Category Archives: politics of art

Altering States: the curious case of Johanne Mullan’s critique and Jimmy Deenihan’s chocolate teapot.

At the beginning of February, RTE repeated its review of regional development in the arts in Ireland as part of Althering States,  Cliodhna Ní Anluain’s series examining “100 years of the arts in Ireland.”  Johannne Mullan of  the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) highlighted the lack of investment in the visual arts by organisations ‘in the regions.’

Johanne Mullan should know. She manages the National Programme at IMMA, a scheme which provides venues and groups with ‘access’ to the Museum’s collection. The key point that she makes is that the development of the visual arts has been hampered by the failure of regional arts venues to make adequate provision for exhibition spaces or the employment of professional visual arts practitioners. Mullan did not refer to Siamsa Tíre or her role as member of its board of directors for much of the past decade.

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Students of Tralee Community College installing their exhibition in the Gallery, Siamsa Tíre. Photo: Emily Doran

Siamsa Tíre was, In many respects, an exception in terms of regional arts development.  In 1991 this grassroots company opened a state of the art, newly built theatre that incorporated a dedicated visual arts space. That space may not have been conventional but  a little bit of investment and a lot of handiwork transformed it into one of the best spaces in the Southwest. Artists liked it: it was a good place to exhibit.

The company also employed a Visual Arts Director from the outset. I replaced Marial Hannon in 1995 and left the company when the post was made redundant in 2010. One of the last exhibitions I curated was a show of photography by John Millington Synge. This opened in Inis Meáin in the Aran Islands and went on to Paris, where it was a big hit. It was incorporated into The Moderns (2010)  in IMMA, one of the rare occasions when an exhibition moved from a regional venue to IMMA.

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The end of an era:the Synge exhibition in Le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.

The Synge exhibition epitomised the scale and scope of the visual arts programme 1n 2010. With the agreement of the Arts Council, the gallery operated like no other arts centre gallery in the country. Exhibitions were commissioned, artists’ fees were adequate, international projects (New York, Shanghai, Newfoundland) were developed in collaboration with artists, and there was a comprehensive programme of engagement with educational and community groups.

The Synge exhibition was also the end of an era. It exposed serious weaknesses on the part of senior managers, who were either unwilling or unable to engage with projects of this complexity and quality. That brought all sorts of difficulties to a head and, in June 2010, senior management decided to make the post of Visual Arts Director redundant .

The board of directors agreed,  Johanne Mullan amongst them. True, at the time Siamsa had more managers than it needed or could afford and the visual arts could, in theory, have been absorbed by the existing management team. As it happened the visual arts programme was dismantled.

Now you see … now you don’t!

The first action by Siamsa management was to cancel or revise contracts agreed with artists and partner organizations in Ireland and abroad. A major international exchange with the Don Gallery in Shanghai was cancelled on the slimmest of pretexts. Documents show how fees agreed with artists were significantly cut, amounting to a deliberate withdrawal of financial support from one of the most exposed sectors of the arts in Ireland – in the midst of a financial crisis that had wiped out many artists’ income.

This was merely the beginning of a deliberate policy of not investing in the visual arts. Seven years on there is little or no support for professional visual artists and the gallery is barely functioning as a visual arts space. Schools in the region no longer have supported access to the visual arts. It’s beginning to look like the ‘bad old days’ when contemporary visual arts were barely visible in the regions, as described by contributors to Altering States: 

Johanne Mullan was a member of the board of directors of Siamsa Tíre while all this was going on.  I emailed her and asked her how she squared her criticism of the lack of investment in professional personnel and appropriate spaces in arts centres and theatres in the “regions” with her role in dismantling the visual arts infrastructure in Kerry. Her reply: “I am happy to bring your opinions to the Siamsa Tíre board.” I’m thinking chocolate teapots but Mullan has a point:  investment in the arts doesn’t just happen, it is a consequence of individual and collective decisions taken by management and approved by boards of directors.

Jimmy’s Chocolate Teapot

There is a wider context that needs to be considered here. Siamsa received €332,000 in public funding in 2016. It is part of regional infrastructure of publicly funded organisations that the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has placed at the center of its plan to “build a legacy of 2016” by making a policy objective of personal and collective creativity. “The best way to nurture the creative imagination“ the Department’s website states “is through active engagement with arts and culture.”

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Heather Humphreys T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, launching the Creative Ireland Programme. Photo:  Departmental website.

The Government has also launched Realising Our Rural Potential, a plan to mobilise economic, social and cultural resources in the regions with the aim of “improving the lives of those living and working in rural Ireland.” The plans come together around the key objective of increasing access to the arts and enhancing cultural facilities in rural communities.

And that is a problem that exercised all the contributors to Altering States:  how is active engagement with arts achieved at a local and regional level? Who calls the shots? Who is accountable? Who pays the Piper? Siamsa Tíre is a really interesting case. The Department of Arts etc. replaced the Arts Council as the primary funder of Siamsa Tíre in 2015, a move brokered by Jimmy Deenihan, then Minister for Arts and the local Fine Gael TD. It was a brazen act of clientilist patronage that politicised arts funding in an unprecedented way.

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Siamsa in 1991: the good ole days.

As part of the deal agreed between Deenihan, the Department, and the Board of Siamsa Tíre, the organisation ceased trading as an Arts Council supported arts centre and became a venue that “provides theatre and exhibition facilities to third parties” (see Directors’ Report and Financial Statements for 2015). What does that mean in practice?  The current visual arts programme comprises a one person exhibition and a touring show produced by “a third party,” pretty much the same level of activity as the year before.

Lack of money is not the issue here. Deenihan sweetened the transfer deal with an increase of 33% in funding, from €225,000 under the Arts Council to €300,ooo from the Department of Arts etc. A further €32,000 per annum is provided by Kerry County Council.

The real issue is the level of investment that is decided by management and approved by the board of directors. It begs the question: what percentage of €332,000 in public funding did Siamsa allocate directly to the support of artists and opportunities for public engagement in 2016? At a guess, I would say around 1%.

That raises all sort of questions about the viability of the Department’s plan to use the ‘regional’ resources like Siamsa Tíre to “nurture the creative imagination” in rural Ireland. Once again, sadly, a chocolate teapot comes to mind. I can’t help thinking that Jimmy Deenihan was thinking along the same lines at the end of the last election count.

Next up: The National Folk Theatre of Ireland: you can’t be serious?