Tag Archives: Clientilism

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.

Siamsa-Gallery

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?

The War of Independents, The Legacy of Jackie Healy Rae.

Don Mac Monagles classic photograph of Jackie Healy Rae's torch lit procession during the Irish parliamentary election of 2007. Featured by Ciarán Walsh in a review of 100 years of photography by the MacMonagle family.

The War of the Independents, Jackie Healy Rae marches on parliament. Picture by Don MacMonagle, 2007.

Don Mac Monagles’ classic photo of ‘The Healy-Raes On The Move’ was taken during the election campaign of 2007. Jackie Healy-Rae flanked by his sons Danny and Michael (who ‘inherited’ the seat from his father) march through the streets of Killarney with ‘pikemen’ brandishing flaming torches. It was one of 10 photographs that Don Selected for a feature I did in the Irish Independent (27 July 2013 WEEKEND Magazine)  on 100 years of photojournalism by the MacMonagle family.

Don has documented the Healy-Raes since the 1970s. “I would consider myself non-political but I am fascinated by the Healy-Raes,” says Don. He got a tip that ‘Jackie’ was planning an old style rally to make an impact in the final week of the election. The picture went viral and a pundit reckoned that it would get Healy-Rae re-elected. It did.

Jackie Healy Rae Poster

Like Healy Rae, Fox and Blaney were of the Fianna Fáil gene pool. Gildea was a single-issue candidate and didn’t last long in national politics. As for Fox, her father whose seat she ‘inherited’ was a member of Fianna Fáil before he went independent. Harry Blaney got his brother’s seat (briefly occupied by Cecilia Keaveny) who had in turn gotten it from his father. In fact the Blaney ‘dynasty’ ran from 1927 to 2002. It started with Neal Blaney whose son Neil was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1972. His other son Harry took Neil’s seat after his death in 1995. Confused? Well, there’s more. Niall Blaney, Harry’s son (I think) took the seat in 2002, rejoined Fianna Fáil in 2006 and resigned the seat in 2011. The seat was then taken by Sinn Féin.

The Healy Rae phenomenon may be more recent but it is as complex and dynastic as the ‘Donegal Mafia’ (as the Blaney’s political organisation was called). That’s only part of the point. The really interesting point is the battle between the margins and the centre in Irish politics. The increasing centralisation of the mainstream parties forced the likes of Healy Rae to go independent. When the independents were lucky enough to hold the balance of power they screwed the parties for all they could get in order to consolidate their positions in their constituencies, and lucrative positions they are too. In 2011 journalist Ken Foxe (Irish Daily Mail) calculated that the Healy Raes had earned €8m over 14 years ‘in salaries, expenses and contracts from the public purse.’ That is a side issue and, as Jackie Healy Rae pointed out, it was the system.

What is more interesting is the way the Healy Raes turned the institutionalised clientilism of the big parties into a very localised power base – and turned the entire system on its head in the process. As a young civil servant I was fascinated by the fact that government ministers were provided with elaborate constituency offices within government departments at taxpayers expense, a massive advantage at election time. I learned very quickly that getting around fines, housing lists, planning, education grants and jobs in state agencies mattered more to politicians than policies. As a civil servant I worked under the best/worst of the clientilist politicians of the time – Gerard Collins (FF) Jim Mitchell (FG) and Sean Doherty (FF) – although I did refuse a transfer to Doherty’s constituency office on ethical grounds. It was an interesting encounter and as well that I decided to attend NCAD on a full time basis shortly afterwards.

The nature of clientism was summed up by anthropologist Lee Komito in 1984 (The Economic and Social Review, April, 1984). ‘The political broker who intervenes on behalf of constituents to help them obtain government benefits and the client who rewards the politician with his vote has become an acceptable, and even fashionable, model of Irish political life.’ Healy Rae’s election in 1997 showed just how well that model could work for constituents in a tight Dáil and, very soon, every constituency wanted the same! The assault by independents on the mainstream parties had begun.

Jackie Healy Rae outside Dáil Éireann

from Journal.ie

 

30 years on it seems like the independents and others (32%) now stand in the way of any viable coalition. Fine Gael (19%) has become the incredible shrinking party and Labour (6%) has compromised itself out of existence. It even looks like Fianna Fáil (21%) and Sinn Féin (22%) couldn’t form a government (even if they wanted to) without the support of independents. It’s not all Jackie Healy Rae’s fault. He got lucky but the real lesson of his role in Irish parliamentary politics is that clientilist politics have wrecked a system and the rise of the independent has been driven as much by the mainstream political parties inability to take reform seriously. Political parties how are you, it’s every man for himself and Jackie Healy Rae wrote the manual.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.