Thursday, 12 December 2019

Ceisteanna (1)

Niamh Smyth


1. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the work she is undertaking to promote and protect the theatre industry; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [52380/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Culture)

What work is the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht undertaking to promote and protect the theatre industry? Will she make a statement on the matter?

Primary support for the arts is delivered by the Arts Council, funding for which has increased steadily in recent years and will reach €80 million in 2020. The figure for 2020 will be €5 million, or an increase of 6.7% on that of 2019. The Arts Council, which is independent in its funding decisions under the Arts Act 2003, operates within a published ten-year strategic framework entitled Making Great Art Work. The strategy prioritises support for artists throughout their careers by the involvement of many agencies in cultural provision, the impact of the arts on the creative economy and the depth and breadth of people's engagement with the arts. The additional funding will allow the council to enhance its support for all artists and arts practices, including theatre. The Abbey Theatre, the Gate Theatre and the Druid Theatre Company receive significant financial support from the Arts Council.

The allocation to the Arts Council in 2020 should be considered in conjunction with the significant funding in 2020 of more than €7 million from my Department to support the 2020 European City of Culture, Galway. This is a significant sum to support artistic and creative activities in 2020.

The remit of Culture Ireland, a division of my Department, is to promote and advance Irish arts worldwide, thus strengthening Ireland's cultural profile and global reputation. Strategic priorities include providing support for the international presentation of Irish artists and arts organisations, developing new and diverse international audiences and markets for Irish arts, and linking culture into the Government's international promotion strategy in tandem with other relevant State agencies.

Total funding for the arts and culture sector will increase by more than 2% in 2020, from €189 million to just under €193 million, comprising €153 million in current expenditure and €39.7 million in capital. My Department and I will continue to work with all my Government colleagues to deliver on the commitment to increase Government spending on arts and culture and double funding for the sector by 2025. I am already delivering additional funding to the arts and culture sector, building on the €1.2 billion earmarked for culture, heritage and the Irish language under Project Ireland 2040, thus leading to increased activity and employment in all sectors under the remit of my Department.

I appreciate what the Minister stated about the investment and the money spent on theatre. Nevertheless, I am sure that she, too, read The Irish Times article by Peter Crawley at the weekend, in which he wrote about a crisis in the theatre world and dwindling opportunities for artists, who are being squeezed out of the frame by disappearing venues, rising rents and faltering subsidies. In March 2019, Theatre Upstairs, a venue committed exclusively to new work, announced its closure after nine years, while at the end of November, the Collapsing Horse theatre company announced it was calling it a day, another great loss to Irish theatre. In announcing its closure, Theatre Upstairs succinctly highlighted the importance of protecting theatre. It stated:

It is unquantifiable to know what Irish Theatre would look like now without this seedbed for rising artists... More artistic seedbeds need to exist in Ireland and they need to be supported. Failure has to be allowed if success is to be achieved and it is not for audiences to tell us what they want to see, it is for us to create something that they can’t even imagine.

The point is that we are losing our venues for new work.

It is very important that, as Irish people and as a Government, we support the theatre sector. There have been a number of initiatives over the past two years since I have been Minister to strengthen the sector, attempting in some way to bring forward new proposals and ideas. Some examples include the launch of gender policies for ten of Ireland's most important theatre companies and an €80 million redevelopment programme for the Abbey Theatre, for which I announced preliminary appraisal in September. Importantly, in March 2018, I held an event with the theatre sector at the Irish Theatre Institute to launch Speak Up & Call it Out, which sought to establish a code of conduct to address the abuse of power in the Irish and international theatre sectors. Furthermore, I spoke at the Youth at the Centre seminar on theatre, which was held in Blanchardstown.

It is not enough to support established theatre, that is, plays that we know will have commercial success and actors who we know will draw audiences because they are well known. My point is about new works, and venues that provide new works and allow artists to investigate, explore and interrogate themes relevant to the Irish psyche and culture, and that allow experimental works to happen. In the first instance, we must recognise the improvements of the financial circumstances of the Abbey Theatre. Nevertheless, Irish artists should not be sidelined by our national theatre. The Minister is acutely aware of the issues raised by theatre professionals in their open letter of 7 January 2019, in which the signatories criticised the production model of the Abbey Theatre and the over-reliance on staging co-productions, which has led to fewer actors being directly employed by the theatre and fewer in-house productions. They stated that this had a knock-on effect throughout the theatre sector. The issue was discussed at length at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht but I hasten to add that, unfortunately, it seems the commitments made by the Abbey Theatre at the time to employ actors directly and to produce new works have not come to fruition.

I will try to deal with the three main points raised by the Deputy. The Arts Council supports and develops theatre in Ireland through grant funding, project awards and supports to individual artists, venues, publications and resource organisations. This year, for the very first time, we have provided €250,000 to amateur theatre, drama and musical societies in the budget. Such funding has not been provided for more than ten years. It will help new productions that have a gap in their Arts Council funding. The capital culture scheme that has been launched is a capital scheme for arts venues. It will enable them to expand and facilitate better projects into the future. I have closely monitored the situation at the Abbey Theatre since the letter was originally sent to me in January. I have been updated on all the discussions. Considerable progress has been made, but some issues still need to be sorted out. I will write to the Abbey Theatre, to the theatre practitioners and to the Writers Guild of Ireland to see if we can find a solution that is palatable for everybody.