Arts Council: Chairman Designate

The first session is with Professor Kevin Rafter, chairman designate of the Arts Council, and Ms Orlaith McBride, director of the Arts Council. I thank them for their attendance.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also advise them that their opening statements and any other document they have submitted to the committee may be published on its website after the meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask everyone, including those in the Visitors Gallery, to turn off their mobile phones if they have not done so thus far. I invite Professor Rafter to make his presentation.

Professor Kevin Rafter

I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to meet today. I am delighted to have been nominated by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, to serve as chairman of the Arts Council. I very much look forward to starting in the role shortly. I will be the tenth person to hold this position since the council was established under the Arts Act 1951. It is fair to say no organisation plays a more important role in supporting the arts in Ireland than the Arts Council. This position was set out in the original legislation in 1951. It was reaffirmed in the 1973 Act and again in the 2003 Act.

As head of the school of communications at Dublin City University, I currently lead Ireland's largest university centre for media and communications. It has almost 1,000 students and was recently rated amongst the top 200 globally in the subject areas. I was previously head of the department of film and media at Institute of Art, Design and Technology, IADT, Dún Laoghaire. Prior to 2008, I held senior editorial positions with a number of media companies, including RTÉ and The Irish Times, during a 14-year career as a political journalist. More recently, I have added significant experience as an independent non-executive director. Until 2019, I served two terms on the board of Dublin Bus, where I was also a member of the audit and risk committee. I have served on the boards of Oxfam Ireland and the Galway International Arts Festival. The latter produces one of Europe's leading arts festivals as well as developing and producing new work that tours nationally and internationally. I have experience working in the role of chairman, including as chair of the expert advisory committee of Culture Ireland, which has responsibility for promoting Irish arts worldwide, and as chair of the compliance committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. While serving in these roles, I deepened my understanding of governance processes through ongoing training, including at the Law Society of Ireland and the Institute of Directors. In accepting the position of chair of the Arts Council, I have resigned from a number of the aforementioned roles to remove any possible conflicts of interest.

My involvement and interest in the arts sector arises in part from my role in the education sector, my involvement with Culture Ireland and having been a board member of Galway International Arts Festival but also from my long-standing personal interest in the visual arts, theatre, literature and film. In my previous career in the media, while I primarily worked as a political journalist, I also produced and presented a number of radio documentaries on visual artists. Going back a little farther, or longer than a little farther, I originally trained as an economist. My final year undergraduate project was an econometric study of the prices of the paintings of Jack B. Yeats, the findings of which I probably cannot recall. At that time, I was also a volunteer in a community radio station in Dublin City, Anna Livia, where I worked on the station's arts programme.

In preparing for today, I read the Oireachtas debates on the original arts legislation from 1951. In a Second Stage debate in the Seanad, one Member told the House:

The definition of artist nowadays is a man with long hair or a woman with short hair; they seem to need no other qualifications than that. When I see pictures exhibited by a lot of modern artists I wish that we had not any modern art. They are not painting; they are not pictures. If anything at all, they are a puzzle.

There is little in this contribution I would agree with.

We have to go to vote but I want to hear what Professor Rafter has to say. It is an important vote. That is the only reason we are panicking a little here.

If the Senator wishes, we can suspend.

I would appreciate that because I am very interested in this discussion. I appreciate that leaving is very insulting but if the professor does not mind our suspending, I will be able to hear what he has to say afterwards.

This happens.

It is an important vote and I am voting against the Government.

Professor Kevin Rafter

I am the committee's guest.

Does the professor mind?

Professor Kevin Rafter

Absolutely not.

We will suspend until after the vote. Is it just a single vote?

We will be back in a few minutes.

Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 2.15 p.m.

Professor Kevin Rafter

Before the suspension, I referred to a debate on arts legislation in the Seanad in 1951 when one Member referred to contemporary art as being a puzzle. In a sense, it should be. Art, be it a painting, a poem, a dance or a musical composition, should puzzle. It should challenge us as people, make us reflect, think and inspire us.

I am a great admirer of the work of Michelle Rogers, a wonderful painter from County Louth who now lives between New York and Rome. In 2016, she was invited to sketch the signatories of the Paris Agreement on climate change at the United Nations. In her drawings she sought to capture the hands of the 175 national representatives who signed the climate accord. Michelle Rogers said of this work:

It was quite painful to do because it took hours, even though each individual signing took two or three seconds. I wanted to draw every hand that I could.

The outcome was quick drawings of the signatories' hands. It has been said they look in a way like a flock of birds. It is art that captures history.

One of the successes of the Arts Council over the past 70 years has been in ensuring recognition for the critical importance of the artist in society, as well as acknowledging the intellectual, creative and imaginative contribution artists make to Irish life. The Arts Council works tirelessly to ensure artists are supported in all aspects of their artistic practice and at all stages in their careers. Individual artists are supported through a range of schemes, including bursaries, projects, Aosdána and the Next Generation award. However, the reality is that being an artist is a difficult and precarious life. Despite the many available supports through the Arts Council, more needs to be done to support the living and working conditions of artists from performing to creative artists. The Arts Council will have more to say about this in the coming months.

In those Oireachtas debates in 1951, it was originally proposed that the amount of money provided for the Arts Council would be limited to £20,000 per annum. Thankfully, following discussion in the Dáil, the financial provisions in the legislation were changed to ensure no ceiling was put in place to the amount of money that would be granted to the Arts Council. The council was also to be independent in allocating its funding. The then Taoiseach, John A. Costello, noted this represented a fundamental principle in the legislation. He said, "art and all works connected with artistic activities, while being encouraged to the greatest possible extent by the State, should never be controlled by the State".

In the period since those words were uttered, Ireland's international reputation as a creative country has been built on long-standing State investment in both artists and arts organisations overseen by successive Arts Councils. A small grant to a fledgling theatre company in Galway in the 1970s supported the development of a world-renowned theatre powerhouse that is the Druid Theatre Company. A bursary in the 1980s to a young emerging novelist named Anne Enright helped to lead to a Booker prize winner and the inaugural laureate for Irish fiction. Some years ago, Anne Enright wrote about the lessons of being a writer. She had heard of people taking a year off to write a novel. She thought:

I worry that a year might not be enough. You must fail as a writer for much longer than that ... before you know what failure is and what use you might make of it.

She admitted that she did not realise that when her first book fell apart, every book falls part. As she put it, that is the gig of the artist. It is remarkable that from such struggles great work is frequently created.

At the Arts Council, novels are not written, poetry is not crafted and dance is not created. As a State body, the Arts Council, as a body corporate, is imbued with a passionate love for, dedicated commitment to and a deep experience of all the art forms. It disburses public money, provides expert advice and delivers practical support. Transparency and accountability are two significantly important values in all this work.

Key to the success of the Arts Council in delivering on its role is its capacity to work in partnership across government with other partners and stakeholders, and, in particular, with the local authorities. Partnership is important. Paul Durcan is one of my favourite poets. I was still a university student when he published his collection, Crazy About Women, which arose from an invitation from the National Gallery of Ireland to write poetry inspired by the gallery's collections. On my desert island list of items to bring, the first book would be Crazy About Women. It is a work of considerable beauty which reminds me always of the value of partnership.

I also strongly believe in public access to the arts. Everyone in society should be able to have the unique personal experience that comes from the arts - of being inspired, challenged and confronted by the work of our artists. People should be able to enjoy the arts in their local communities. Public access is central to the remit of the Arts Council, as is a strong commitment to providing experience and practice in different art forms for people across all of Ireland. That commitment is seen in Arts Council support to over 48 local arts centres all across the country. The positive impact of this type of activity is evident in Arts Council funding last year for more than 170 festivals attended by 500,000 people. However, there are still communities for whom access to the arts continues to be a challenge for reasons of socio-economics, location, gender or disability. Working to eliminate these barriers is and will continue to be a central priority for the Arts Council. Priority must be given to ensuring that everyone living in Ireland has a sense of ownership of publicly funded art and that the art they encounter is relevant to contemporary society and its people.

As chair designate of the Arts Council, I again thank the committee for inviting me to this meeting. I look forward to taking up my role formally and to engaging positively with the committee in the future and discussing many of the issues in this space with it again.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Uasal Rafter as an méid a dúirt sé. Tá súil agam go mbeidh rath ar an obair atá os a chomhair mar chathaoirleach ar an gComhairle Ealaíon. Tá a lán oibre roimhe.

I welcome Professor Rafter and congratulate him on his role as chair designate of the Arts Council. He has a considerable background in communication, writing, politics and media. As he mentioned, he also has an interest and background in arts from his radio work. As a quasi-outsider coming in, on what areas of the arts does he believe we must concentrate further? He mentioned some of them but perhaps he could elaborate.

Should the Arts Council have a role outside its State role of acknowledging the arts and gifting financing and platforms to projects and people? Is it a little stuck where it is? Would Professor Rafter like to see changes?

He stated that being an artist was a difficult life. Many artists have appeared before us, starting with a lot of actors from the Abbey Theatre to discuss what was happening there. Many of those with backgrounds in film and the arts tell us that it is not a full-time job or something that people can take up as a career. Professor Rafter mentioned that the Arts Council might discuss that matter in future. Will he elaborate a little? He might not wish to say too much yet, as the council might not have something worked out.

(Interruptions).

Something is interfering with the sound. Someone has left a phone on. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell should proceed. I am sorry for interrupting.

Of all art forms, what does Professor Rafter believe is the most neglected, left behind or not as evident for young and old? If he had a magic wand, what is the first thing he would do? Arts is about magic and creating the other in people.

Regarding third level education and STEAM, which is science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, plus the arts, is there anything that Professor Rafter has seen in his travels or in his reading about other countries that, while I am not in the business of copying, he might like to see paralleled in Ireland?

These are general questions and there is more to what Professor Rafter wants to do. They are also magic questions, in the sense that he has not sat down in the job yet. This is just to give him a bounce.

That will do him for now. We can revert to the Senator.

Professor Kevin Rafter

I have not sat down to chair a board meeting yet. I am chair designate and I wanted to do the committee the courtesy of this being my first public outing. There will be a number of board meetings later this month, which will be an opportunity for me to get my feet under the table and get a sense of things, but I will not give the committee a long list and say that I will do this, that and the other. Rather, mine will be a watch, listen and see approach. I have had the benefit of being on the board of the Galway International Arts Festival and of chairing Creative Ireland, which has given me a good sense of the sector and the various issues.

The Senator asked about the focus. Culture Ireland held a conference in January attended by individuals from all of the sectoral interests involved. I will tell the committee about something I have picked up, namely, that this is about the role of the artist, ensuring a fair and equitable working wage for artists - from the performing artist to the creative artist - and supporting them through their careers. To merge a number of the Senator's questions, doing something in that regard in order that people can have time and space will be one of the issues. I have had the benefit of reading some of the transcripts of the committee's meetings. Ms Garry Hynes appeared before it this year while it was preparing its report on arts matters. She talked about allowing art to be made. The focus will be in that space.

Regarding public access, it is important that publicly funded art be available to all throughout the country. The Arts Council is a national institution with significant regional reach. It is involved in funding the education sector, including schools, as well as arts centres and various festivals.

On the magic wand question, I will not surprise the committee with my answer - it will be the funding model. Like all public bodies, the Arts Council suffered significantly post 2008. That year, its funding was €85 million, but it decreased to €56 million. There was a generous increase in the last budget, though, and funding is back at €75 million. Working with my colleagues on the council, its staff and the director, one of my objectives as chair will be to show that this is money well spent. Ms Hynes referred to the "act of imagining" and being challenged and inspired. That does not come without investment. If I had a magic wand, I would use it on the budget and ensure that, over the five-year period that I hope to be chair of the Arts Council, the budget increased significantly above its current level. That would allow us to do everything else the Senator mentioned - recognising the role of the artist and the artist's career; putting art throughout the country; and supporting art centres.

Regarding the STEAM and STEM debate, the humanities are very important in terms of the ability to think, inspire and communicate. We must not lose sight of their value. It was the late Mícheál Ó Súilleabhaín who said there was no metric for the priceless. Sometimes, we need to recognise the huge value that the arts provide to Irish society. That does not come without investment.

It is lovely to see Professor Rafter and Ms McBride, and I thank them for attending to discuss the Arts Council.

I will ask Professor Rafter two questions. He may not be able to expand on them but we will give them a shot anyway. Being frank and honest, does he see any duplication in or conflict between the roles and work of Creative Ireland and the Arts Council? If so, does that distract or take away from what the Arts Council is trying to do?

My second question relates to the Arts in Education Charter. Does Professor Rafter intend to follow up the proposals in that document regarding the local arts and education partnerships? Is he an advocate of such partnerships and does he intend to deliver on them and the marriage, as it were, of the Arts Council, the ETBs and the local authorities?

Professor Kevin Rafter

As chairman of Culture Ireland and chairman designate of the Arts Council, I am aware that different players are involved in different activities.

They are the same in areas.

Professor Kevin Rafter

Yes, but with some there is value in partnership and having specific organisations in certain areas. Creative Ireland has a remit in the area of education in particular. I will judge that as I become more familiar with the role but there is a good, open relationship between the Arts Council and Creative Ireland.

As an objective outsider looking in, as Professor Rafter has been up to this point, does he see a problem?

Professor Kevin Rafter

No, I do not see a problem. I see two organisations. The Arts Council, under statute, has a specific remit to promote and encourage the arts. Creative Ireland is a time-specific programme of activities, particularly the Creative Schools initiative where it works in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills and the Arts Council. There is a great deal of activity in the arts space that the Deputy and her colleagues know-----

Is Professor Rafter confident and satisfied that their roles and remits are completely different and that Creative Ireland is not duplicating what the Arts Council was established to do?

Professor Kevin Rafter

I am, but I would be happy to return when I have been six or nine months in the role and answer the Deputy's question more fully.

Professor Rafter might be able to answer it more honestly from the outside looking in. I have always had concerns-----

He has not taken up the job yet.

Professor Kevin Rafter

I am not being evasive. In terms of the briefings I have had in recent weeks and in preparing for today, the Arts Council is involved in a huge amount of activity. Part of the role of an incoming chairman is to watch, listen and see. I might not have all the answers and the detail today that I would have if I had been 12 or 18 months in the role. There are various organisations in this area but the Arts Council is the most important and has been for nearly 70 years. It is the premier, dominant organisation and it has the largest reach.

I also asked about the Arts in Education Charterr.

Professor Kevin Rafter

The Arts Council is significantly involved in the education sector. I referred earlier to the value of partnership. The partnership with the Department of Education and Skills has developed over the past number of years. There are 300 schools involved in the Creative Schools initiative. That is a project in which the Arts Council will continue to be involved. The Arts Council cannot work alone. It works through the local authorities and with the line Department. It is very important that we are not operating in silos, so those partnerships are vital to deliver the ultimate objective for the arts community and for the public in terms of their access.

I congratulate Professor Rafter on his appointment. One of the issues that has arisen relates to the funding model and the individual artist. According to the Arts Council, Theatre Forum, the 400 artists or people involved in the arts, the Abbey Theatre and Visual Artists Ireland, the average wage of an artist is between €12,000 and €13,000. As funding increases, as we might expect it to, we are faced with the choice of whether to continue to support projects that do not raise the living standards, security or income of artists. Previously, in arts policy or a portfolio relating to the arts, the Arts Council funded theatre companies and projects. What if we had a conversation about a living wage in circumstances where the council gives the money to an individual artist? Perhaps the artist has to earn €5,000 to €8,000 per year in his or her own right, but he or she would be compensated up to a living wage. Whatever income was earned, the lower level of compensation would be paid by the Arts Council and at the guaranteed level, that is, the living wage, no compensation would be paid by the State. That would essentially recognise and reward the unrecognised time that artists spend on their work and address the poverty levels in the sector. An income of €12,000 or €13,000 means someone is living in poverty. We are having a conversation about poverty. Does does Professor Rafter consider that to be a viable funding option?

Professor Kevin Rafter

The Senator is entirely correct about wage levels. The Arts Council's strategic plan, Making Great Art Work, refers to supporting artists through their careers and to fair and equitable payment for the work they do. This issue has obviously been in the public domain recently. It is an issue that I, as chairman of Culture Ireland, heard about and discussed with individual artists. As already stated, it must be addressed. Aosdána is in place for creative artists and the members receive a stipend of approximately €17,000 per year. However, there are gaps, particularly in the performing arts area. Somebody could be working for a number of months and he or she might be on television so one might think the person is doing very well, but then there is no work for the rest of the year. That is a gap. It is something that, as incoming chairman of the Arts Council, I would like to discuss. I have discussed it with the director already. It is something we should be and will be examining.

The Senator is correct - it is about ensuring that in those periods when there is no work people can continue their practice, be that on the stage, on the screen or in the visual arts. I am aware that a report the Senator published a number of years ago raised some of these issues. I put two issues in my opening statement. One is about the role of the artist, from performing artist to creative artist, and the second is about public art so "Yes" is the answer. Obviously, if more money becomes available to the Arts Council, it will be in a position to do more things. The existing schemes can be expanded and new schemes can be considered.

It is immensely important if we want to ensure it is not just a playground for the privileged and to ensure the health and well-being of artists. It is possible that more and better work would be created by individuals. One is then faced with an argument as to why a lone parent in any community in Dublin should not be given the same. This conversation is happening. Social welfare would be separate from that. I encourage Professor Rafter and Ms McBride to reach out to other Departments and have those conversations.

Popular music arises time and again. It is something separate that is not covered by the Arts Council. Perhaps our guests could discuss that.

Professor Kevin Rafter

The 2003 Act specifies what the areas of activity are in terms of defining arts, but it can be broader than that. I have read and seen the discussions about other art forms that are not currently covered. I have a list of things on which to ask questions. As chairman, I will work with my 12 colleagues on the council so I am not in a position to impose, but there are issues ranging from a living working wage to the different art forms that I want to discuss with the other council members to see where we will go in the next period of activity for the Arts Council. The Senator's reference to popular music is not the first time I have heard it. It is on the list with regard to whether it is somewhere we should also be expanding the reach. Much of it comes back to looking at the budget and a bigger budget. Last year's increase was significant, but it is still not back to where it was in 2008.

Every organisation wants to return to where it was in 2008. Where more resources are available, investing in the arts a small amount of money relative to the overall national budget would allow the type of issues the Senator outlined to be addressed. The arts should be brought into communities. Not just the privileged enjoy the arts. Some 50 national tours were supported by the Arts Council last year and travelled throughout the country, where 300,000 people attended and enjoyed the performances. As I outlined, there are 170 festivals with 500,000 people. The Arts Council is in every community, as its funding, but with a larger budget, there could be a larger impact and more could be done.

I stress we should not overstate the reach of the Arts Council. Culture is created in homes and schools, and most of it happens outside of the reach of the Arts Council.

In 2008, when there was much money being sloshed around, more of it tended to be spent on buildings than on artists creating work or performing. I am interested in the arts and the elderly, not least because I am getting older. I am also interested in the arts and the disadvantaged, which has been mentioned. As Professor Rafter will know, I spent 25 years working at Dublin City University. I know what the community means there and what the arts mean to the community. I refer also to the arts' relationship with both health and equality. Something which the Arts Council might like to consider along with the thousand other matters it will have to consider is that there should be a Department of the arts. It is such a significant area, as I have always said. The categories include art, drama, theatre, dance, music, language, performance and media. One can start with puppetry and end with Picasso or the Prokofiev ballet, "Romeo and Juliet", that took place the other day.

The Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations is in represented here. While it is not in competition with the Arts Council, it and the natural environment have to vie for attention, whereas language and perhaps the arts are more comfortably placed. The Arts Council might consider that because it could make more noise in a cultural way. It will also allow the council's budget to be extended, although it might not lead to a separate Department being created. There once was a Department with responsibility for the arts, culture and language, which would give independence to all the aspects the Arts Council outlined and allow for extensions. The Arts Council might consider making more noise in that regard if it believes it is a good idea. The arts should also be considered in the various Departments because the matter is so integrative. The Arts Council described it as a partnership but it is so integrative.

Professor Kevin Rafter

I am open to hearing all advice. I do not have a monopoly on good ideas. Capital expenditure is a matter for the Department. Through the Project Ireland 2040 programme, a figure not shy of €500 million will be invested in national cultural institutions such as the National Library, the National Archives and the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. It is a mixture of spending spread across the Department. The Arts Council, on the other hand, is responsible for current expenditure.

The Senator is entirely correct about disability and disadvantage. Some people experience barriers to access and, as demographics change and the population greys in its age profile, we need to be conscious of that. There will be more people, they will live longer and, one hopes, their ability to enjoy that time will mean they will be able to visit national institutions such as the National Gallery or the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork to see great works of art. We need to be conscious of the facilities that will be available for people. As I mentioned, disability and disadvantage are on the radar.

The relationship between the arts and the elderly is interesting because it is not just a matter of visitation and of viewing and attending art. It is also about the integrative aspect. In the case of the McAuley Place for the elderly in Naas, a creative rather than medical model was used. We must reach that standpoint. A creative model needs to be used and everything will flow from that.

I wish the Arts Council the best of luck. It has a tremendous challenge but it is a great feast showing what is great about Ireland. The council's representatives will not be stuck with us preparing legislation so boring that, at times, it could tie one down to a bed.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na finnéithe as a bheith anseo. Ó mo thaobh féin de, tá súil agam go mbeidh na finnéithe ag díriú isteach ar an nGaeilge agus ar na healaíona chomh maith. Tá fadhbanna mór ansin agus tá níos mó airgead ag teastáil.

I would like the Arts Council to continue the relationship with the committee that has begun today. While this particular committee may not always exist, a committee dealing with the arts will remain. Whether or not we are here in future incarnations, at least once a year, Professor Rafter and Ms McBride should appear before the committee to explain progress or the lack thereof. It would be useful for us because, as Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell noted, the committee's remit is vast and we bounce from one area to another. It would help, therefore, if we were focused by the Arts Council appearing before us once a year. Moreover, it would allow the council to see the committee as a vehicle through which it can express frustrations with the system or whatever it wishes. It should continue to appear before us when its annual report is published and use that as the vehicle.

Chun críochnú, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis na finnéithe agus go n-éirí leo. Sin ráite, déanfaidh mé an chuid seo den seisiún a chur ar athló.

We will adjourn for a few moments while we allow our guests for the next session to take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 2.47 p.m. and resumed at 2.51 p.m.