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.