News & Media

Govt shouldn’t undervalue and under appreciate the contribution of the arts sector

14 May 2020

Speech by Duncan Smith TD
Party Whip and Spokesperson on Climate Action, Communications Networks and Transport.

The COVID-19 crisis has created significant challenges for the arts and cultural sector. Following a survey by the Arts Council of almost 300 arts organisations across the country, it is estimated that organisations will lose €2.9million in income per month of shutdown and the economic impact of the shutdown to date is estimated at over €10 million. Over 12,000 events have been cancelled with 2.4 million audience engagements lost. The direct impact of this on the country's 23,000 artists and arts workers is still unknown.

These workers generally have short contracts with little security in their terms of employment. Many already use financial welfare assistance to support their income from their work in the arts. While we all acknowledge that in the response to the COVID19 outbreak public health guidelines and the workers on the frontline of the COVID19 response needed urgent action in their terms and conditions and came first. Now the government must acknowledge the many other sectors of workers that need reassurance and security in order to keep them and their sector out of financial ruin and ensure it has the means to start up again once the public health advice allows it. When we all look to a better future.

My Seanad comrade, Senator Annie Hoey, pointed to the very apt quote of the late Eavan Boland this week. Boland said, “It’s dreadful to think of a society that doesn’t sustain the artist.”

The arts and culture sector is of vital importance to our society. They provide not only entertainment to the rest of the Irish workforce through their work, they play a vital role in telling the stories of our past and providing an ongoing theme to our present. Our island has produced some of the most renowned artists the world has seen. Our reputation for our literature, cinema, music and poetry, to name just a few, goes far beyond these shores.

Artists and arts workers not only desire to get back to work for their own prosperity, they seek to provide a necessary and welcome distraction to our jaded society after this very trying time for everyone. Artists are keen to memorialise the friends and neighbours we have lost, to celebrate our heroes on the frontlines, and tell the story of Ireland in the COVID19 era.

This government, or any government for that matter, must not under value and under appreciate the contribution of the arts and culture to this society and must show that appreciation by ensuring they have these supports and they have some sort of solace in a drafted roadmap to return to operations for the sector.

Arts workers have some of the lowest paid and precarious working conditions of any sector in our economy. This is wrong in normal times and is wrong in these times too. Just because a sector, due to the nature of its work, is outside the typical parameters of 9-5 or fixed work environment does not mean that private business or employment legislation cannot work to make these precarious conditions obsolete.

James Connolly, whose execution we remember this week, said, “The Irish people will only be free, when they own everything from the plough to the stars.” Well Minister, the arts sector is home to both the worker and the star, and we must show them that we fundamentally value them and ensure that the sector that provides so much joy and entertainment to our society reap the benefits of the profits that sector makes. We must not only re-open the sector in time, but we must ensure that those working in it do not return to the uncertainty they had before.

[NCFA – National Campaign for the Arts] Following an online meeting of almost 400 artists and arts workers, the NCFA have outlined the particular challenges they have collectively identified for the sector and are offering some potential solutions in the short, medium and long term to ensure that Ireland’s arts and cultural industries can remain strong and viable.

NCFA calls on Government to:

1) Establish a stabilisation fund for arts and cultural organisations so that the sector can survive this crisis and emerge ready to lead in rebuilding our national spirit.

2) Commit to immediately investing an additional €20 million in the Arts Council for 2020, to support artists, art workers and arts organisations to survive and recover from the COVID-19 crisis. This should include considerable increases to Project Awards and Bursaries that have significant impact for artists, arts workers and arts organisations, and ensure a range of other supports for artists and arts workers that respond directly to their needs. 

3) Ensure clarity and openness in engaging with the sector to define the criteria for any further funds or initiatives.

4) Ensure that artists, arts workers and organisations can plan for next year by immediately guaranteeing that at least the same level of increased investment in the Arts Council and Culture Ireland will be committed for 2021.

5) Support artists and arts workers affected by the COVID-19 crisis through the Pandemic Unemployment Payment by extending this until the end of the year, and follow other European countries in developing a model for Universal Basic Income for all citizens over the lifetime of the next government to safeguard all citizens from future crises.

6) Provide a clear roadmap to how arts investment will be doubled by 2025, including a commitment to double investment in the Arts Council and Culture Ireland over the same period, who are the agencies who directly support artists and their work.

7) Ensure that there is a full Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in the next Cabinet and that the Minister hires an advisor or advisors from the arts and culture sector.

 

Minister I would further like to raise the concerns of freelancers in the sector. As you well know, Irelands reputation as cultural hub is well earned over many decades. This reputation comes about from the hard work of our freelancers within the sector who travel all over the country to perform in a wide variety of different settings and events. From local fundraisers in our communities & schools to the stage at the Abbey theatre. These workers have seen their livelihoods and creative contribution to Irish society and culture halted in wake of the COVID19 outbreak. The arts will potential suffer most from the cautious reopening of our economy. 2020 has essentially become a complete write off for these workers and artist as it is unlikely due to public health guidelines to re-open as our sectors will. Unlike many others in the country whose work also changed, many of these individuals live very close to the limit of their income due to the nature of their industry in Ireland.  For those that have two freelancers in their families and/or children to feed, this period has had an instant, catastrophic effect. 

While the financial welfare supports have helped many in the sector, these supports will not last forever, under this government, and as the rest of the economy reopens. I fear this may lead to workers and artists in this sector to giving up their creative professions in pursuit of more steady work or even indeed emigrating in search of staying in the arts. I despair at the thought that we condemn another generation of our talented artists to leave Ireland, we must not neglect to appreciate their contribution to this country.

It has come to transpire that those workers who had not been employed at the time restrictions were introduced are ineligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. Again, I find myself asking this government how is any worker either unemployed or employed at the time of the pandemic restrictions coming in supposed to obtain work now? They cannot. Those in art have seen all potential or planned work completely disappear. How on earth is this fair?! If there are no jobs, how can someone get one?!

The arts and culture sector must not be allowed to be shut off; performers and workers must be allowed to be creative and provided that output for consumers despite the circumstances we face.

In France, the President has called for an extension of income supports for a further 12-month period for those working in the arts sector. These include many roles from actors and performers to technicians. Will the Minister and the government consider such a move to help keep our arts sector and its workers going will the industry remains impeded by the COVID19 restrictions?

In early April the government rolled out a series of initiatives in order to help artists to deal with the implications of the closure of the sector. This amounted to approximately €1 million. When compared with the funding suggested in France and in Scotland where support amount to €12.5 million, we can truly see how much this government values our artists and arts workers. These supports need to be improved and the government really needs to take the plight of workers in this sector far more seriously.

Artists should not have to hope for someone with the platform of Brendan Gleeson to go on the Late Late Show to make the case for the sector; While such an input is very welcome and appreciated by the sector; the government should just recognise the huge contribution the sector makes to our society and treat those in the sector with the respect and supports they deserve.

To finish I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that not only do our artists and those working in the sector contribute amazing creative output for our society; Our artists very often use their platforms to raise issues of great concern to the Irish public. For example, yesterday, over 240 Irish & International artists came together to back Amnesty International’s campaign to call for a military embargo on Israel “until it fully complies with its obligations under international law” and urge an end to Israel’s siege of Gaza amid COVID-19 pandemic. This is a popular cause amongst the Irish public and amongst many in this house. This is a very necessary contribution from those in the arts on top on the creative product they already provide us. Go raibh maith agat.