Putting a price on culture
An Irish round-up on the political value of culture.
The value of our culture is incalculable, so the Government should think twice before taking the axe to our biggest asset, argues poet and member of Aosdána PETER SIRR –
Tuesday, August 11, 2009–
ON ST PATRICK’S DAY this year the Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister. –Ed.] presented US president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden with limited editions of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and The Cure at Troy with inscriptions by the poet. In his dedication to Obama, Seamus Heaney quotes from the poem’s introduction of the character of Beowulf as “a man who comes in an hour of need . . . there was no one else like him alive”. The first lady Michelle Obama was presented with a collection of Eavan Boland’s poems, and her daughters Sasha and Malia were each given a copy of Bairbre McCarthy’s The Keeper of the Crock of Gold. The reception that evening included a reading by poet Paul Muldoon and music by the Shannon Rovers pipe band.
What does this tell us? It indicates, surely, that songs, music and poetry are a valuable currency. Out of the many possible gifts he could have given, the Taoiseach chose to present the president and his family with works of creative imagination, the kind of imagination that is in fact readily associated with Ireland and Irishness, the imagination that fuels films, rock songs, symphonies, theatre as well as novels, short stories and poems.
Culture, in other words, is powerful. Culture is America’s biggest export to the world, and it defines how the rest of the world perceives America, just as our culture defines how it sees us. Not many come to Ireland to visit the IFSC, but they do come to see the U2 wall, visit museums, theatres, listen to music, attend festivals, summer schools, to tour the Yeats Country or visit the Joyce Tower.
Quantifying the financial benefits which the arts bring is notoriously difficult, but they are very real. Film alone is valued at half a billion euro and employs over 6,000 people. Add to this the value of publishing, theatre, visual arts and all of the education-related arts activity that takes place, the value of cultural tourism revenue, the thousands of jobs in the arts, and the financial contribution of the arts amounts to several billion annually. And it should be remembered that the single largest subsidy to the cultural life of Ireland comes not from governments, corporations or other patrons, but from the artists themselves, through their unpaid or underpaid labour.
Yet there is a sense in which the economic argument, though powerful, is ultimately reductive. You might take a single institution – an art gallery, a museum – and calculate its immediate financial contribution, but what isn’t calculable is the effect it has on those who visit it, on the creative and imaginative footprint.
It’s time we stood up and argued for the imaginative footprint as well as the instrumental use of culture. It’s all too evident that when times are bad the arts are inevitably a soft target. That they are a luxury, and expendable. Who needs Culture Ireland? Why have a government department devoted to the arts, sport and tourism? Who needs arts centres, regional theatre companies, a film board? The one thing the arts can depend on in Ireland is the shine of the axe when the economy falters. What was striking about the Bord Snip Nua report – and not only in relation to the arts – was its utter predictability.
THERE ARE OTHER ways of dealing with our cultural capital. The time of greatest state investment in the arts in America was during the Great Depression and it came out of a conviction that the creative spirit should not be allowed to be crushed by economic disaster; it was also a recognition of the long-term importance of cultural capital. Between 1935 and 1939 the Roosevelt administration invested millions in creating works projects for writers, actors, artists and musicians as part of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA also advanced scientific research, infrastructure and provided unskilled labourers with training and higher education.
A quick glance at our European neighbours shows the centrality of culture in political life. This year president Sarkozy announced that France’s annual national heritage budget would be boosted by €100 million, and signalled a major push on arts education, with partnerships to be struck between French cultural bodies and all schools – from kindergarten right through to university. In Germany, museums, theatres and libraries are benefiting from chancellor Angela Merkel’s economic stimulus plan, and her government also approved €18 billion of extra funding for research and universities.
In England, the Arts Council this year announced an extra £44.5 million (€51.8m) investment over the next two years to ensure that, despite the recession, the arts will continue to thrive. Plans include the launch of the £40m (€46.5m) Sustain fund to boost grants for arts bodies struggling due to the downturn, while £500,000 (€582,000) will support the new government initiative to breathe life into the UK’s high streets through art.
President Obama has made it clear that, for him, art and culture are “the essence of what makes America special”. No one will pretend that the arts are not endangered in the US, but this June he signed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package which includes support for the arts, and which will allow the National Endowment for the Arts to fund new productions, and help arts organisations provide work for carpenters, electricians, caterers, ushers, custodians, lighting designers, seamstresses, parking attendants and others as well as artists. This is in recognition of the five million people working in the arts in the US today.
THE ARTS IN IRELAND, as the chairwoman of the Arts Council Pat Moylan pointed out recently, employs almost as many as the ICT sector. No-one is talking about limiting opportunities in technology. It seems to me that a lot of artists and arts organisations are keeping their heads down and preparing themselves for reduced expectations and lower horizons. People are wary of criticising their funders or the politicians who make the ultimate decisions.
To allow the arts to be pushed into a corner like obstreperous children would be an unforgivable complacency. It is time for us to make plain that the massive contribution of culture to the spirit, international standing and economy of this island should be acknowledged and built on rather than savaged without a second thought.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times