I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister on his initiative, particularly for the support and encouragement it gives to traditional arts. By encouraging traditional arts we are not only safeguarding our cultural heritage, we are widening the appeal of the arts generally. A people proud and conscious of their culture will be more open to and understanding of other forms and modes of expression.
As we approach the referendum, which I believe will help facilitate the enlargement of the EU, it is particularly relevant that the Minister is putting structures in place which will encourage individuality and difference in a very positive way. It will help Ireland retain and develop its distinct cultural voice. This is necessary not just in an enlarged European Union but in a world made small by financial and media empires which in one way or another, by design or not, encourage homogenisation. That levelling process and reduction to a mean can only be resisted and defeated by nations whose people believe in themselves and have strong traditions and culture. Hopefully that self-confidence will be seen not only in the arts, but will express itself in our acceptance of exceptionality and excellence. In education there is an increasing tendency, notably in England, to ensure that everyone succeeds. Exam standards at university level are being lowered, leading one to wonder what happens when everyone has a double first.
Ultimately it will not be economics which will distinguish the Irish, Danes, Belgians, Dutch and other small countries from one another and their larger neighbours. They will be distinguished by their individuality as expressed in their traditions and the strength and depth of their cultures. Despite, or perhaps because of, our turbulent history we are lucky to have passed down in music and by word of mouth traditions, skills and attitudes that strongly distinguish us. As a consequence we have a literary legacy that is the envy of the world. Our writers and poets have repeatedly drawn on those traditions, given them new life and meaning and broadcast them to the world.
It is enormously encouraging that the Minister has chosen to underline the importance of our traditional arts by establishing a standing committee and ensuring that two of its members sit on the Arts Council. His initiative will give new heart to every branch of the traditional arts. I hope this new development will also encourage the Arts Council to spend more time and money supporting small groups and organisations throughout the country. Such bodies are making genuine attempts to bring high art out of its gilded palaces and to the public at large.
The largest medieval monastic ruins in Europe are in Kells, County Kilkenny. The ruins lie on a beautiful site beside the King's River, seven miles from Kilkenny city. For the last four years a committee of three local residents, in co-operation with the local community, has hosted a sculpture exhibition featuring sculptors such as Barry Flanagan, Lyn Chadwick, Elizabeth Frink and Peter Randall-Page. They are major international artists who have exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world. At the same time, 20 young Irish artists exhibit their own work. Aidan Dunne in The Irish Times described Kells as one of the highlights of Kilkenny Arts Week.
Approximately 4,000 people visited the exhibition on its opening day this year. The organisers believe between 12,000 and 15,000 people visited the exhibition over its two week run. Most of these people would never visit the IMMA, a contemporary art exhibition or a gallery because these are seen as intimidating spaces, available only to those who are familiar with them or can afford to visit them. Perhaps that is how some of the high priests of the art world prefer it.
Art, by its nature, is elitist and I have no complaint about that. However, those of its administrators who are paid and whose institutions are funded with public money should make a greater effort to educate and enlighten. Kells does that. No one is intimidated at Kells. Children play around the pieces while fathers and mothers look and sometimes poke at the exhibits, wondering, speculating and learning. A great deal of what they see is challenging and thought-provoking, but they and the artists love it.
Sculpture at Kells has everything the Arts Council could ask for – international quality contemporary art, work by emerging young artists, community involvement and huge crowds of visitors. The only thing Kells does not have is a sensible amount of Arts Council funding. Nearly as many people visit Kells in a two week period as visit the IMMA in six months. I do not know how much public money the IMMA receives, but I do know how much is given to Kells and also how much it needs. Kells is run on a shoestring budget, which covers costs for the transport of pieces – within Ireland and abroad – security, artists' fees and expenses, insurance and brochures. The total comes to approximately €30,000, a remarkably small sum for such a large exhibition.
As already stated, I do not know how much money the IMMA receives and I am not complaining about it. However, Sculpture at Kells, which attracts approximately 15,000 visitors in two weeks, received €10,000 from the Arts Council this year. This is a derisory sum and it is disgraceful that so much effort and success has attracted so little reward or recognition. Perhaps the Arts Council does not like to acknowledge or be reminded that so much can be done with so little. The people of Kells may not thank me for placing this information on public record. After all, next year, when it is hoped to feature five major Irish sculptors, Kells will again need Arts Council support. I look to the Minister to ensure that this is given and in far greater measure than this year's paltry offering.
I wish to make clear that I have no difficulty with money being given to the arts, nor do I have any difficulty with such money being spent on projects that do not show a financial return. I understand and accept that this is often the case. In ancient times, storytellers and artists always had a place at the Ard Rí's table. Beauty and creativity should be celebrated and the profit comes from the enhancement of people's lives. How would the Ard Rí have felt if an artist had arrived with a retinue of handlers and administrators, all of whom wanted to sit at the top table even if, incidentally, the artist was obliged to sit on the floor?
Administrators are necessary, even if it always seems that there are too many of them. By and large, they try to do a good job but too often they are employed because of their expertise and not because they are professional administrators. As a consequence, the public funds given to them are often inexpertly distributed. We need to ensure that the bodies we fund are lean and mean, with the experts balanced by people from a commercial background. We also need to ensure that administration and the funding of pet projects do not absorb the lion's share of what is available. That aim will not be easily achieved. The high priests will not like it. I am sure clouds of incense will confuse and complicate and there will be tension. However, I urge the Minister to persist and take whatever steps are necessary, if indeed they are necessary, to ensure that we get value for money – something which is very necessary in this era of belt-tightening.
I have used Kells as an example. However, I am sure there are many such places throughout the country which, if given a little funding and advice, would advance the cause of art in an efficient and practical way. In my constituency, the internationally recognised Butler Gallery needs more space and money. It cannot house its growing important collection and, for many other reasons, the space it currently occupies is not ideal.
I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the controversy caused by a recent exhibition at the Butler Gallery of work on video, which some people found challenging. As a result of their concerns, the Garda nearly closed the exhibition because it breached certain sections of the Censorship Act. The Act apparently requires that all works on video or film be submitted to the censor. This has serious implications for museums and galleries, particularly because these mediums are increasingly being used by students and artists. The legislation in Britain makes an exception in respect of art of this nature. In my opinion, the legislation in this country which deals with this area should be scrutinised and updated.
I also wish to draw the Minister's attention to another local issue which is relative to the legislation and the question of funding. I want to highlight the work undertaken by the Young Irish Film Makers, a project which employs young teenagers to produce, cast, film and edit movies. It has involved young people, North and South, in the film business and worked with people from the European Union and the United States. The Young Irish Film Makers have done an extremely good job for that form of art in this country. They may be based in Kilkenny, but their work has a national and international appeal. However, they receive an extremely low level of funding which causes serious difficulties on a year to year basis. Without the support of FÁS and other State agencies, they would not be able to continue their work. I believe they have an equal right to be considered for increased funding from the Arts Council or through any appropriate measure the Minister might introduce. Art of this nature, produced at local level, helps teenagers to appreciate other forms of art.
The Minister should consider the activities of the Young Irish Film Makers and the way in which this project is funded. I would be delighted to invite him to visit Kilkenny Castle on 26 October to attend the first showing of their latest film, which follows on from their previous feature "Under the Hawthorn Tree".
Reference is made to finance in various sections of the Bill. The impetus behind the legislation could end up as so much wishful thinking if the appropriate level of funding is not dedicated to supporting the initiatives in the Bill. I have no doubt that the Minister will do his best in the context of current financial circumstances and the forthcoming budget to fulfil the major aspirations set out in the Bill.
I wish to draw his attention to the last paragraph of the explanatory memorandum which relates to section 31 of the Local Government Act, 1994. I serve on a local authority and I am aware that while there are many worthy art projects, of one kind or another, in my locality, it is never possible to extend the kind of financial support required by any individual project which comes before us for consideration. It is wishful thinking to state that when the Act comes on stream, local authorities will be able to fund such projects. In reality, no funding is provided. The money required to help local groups is not available in the necessary amounts to sustain a project from year to year. In the context of this legislation and the finance that is available at national and local level, the Minister would assist the arts if he focused on the local scene in each county and if he supported, in a more realistic way financially, that section of local government which deals with funding the arts.
I welcome the Bill and I welcome the opportunity to bring these issues to the Minister's attention. On Committee Stage he should put as much focus as possible on funding the arts across the sector.