Impact of Covid-19 on the Arts Council: Discussion

I welcome, from the Arts Council, Professor Kevin Rafter and Ms Maureen Kennelly. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Professor Rafter to make his opening statement, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee.

As the witnesses are aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on the website following the meeting. I would like them to note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation they make in the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they might say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to identifying a person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with any such direction.

We must finish a little earlier today, at 3.30 p.m., for voting in the convention centre. I ask members to confine themselves to two minutes each to ask questions or make observations after the statements, and then to conclude, rather than having back and forth questions. This is to ensure everyone gets ample opportunity. I ask Professor Rafter to make his opening statement.

Professor Kevin Rafter

I thank the committee members for the invitation to speak today. I met the previous iteration of this committee in June of last year as part of the process leading to my appointment as chair of the Arts Council.

Since that date, the council has undergone significant change. My early tasks as chair included overseeing the appointment of three new board members as well as the recruitment process for a new director. I am pleased to be accompanied today by Maureen Kennelly, who took up her role as Arts Council director last April.

We are now living in a very changed world. The Covid crisis has impacted hugely on jobs and livelihoods in the arts sector as well as undermining the financial viability of many arts organisations. With the first lockdown last March, months and, in some cases, years of planning for events simply ended overnight. Arts and entertainment remains one of the sectors most affected by the Covid-19 restrictions. A recently commissioned report for the Arts Council by EY shows that in 2020, the decline in economic activity in the arts sector will be approximately 55% compared with 11% for the economy as a whole. Latest CSO data shows a 67% decline in economic activity in the sector. That is the scale of the challenge.

Against this huge challenge for the sector, artists have responded to lift all our spirits. The public response to, and engagement with, the work of artists online has been overwhelmingly positive. The value of the arts has never been more evident to each of us as citizens and as human beings.

At the outset of this crisis, the Arts Council fast-tracked payment to over 450 organisations and asked them to prioritise payments to artists with whom they had hoped to work. With freelance artists also in mind, the council also focused on getting bursary decisions made quickly and funds distributed across all art forms. Despite repurposing current and future spending plans, the council, at that time with a budget for 2020 of €80 million, simply did not have the firepower to offer a medium-term response to the crisis.

Like other organisations, including the National Campaign for the Arts, the Arts Council worked to ensure the arts was elevated in public policy considerations and in the allocation of public expenditure. There was extensive engagement with the political and governmental system to make the case for additional funding. Following discussions with the previous Government, and then Minister and current Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, the council received an additional €20 million in July. With the support of the current Government, and the new Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, a further €5 million was received in the summer months, bringing the council's 2020 budget to €105 million.

The budget day decision to increase the Arts Council's budget for 2021 to €130 million was a welcome and historic decision. I said on budget day that money does not solve every problem, but this was an important endorsement of the value of artists and the challenges they face. Certainly, having €130 million as a baseline minimum budget beyond 2021 will be hugely significant for the sector.

As chair of the Arts Council, I am working on the assumption that the Covid-19 crisis will continue through 2021. Restrictions will continue to impact on creative practice and public engagement with the arts. Two points illustrate the demands the council is facing. To the end of August last, the Arts Council had received requests for €152 million in financial support from individual artists and arts organisations. That figure will hit €200 million by the end of the year. There has also been a 56% increase in funding applications so far this year.

The Arts Council has provided emergency stabilisation funding for key organisations. These organisations are household names. They are essential for local communities to engage with the arts and for artists to show and display their work. They include the Belltable in Limerick, the Everyman in Cork and the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire. This emergency stabilisation funding from the Arts Council will prevent closure by the end of 2020 but with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, these organisations will still face significant challenges in 2021.

In dealing with the crisis, the Arts Council has also given priority to increasing the number of bursaries to individual artists. Bursaries are an excellent way to allow artists the time and space to create work. Demand has always outstripped the available resources. At this time of crisis, a bursary is a vital policy response to support livelihoods. Ms Kennelly and I can provide more specific detail to the committee but by the end of the year, the Arts Council will have provided direct funding to 1,200 individual artists who otherwise would have been without work; funding to 750 different organisations right across the country supporting festivals, venues, production companies and resource organisations, which has a significant impact on 2,000 directly employed staff and a further 20,000 artists; and made 1,100 awards to artists and arts workers to fund their professional development. In the past month alone, over €16 million in funding has been allocated across the sector and over the next few weeks, a further €7 million in project awards will be distributed.

I assure the committee that the Arts Council remains committed to its current strategic plan, Making Great Art Work, and the two key policy documents in respect of paying the artist and equality, human rights and diversity. The staff of the council, who have worked tremendously hard since the onset of the crisis, and the board are committed to the two main objectives to the current strategic plan, namely, the role of the artist and public engagement with the arts. We will be able to provide the committee and the members with more detail on plans for 2021, which will continue to be a tough time for the arts sector, notwithstanding the increased funding from the State.

I indicated that I was appointed chair of the Arts Council in June of last year. In the months that followed, I had the privilege of experiencing all that is good about the different art forms in various venues across the country. Returning audience engagement and protecting the livelihoods of artists and arts workers are the challenges for the Arts Council for next year. In that regard, I ask those in government who are tasked with examining and making determinations on the Covid-19 restrictions to reopen the doors of galleries and arts centres. These are well-run, safe spaces with an ability to professionally manage numbers. Having attended indoor performances at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August and the Dublin Theatre Festival in September, which operated under strict safety procedures, I have the same ask for theatres. Please open their doors and keep them open. In moving from level 5 restrictions, the value and importance of in-person engagement in the arts across the country must be recognised and acknowledged. It is hugely important.

I thank Professor Rafter. I invite Ms Kennelly to make her opening statement.

Ms Maureen Kennelly

I did not prepare a statement.

That is fine.

Ms Maureen Kennelly

I echo Professor Rafter's comments about the resilience of the arts sector and how it has behaved in such an incredibly professional way throughout the pandemic. We have seen that it has been extraordinarily generous and graceful in its response, has turned to the public and found new ways to reach the public in the past eight or nine months.

Our immediate priority was to reassure organisations that their funding would be secure for the year and to make that available to freelance artists. We have a policy known as "pay the artist" and we really wanted to make sure that freelance artists were looked after at this time. Their need is the greatest one we have ascertained as the year has gone on.

As we move into 2021, our priority is to ensure the core infrastructure is protected and we protect and sustain the many organisations we support throughout the country, for example, the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, the Ramor Theatre in County Cavan, the Wexford Literature Festival and the Wexford Opera Festival, in order that they come out of this crisis in a healthy state and ready to deliver to their full potential to the public. We have seen how much the public have missed the arts during the crisis. The Joni Mitchell refrain, "That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone", never rang more true. The response has illustrated for the whole country that we are incredibly proud of the arts.

We are grateful for and delighted with the extra funding. It will allow us to protect the core infrastructure through next year and realise a fully vibrant healthy sector as we move into the back end of 2021.

I welcome Professor Rafter and Ms Kennelly. Talking about the resilience of artists is important.

I welcome the ESRI report yesterday on cultural activities for teenagers. Perhaps the committee could have a separate meeting to discuss that important report on engaging teenagers and young people.

I will put a couple of direct questions. The Government commitment was clearly shown through the additional €50 million that will be provided next year. One of our key concerns is that this funding gets into the hands of artists, artistic communities and venues. Does the Arts Council have the capacity to ensure that happens and can the witnesses give us an assurance in that regard?

The role of the arts in rebuilding our communities will be very important. Professor Rafter mentioned the important role the arts have played in helping us through this period. As we emerge from Covid, the ability to socialise again will be a challenge. I want him to talk about that, particularly capacity-building in community arts organisations.

The community and voluntary sectors in the arts have also been hit in a particularly big way. I endorse the call with regard to galleries, theatres and arts centres being reopened. We could go into the National Gallery next door and we are more on top of people in a supermarket than we would be there. The space is there and it serves an important cultural function.

I have raised with the Department the ability of international performers and artists to travel and be treated in the same way as elite sports people so they would be allowed to travel for recitals or performances. The Department seems to be very reluctant to grant them this particular status. It is an issue of concern for a number of the major festivals.

Every member has echoed the comments made on the importance of the arts and the challenges they face during this pandemic and the resilience they have shown. My question is similar to that of Senator Byrne with regard to how the increased arts funding budgeted for next year will be administered and how it will filter down to the artists and the people who could benefit most from it. I assume up and coming musicians can apply for the bursary. I am from west Cork where we have a thriving organic music industry and the only arts funding many local musicians have been successful in getting is from the local authority arts department and the bursary there. Very few were successful with regard to Arts Council funding. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on the avenues available to them.

With regard to Arts Council funding applications in general, it is common to hear quite often from artists that it is quite arduous and there is a lot of paperwork, red tape and accounting involved. They say they need to be more than just artists to apply for it and that they need to be solicitors, lawyers and accountants as well. I totally empathise with this because they need to spend as much time as possible being creative and these lengthy application forms eat into that time. I am sure this is something the witnesses have been made aware of. Fast-tracking of funding to 400 artists was mentioned. That is fine when the applications are in but is there any way we could streamline and fast-track the application process for this vital funding for the arts community throughout Ireland?

I thank the witnesses for joining us and for the extraordinary work they have done in the past in nurturing the development of arts in Ireland, particularly the work they are doing now to support the community, which, as Mr. Rafter has pointed out, has found itself in probably the most challenging place ever in terms of being able to survive and thrive and, hopefully, come out the other end intact and ready to enthrall us with their work again.

I echo the words of Deputy O'Sullivan on the experience of local artists. I am fortunate in that I own a small theatre in east Galway and I am the co-founder of our local Carrabane Arts Festival, where, with Arts Council support and the support of others, we are able to allow people in a small community to experience what I argue is some of the best art in terms of theatre and music that Ireland has to offer. There is something special happening in rural communities throughout the country now in engendering artistic endeavour at local level and showcasing the best of what we have to offer as a country to local people. I refer to what is happening in Clifden and the Shorelines Arts Festival in Portumna and there are many other examples.

My sense is that if we were to focus on nurturing this over the coming five to ten years, we could create an ecosystem of artistic endeavour at local level that we have not seen in this country previously. I want to get the opinions of the witnesses on how exactly we can do this. I would argue it is through our network of local authority arts officers. They are charged with nurturing and developing artistic endeavour at local authority level and I hear they are constantly strapped for resources in Galway and throughout the country. Should this be considered to rebalance investment in our arts?

With regard to what is happening now and the supports the Arts Council is offering to the artistic community, I echo Deputy O'Sullivan. I hear that the application process is especially convoluted and particularly challenging for people whose expertise is in producing wonderful art and not in legalese or accounting practice. Perhaps one example I suggest we might look to is that of the sports capital grant. The Department has succeeded over the past four to five years in simplifying the application process for sports capital grants throughout the country. It is all done online. It is much more straightforward now than it was when it began. There is a lot to be learned from that process and this experience. Well done to the Arts Council on doing something really valuable and special.

I thank the witnesses for all the work they have done because it is very important that we look after our artists. Has the Arts Council examined how other countries operate? Museums, galleries and theatres are open in Denmark. They test the actors before and after performances. Can we look into this? I am concerned that the witnesses have said they did not have the firepower when the Arts Council had €80 million to handle. Now it has almost double that at €130 million, how will it handle it?

The council funds the First Music Contact organisation, which is responsible for the music industry stimulus package. How does it work? How does it administer the money and how does it trickle down to the artists?

The witnesses are very welcome and I compliment them on all the work they do. I come from Longford and I am a supporter of Backstage Theatre with Mona Considine and all the crew. There is also the fantastic St. Mel's Musical Society and Evolution Stage School. They provide fantastic performances and sell out every event they do. My first question is on guarantees that they will be supported so they will be there after Covid. I fully agree with opening theatres and it is something about which I have spoken to Ms Considine. It can be done quite safely by marking out the seats for social distancing. I am fully in favour of doing this.

Significant extra funding has been put in place and Mr. Rafter mentioned that €200 million would be needed. Is there sufficient funding to support everyone in the arts sector? I have spoken to some people, in particular a gentleman I know who is in the rigging and lighting end of things, and they were not getting full support. Has everyone been covered with supports from the Department of Social Protection? I say well done to the witnesses and I look forward to continuing to support the arts in the years ahead.

When Covid-19 first hit, the arts were left flummoxed as to what to do. Performing professional artists depend so much on live events, bums on seats and audience participation, whatever it might be. For that to suddenly disappear overnight was absolutely devastating. There has been a massive emphasis on online and virtual events and that is wonderful but I never want us to lose sight of real events and live events because they are completely different experiences. I am not equating the value of them but they are a different experience and we need to do everything we can to get back to them.

That leads me to my next point. I worked in the Garage Theatre for a number of years before I came to Leinster House. The Garage Theatre, the Ramor Theatre and other such places are beautiful, magnificent buildings. They are state-of-the-art. I am concerned about what the future holds for them. I am aware that the Arts Council will be doing everything to help them to open their doors and turn the lights on again. As for providing the guidelines on living with Covid, I am aware there are bright lights in that there is hope regarding a vaccine but we do not know how quickly it will arrive. We need to get people back into our theatres and get artists back on the stage as quickly as possible. The crews and backstage people who make shows happen also need to get back to work as quickly as possible. While virtual and online offerings are wonderful, and while they have got us over the hump of venues being closed, the artists and I would prefer real, live events. We must do all we can to make sure that we get back to these.

The first session today involved the Irish dancing organisations. I would like to hear the delegates' views on their sector. I was involved in arts and performing arts education in respect of different dance genres, including ballet and hip-hop, and also in speech and drama classes and art classes. I have always believed children who are not into sports can usually tap into the arts. All the arts classes have been wiped off the scene. A very good case was made in the first session today for bringing all the classes back in some form at level 3. I would like to hear the delegates' views on the importance of arts education. The practitioners and professionals have no jobs. The dance, arts, and speech and drama teachers should have an opportunity to get back to work.

I compliment the Arts Council on reacting and responding very quickly and openly to artists who found themselves in awful circumstances. I compliment the arts officers in local authorities throughout the country. Could the delegates comment on what additional resources, both financial and human, have been given to these officers? Is the council planning to give resources in this regard? How is it helping? The officers are on the ground dealing not only with professional arts practice but also with local and amateur arts practice.

I am catching up on Mr. Rafter's opening statement. I was in the Seanad dealing with the Planning and Development Bill so I apologise for coming in late. I commend Ms Kennelly on taking up the role early. That was an important and welcome step at the time.

I have a question regarding yesterday's announcement by First Music Contact. The Arts Council obviously funds First Music Contact. When the Minister was here, I asked her whether there is a template for the live entertainment moneys that will be invested in the sector. There was not really a template, as I could see it. I wondered whether the money should be distributed by the Arts Council instead for popular music. Is that part of the plan for future funding?

Many have been knocking on the door for many years asking for Arts Council support. I have spoken to many who have received support for the first time this year. The council is very often criticised for how it spends money but many of the problems can be traced to the lack of money. The extra money gets to people and it is proving to be welcome and much needed by many artists across the State.

There was an array of comments, questions and observations. Who would like to respond?

Professor Kevin Rafter

I will deal with some of the macro and board-type questions and Ms Kennelly will then chip in. We will work together.

As I said at the outset, the Arts Council has gone through a lot of change in a very short space of time. It has a new chairman. I have been in my position for only 17 months, and Ms Kennelly has been in hers only since April. Then Covid hit. We have seen a significant increase in funding. Thanks is due to all the political parties in the Oireachtas in that regard. In the space of 12 months, the budget has increased by 77%, notwithstanding that this is in the context of the Covid crisis. The increase has led to a significant increase in the ability of the Arts Council to deal with the sector to support artists. The board, in conjunction with the new director, is investigating organisational capacity. We have had a number of additional meetings in recent weeks in this regard. I assure members that the work is in train. It is the focus of the director, my focus as chairman and the focus of my board colleagues.

All the members have thanked us but thanks are also due to the staff of the Arts Council, who have worked really hard since March to get money out to the sector. I was asked about money getting down to the ground. It has. It has got to the organisations. We were asked to make sure it gets to artists. That has been a priority, and that is the reason we have put a lot of the additional money into bursaries. It gives the artist the ability to have the headspace to work. That has been a priority, and it will continue to be one into 2021. The council is formulating budget plans for 2021 and determining where the money is to be spent. Some will be spent on increasing the capacity of existing schemes and there will be some new schemes. The director and her staff are in discussions with the sector. There has been ongoing communication across the art forms.

With regard to audience engagement, reopening is important. I hope we will have good news but there is no reason why galleries and art centres across the country should not be open. I was at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August. Social distancing was adhered to at the performances and there were limited numbers. The organisers did a tremendous, safe job. The arts sector can deliver in this regard and it has shown that it can live with Covid and keep the doors open. We are minded to believe that, irrespective of levels, the sector should be trusted to open the venues for the public.

Deputy Cannon mentioned the Clifden Arts Festival. It is one of the first events I attended as chairman of the Arts Council. Regional spread is important to the council.

Regarding collaboration with local authorities, the authorities put about €30 million plus into the arts. It is important that they continue with this expenditure in 2021 and that it works alongside the increased expenditure by the Arts Council. There is a good, positive relationship between the council and the local authorities. We co-fund arts centres, bursaries, and residencies. That relationship is exceedingly important. It helps to get money into the hands of artists.

I realise other issues were raised but perhaps Ms Kennelly could contribute before I contribute again.

Ms Maureen Kennelly

The range of the members' questions reassures me greatly that the plans we have in place are absolutely hitting the buttons. I was nodding vigorously at everything the members were saying. There are many plans in train that will take on board their concerns.

Two members mentioned youth education and the ESRI report. The effect of the pandemic on young people, including children, is enormous. It is fantastic that formal schooling can continue but, as the Chairman said, there is genuine worry over the extracurricular activities. We have seen the massive, positive effect they have had on children's lives, both through cognitive development and the sense of satisfaction and well-being in life. We are anxious that extracurricular activities be allowed to restart as soon as possible, along with more structured arts events.

We talked about international travel. I agree that the hampering of international travel, both inwards and outwards, is a factor. Since we have a small market here, the international marketplace is important to artists. I welcome the suggestion that artists should be treated in the same way as elite sportspeople.

With regard to the difficulty with the application process, we have heard about this before, as the members have all acknowledged. It is a matter that we are very much taking on board. We will be launching a new IT system. There is a major transformation project ongoing in the council that will certainly make things easier and more flexible. In tandem with that, our very dedicated and highly motivated staff have delivered far more webinars this year for the various constituencies, including the dance, music and theatre sectors. Paradoxically, Zoom makes all this much easier.

One can invite hundreds of artists, arts administrators and arts workers to events like this. We will be doing more of those really essential, hand-holding exercises. Additionally, we are looking to appoint a number of access officers, although they may not end up being called that. They will be located throughout the country and will be dedicated to helping people with the application forms. We will streamline and simplify them, but we will put in place extra resources, saying to people that we hear them, that these are too difficult and that we want to make those key resources available.

Deputy Cannon talked about Clifden. I want to highlight that Tuam has been a creative place all this year and has done astounding work. We are in wholehearted agreement with the Deputy about the absolute impact that communities on the ground can have. We will be nominating more creative places over the next few years because, as we have seen, the impact in Tuam has been terrific, with people taking over the town hall. It has been a really positive result for us.

We have seen that the way we all live is going to change dramatically in the coming years. More people will live closer to their homeplaces and live away from cities. I am from a small village in north Kerry and I have lived all over Ireland. That is a subject so close to my heart and that of the rest of the team at the Arts Council. We are looking at the whole country as a sort of civic forcefield whereby there will be fantastic pockets of activity. We are coming down with thousands of gifted artists and we have a necklace of art centres where we can stitch the Backstage, the Garage, the Ramor Theatre into their communities of artists. We are going to do powerful work in years to come.

On the specific topic of First Music Contact, it is one of our key strategic funded organisations. It brought together an independent panel to disburse those funds. That panel consisted of a very wide range of expert people and we were consulted on the make-up of that panel. It was able to disburse those funds very quickly, to a very wide range of artists, including those who would never have seen those funds as being available to them. Similarly, the live music stimulus has been delivered separately by the Department. We are in close contact with the Department all the time about them because everything has changed so much and there are new ventures. We have full confidence in and applaud First Music Contact on the Trojan work it did in disbursing those funds.

We had a Covid award earlier this year, which we introduced very quickly upon the onset of Covid-19. A total of 67% of applicants to that fund were entirely new, many from the music industry. That is what one finds. The pandemic hit just as St. Patrick's Day was about to fall. Everybody from the Altans of this world to Jack Lukeman are all now in desperate need of funding, because their source of income has been obliterated.

It is a new vista for us because there are people who would never have seen us as a viable source of funding. We will be looking at the ways we work in terms of how we can allocate for these people in this new dawn.

That brings us to a natural conclusion. I thank both witnesses for being here today and giving such insightful insight into their work. I hope they know their work is very much valued by the members of this committee and beyond throughout this very difficult time for our artists who have kept us all going and kept our spirits lifted. Go raibh míle maith agaibh to both witnesses for attending today.

Before we adjourn, I remind members and witnesses to vacate the room immediately in order to allow for the sanitisation of the room and the set up of the next meeting. The meeting is adjourned until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 2 December 2020 for a private Teams meeting, followed by the joint committee meeting in public session at 2 p.m., where representatives from Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland will discuss challenges facing the tourism sector arising from the impact of Covid-19.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.24 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 2 December 2020.