I propose to take Questions Nos. 34, 35 and 37 together.
On 7 January I received a letter signed by over 300 theatre practitioners. It raised the concerns of the practitioners about the direction taken by the Abbey Theatre in the past two years. I have huge respect for the theatre practitioners who wrote to me and celebrate the extent and depth of the talent encompassed by the totality of the signatories. While the correspondence from the theatre practitioners raises concerns about the changing artistic model at the Abbey Theatre, I understand more positive outcomes from the changes have also been recognised. I acknowledge the concerns raised by the practitioners, while at the same time recognising the Abbey Theatre's need for artistic freedom to strike a balance in its programming. I also recognise the necessity for a strong working relationship between theatres and theatre practitioners which is vital for the continued success of theatre in this country. The Abbey Theatre and all theatre practitioners are a central part of our national culture. Therefore, I take the concerns of the practitioners very seriously.
I have been informed that the Abbey Theatre had already been aware of some of the concerns raised by the practitioners and is actively working with stakeholder companies to address them. I am pleased to report that it is already making arrangements to meet representatives of the signatories to discuss their concerns. In the meantime, I have written both to the theatre practitioners and the Abbey theatre on the issues raised last week.
I note also that the Abbey Theatre’s statement makes it clear that it pays the actors it employs on terms and conditions agreed to with Irish Equity, the actors' union. In presentation or in-association arrangements the Abbey Theatre does not set the rate of pay, which has been the prerogative of the producing companies. It has stated this is to be reviewed as part of the dialogue with the theatre practitioners.
On Friday the Abbey Theatre issued a press release acknowledging the discussion in the media and stating it was listening attentively and with respect to all viewpoints. The statement went on to indicate that it was acutely aware of the precarious nature of work of those working in theatre as freelancers. I am confident, given these sentiments and the commitment of all parties to dialogue and engagement, that we can look forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome that will deliver the vision for a national theatre at the heart of Irish society that is artist-led and audience-focused.
The Arts Council has informed me that it had been engaging with the Abbey Theatre in recent months on the quality of employment opportunities and remuneration rates that it provides for Irish-based artists. That is the role of the council as the main funder of the Abbey Theatre and other State supported theatres and arts organisations. I am reassured by the fact that the council was already aware of the issues and taking action on this issue with the Abbey Theatre. As with all Arts Council funding, support for the theatre in 2019 will be based on a funding agreement. As has been documented in the media, €300,000 has been withheld pending confirmation that these conditions have been met.
The Abbey Theatre recently launched its five-year strategy, which sets out the key priorities of its vision between 2019 and 2023. It reflects the theatre's core responsibilities to Irish theatre-making, audiences, staff, funders and the community of stakeholders. The strategy has three interconnected strands: art and audience, internationalisation and investment and people and processes. In each strand the theatre identifies and outlines its goals for the five-year period. They include a consistent focus on new work and providing space and time to support artistic exploration and experimentation, alongside the theatre's relationship with established Irish playwrights and artists, as well as a pledge to ensure equality, specifically gender equality, and diversity remain at the heart of its plans and all of its activities.
The Government understands the importance of culture and is committed to supporting it. The Taoiseach has committed to doubling funding levels for culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht by 2025. The announcement of €1.2 billion in capital funding for these areas last year in Project Ireland 2040 and the significant increase in current funding for the arts in budget 2019 are proof of this.
I was pleased to be able to deliver additional supports to the sector in line with these Government commitments. In budget 2019, funding for the arts and culture sector in general was increased by €22.6 million to almost €190 million. That is an increase of 14% on 2018. This funding comprises €148.2 million in current expenditure and €41.7 million in capital investment. It includes an increase in funding to the Arts Council of almost €6.8 million, or 10%, to a total of €75 million. That is made up of €6 million in current expenditure, more than double the increase in 2018. The vast majority of this money goes directly to artists and those working in the arts in Ireland.
In 2017, the Government launched a pilot initiative allowing visual artists and writers to apply for jobseeker's benefit if and when they become unemployed. My Department is currently reviewing that pilot scheme with officials of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with the possibility of extending it to other artists, including actors. These initiatives, as well as the increased funding for the arts and cultural sector, in addition to the almost €1.2 billion in capital funding, clearly show that the Government is acting on our commitment to double funding by 2025. I have also asked the Abbey Theatre to give me an update and to keep me informed of progress.