Access crosses all art forms, so what we need to do is effect a cultural shift both internally and externally, to reach new audiences – be those young people, those with disabilities, those who are geographically or socially marginalised. All art forms will have their own way to engage across an access agenda. Our role is to encourage and support organisations to reach beyond their regular constituency. Those in the visual arts will look at access development differently from those in the performing arts. So art forms will have varying strategies.

Education plays a critical role as part of supporting access to the arts. We need to support our teachers in terms of developing their understanding and confidence regarding the arts. It’s not about seeing the arts as a separate part of the curriculum. The Department of Education has a responsibility for the curriculum and ensuring that children are exposed to a full arts education. It is the Arts Council’s role to ‘add value’. We are developing a range of programmes in this area such as an artist in residence scheme in colleges of education. As part of this programme, we have recently supported a music residency with St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Drumcondra. Colleges of education are where the lifeblood of teaching in Irish schools gets made and renewed. The students’ experiences there are critical to their values, attitudes and skills as teachers. It is therefore vital that the arts are part of that experience.

KM: Is it fair to say, then, that artists should just tick the education / community arts box on the application form to ensure funding?

OM: Absolutely not. Although education and access are newly adopted corporate priorities of the Arts Council we have a responsibility across all the artforms to support the development of new work. The need to develop and embed education and access more widely beyond those organisations with a clear mandate and commitment to this area should never compromise the quality or ability of artists or organisations to create work. For example, over recent years, the Arts Council has committed to two overarching priorities in the visual arts: support to the individual artists – in terms of bursaries, travel, training and support and Aosdána; and support to visual arts venues through work spaces, studios, galleries etc. So these supports, combined with projects / commissions, are all about the individual artist and the conceptual manifestation of the artist imperative. There are ways then that public access and education can emerge from this work. There are many interesting and exciting ways that the visual arts sector is specifically developing audiences and engaging with education and outreach. They do not see this as a box-ticking exercise but rather a natural part of their programme.

KM: The Arts Council has always taken an ‘arm’s-length approach’ to advocacy. Yet, in the most recent arts strategy, it is enshrined very clearly. Perhaps you could elaborate.

OM: A lot of the Arts Council’s advocacy work is invisible, as it attempts to insinuate itself across all aspects of government. For example, next week we are meeting with Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, and, following that, Minister for Education and Skills, Ruaírí Quinn. The arts don’t exist in some sort of separate silo to the rest of Irish society. It is appropriate that we meet ministers and talk about issues that are of concern to arts organisations and artists but our work is also about ensuring that the arts are on the national agenda. We have a role to play in the social and cultural development of the state and it is the Arts Council’s function to articulate this to government, but also to the public. We do have an arm’s length relationship with government and are part of the CNCI (the Council of National Cultural Institutions). Therefore we can and do advise government from time to time on a range of issues, either as part of the CNCI, or individually as the state agency for the arts. The chairman met recently with the minister to discuss a range of issues that the Council is concerned about, but this does not necessarily happen in the public domain.

I was at the Visual Arts Workers Forum (VAWF) in Cork recently and spoke about how theatre and the performing arts are very good at being vocal and advocating on behalf of their sector. The visual arts really need to start advocating publicly for themselves. At VAWF there was a sense of coming together as a sector and saying, ‘we need to find our voice and we need to articulate that voice’. This is the kind of advocacy that needs to happen in arts and culture. We all have a role to play in this, both the Arts Council and the sector(s).

KM: In an interview in December 2011 with The Irish Times, Rosita Boland, you talk about “future-proofing the arts in Ireland” and “needing to support a sustainable infrastructure for the future”. What does this really mean for creators and producers of visual art in Ireland?

OM: The big thing is to understand your audience and I think the visual arts sector has been very proactive in using new media to engage in a way that other art forms have not yet achieved. So yes, I think it is a challenge but you need to engage differently with your audience – it can’t be a passive relationship anymore. Audiences, and understanding ones audience in a developed and systematic way, is a relatively new thing in Ireland and Arts Audiences is one of the key initiatives that we have developed to support the sector in better understanding both the profile and needs of an audience. The second part of this is the access agenda. For the visual arts sector, the ‘Here and Now’ initiative, on July 4th, is the beginning of data capture on audiences. We need to interrogate the information on visual arts audiences together and address the findings.

The accessibility of the language used by visual artists is also important. The artist shouldn’t feel they are dumbing down the work or concepts in making it more ‘accessible’, nor should the audience feel patronised. Not every exhibition or performance is going to appeal to everybody. At the creation stage, the artist and the gallery, or whoever is presenting the work, need to come together. It is at this juncture that they need ask, ‘who do we want to see this work?’ Thus defining the ‘who’ that will begin to frame the ‘how’. That’s the moment – when the facilitator and the artist connect – that the audience needs to be part of the relationship. Education and outreach is often an afterthought, but it needs to happen long before that.

KM: Having read the 2011 – 13 strategy, it notes that you plan to demonstrate the value of the arts both socially and economically and that you recognise and value the intrinsic nature of the arts. But ultimately, when we are talking about cutting up bits of cake and funding provision, data capture and evidence-based decisions will be made. So, if 300 people go to one thing and 5 go to another but have an incredibly meaningful engagement, how can data capture this conceptual connection?

OM: You cannot make decisions based solely on quantitative data but it is important that we capture it to advocate on behalf of the sector when the government ask us, ‘ how many people are attending the performing arts or visual arts events around the country?’ Up until recently, we didn’t have that evidence. However, it would be incredibly wrong and reductive for an Arts Council to use quantitative data to make decisions, which have to be made based on the artistic and aesthetic quality of the idea and then of course other factors come into play. If an Arts Council was making its decisions only on quantitative data, we would have to close the doors, because that’s not the role of an Arts Council. We are charged with supporting and developing the arts in Ireland. If we also only spoke about the arts in economic terms, then those would be the only metrics that will be used by government to acknowledge and evaluate the work that we do. We must ensure that we capture the data and recognise the economic impact of what we support, but ultimately, our support is to the making, creating and participating in an artistic experience.

KM: These are particularly challenging times for organisations and individuals in the arts / cultural sector. Since 2008, funding has decreased every year. Indeed, another significant cut to the arts is envisaged in the forthcoming budget. How do you expect the sector to respond?

OM: I think there has been a maturity of response from the sector to date. We all have our part to play in terms of advocating and will fight as hard as we can to ensure that the projected cuts are not as bad as predicted. That’s all we can do until then. We have gone from €83 million in 2008 to €63.2 million this year – that’s almost 30% of our funding gone and, we could be returning to 2004 levels of funding. That is unthinkable. The Arts Council has lost 20 staff – we have gone from 65 to 45, so we’ve lost a third of our staff. We’ve tried as hard as we can to keep the service the same but it’s proving difficult. Difficult decisions in terms of funding have been made and there are unfortunately more to come. This is inevitable.

The government says, ‘you’re going to have to do more with less’. Well at some stage, we have to turn around and say, ‘we are going to have to do less with less’. So, in terms of what we expect out of this budget, we are working really hard at trying to ensure that government protects the Arts Council and understands that funding us is about funding arts activity in every part of this country. There are organisations and artists working in every county in Ireland. They are doing great work and in so far as we can, we need to be in a position to respond to them. We can’t always do so sufficiently because we don’t have the money so we need to balance sustainability and viability into our decision-making and also ensure that the new and emerging is supported. In terms of the visual arts, we need to support artist’s studios, galleries and the individual. In effect its an ecosystem and all the bits need to be sustained.

KM: You have been a member of various boards. What advice would you give to those in similar governance positions today to future proof their own organisations and make them sustainable?

OM: There are two things I would say: firstly, be consistent in what you want to achieve rather than changing tack every couple of years. This ensures there is a deeper understanding of what a board is trying to achieve and, therefore, it is much easier for that message to filter through into the organisation. Then, be relentless with that message and be brave around that. If a board is clear about what they want to achieve, its policies will find a manifestation.

KM: Given the various discourses surrounding cultural value, how do you plan to accurately and holistically capture this value, to demonstrate how the visual arts make an important contribution to the well-being of the people of Ireland?

OM: I hope that we consistently articulate the value of all art forms in terms of advocacy and state support to the arts. We are lucky enough to live in a country that places such importance on the arts and this is manifested in initiatives like Aosdána, the artists tax exemption etc. This year, we have an exhibition that represents 50 years of the Arts Council’s collection. It tells the story of the visual arts through this period of Irish society. I think a national collection is a unique way of saying we value that art form. We will have four simultaneous exhibitions curated by the Hugh Lane in Dublin, the Crawford in Cork, Limerick City Gallery and the Model in Sligo and will also commission a new work from a contemporary visual artist. This is a living, breathing collection and remains as contemporary as it was 50 years ago. For me, that is a concrete manifestation of the support we invest in the individual artist, as a state and as the agency that applies that commitment and that value.

Kerry McCall lectures in arts /cultural management at IADT. Kerry’s particular area of research interest centres on the varied issues surrounding cultural value. She is currently Co-Editor for the (forthcoming) Irish Journal for Arts and Cultural Management and is a member of the Research Committee for the National Campaign for the Arts, Ireland.

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