Right now, we should all be getting ready to enjoy the final weekend of the 2020 Galway International Arts Festival. The arts festival has grown from tiny beginnings in 1977, when a few students at UCG - as NUI Galway was then known - who had no money, still had big ideas, energy, and enthusiasm.
Nowadays, even the most self-consciously Philistine Galwegian - the sort who the rest of the year mutters into his Sunday Independent about how the arts crowd 'Don’t live in the real world', can find something in the arts festival programme to enjoy, even if he does so on the quiet.
The Galway International Arts Festival, along with the Galway Races and visiting summer school students at NUI Galway, is now one of the economic engines that makes summertime Galway the place it is, or at least the place it was until Covid struck all that down.
The arts are not just a business
However the arts are not just a business, and recent high profile difficulties around a couple of well publicised arts related projects locally are proof to Insider that arts activity cannot be switched on by elite committees with the ability to access excessive amounts of public money.
'There is as much money as the central bank decides to print. So talk of governments running out of money is nonsense. However, it is essential this money is spread in the right way'
The arts can never be successfully run, nor creativity nurtured, in the top down way multinational companies are run, because unless it keeps finding, and making space for the present day equivalent of those students who were energetic enough, and mad enough, to persist until the Galway Arts Festival was a reality, then the arts dies, or at best becomes a museum for posh people to wander around looking at things that used to happen, but do not anymore because we are all too busy selling each other insurance.
The arts will need massive Government investment if an environment conducive to creativity is to be nurtured over the next few years. A positive aspect of the Covid crisis has been the way money has been exposed as an entirely made up thing. There is as much money as the central bank decides to print. So all talk of governments running out of money is nonsense. However, it is essential this money is spread in the right way, ie, downwards towards those who will be the artists and innovators of the next few years rather than upwards towards embedded arts administrators who think their €50,000 a year amounts to living in poverty.
A warning from the USA?
The recent calamities that have befallen the US Poetry Foundation should be all the evidence anyone needs that a top down approach, and loads of money given to the wrong people, is a recipe for artistic decline rather than renewal and innovation.
The Poetry Foundation was set up in 2003 to manage the $200 million philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave to Poetry (Chicago ) magazine which had long been considered one of the leading poetry magazines on the planet. Poetry was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe and published most of the great poets of the past hundred years: Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, WH Auden, and Sylvia Plath all published early poems there. It was the first place TS Eliot’s classic poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ appeared in print. Fast forward 100 years and the now super rich Poetry magazine published the following by Yoko Ono: “The sky is high/We s**t on earth/We look up the sky/The earth gives birth/To our future”, (Poetry, July/August 2018 ).
Those four lines are the entire poem. In the words of Leonard Cohen, wasn’t it a long way down? The magazine, under new editorship, became obsessed with celebrity, hence the rush to include the Ono poem, and the hyper shallow end of identity politics. From being a world leader in its early decades, it became a place where some laughably awful poems appeared in the past few years; though few wanted to admit publicly the emperor was running around with no clothes on.
Its superficial PC veneer was, as is often the case in the arts, cover for the fact the magazine was now mostly concerned with wielding the perceived power its $200 million endowment gave it. The editor who chose to include Yoko’s four lines was flown to Ireland by a couple of our leading literary organisations to facilitate workshops in this country. The house that is Poetry magazine came tumbling down recently when, among other things, it published a 30 page long poem - which many considered racist - right in the middle of the Black Lives Matters uprising.
Insider believes that the poem was not really racist, just plain awful, and clumsy, and lacking any artist merit at all - just like the Yoko Ono poem and a good percentage of those the magazine has published over the past decade. The editor, president of the Poetry Foundation, and the chairman of the board have now all resigned and there is talk the magazine might cease publication.
Whatever happens, it will never have its previous prestige, which came from poetry not money. Ruth Lilly would probably have done more to support the cause of poetry if she had wandered the main streets of America giving away $50 bills until that $200 million was gone. At least that way some of it might have gotten into the hands of people who would have used it to take a bit of time out to write some poems.
An endorsement from Joe Biden
Closer to home, our national organisation for the promotion of poetry, Poetry Ireland, has launched a major fundraising initiative to support its proposed Poetry Ireland Centre in Parnell Square which will be part of 'Dublin’s Literary Quarter'. Poetry Ireland publishes a fine magazine which gives good platform to new and pre-existing poets, and also runs the excellent Poetry Ireland Introductions series which, since its establishment by Theo Dorgan in 1990, has given many now established poets their first proper reading in the capital.
'This time we must ensure that some of that money goes downwards towards those creating the art and literature of the future'
However, it is undeniable that, over the past few years, the organisation has grown somewhat remote from the poetry grassroots, and seems increasingly interested in the sort of shallow glamour which brought down its US counterpart. In 2017 it produced a video in support of the Poetry Ireland Centre which opened with an endorsement from Joe Biden. It has been Insider’s life experience that arts projects which benefit grassroots and emerging artists rarely come with a video endorsement from the former vice president of the United States.
Galway initiatives and Galwegians to be supported
Insider thinks that in post-Covid Galway we need to resist calls by embedded arts administrators, a good number of whom should be quietly and humanely retired, to construct monuments to themselves in the form of ‘centres’ or ‘hubs’ full of administrators. Instead, we need to funnel money downwards towards the vibrant and the new.
The artist-run 126 Gallery [pictured above] in St Bridget’s Place is one brilliant initiative that should be supported. Another is the anarchical inclusive events poet James O’Toole has been organising around the Galway Advertiser’s own Vox Galvia creative writing page. The work Andrew Flynn does with Decadent Theatre and Maeve Mulrennan’s [pictured below] heroic support of visual artists via Galway Arts Centre’s exhibition space are also critical for emerging and established artists regionally. If Insider had a spare suitcase load of euro he would happily deposit it on any of their doorsteps.
We also need to take particular care of those freelance artists who do not have the ongoing support of any established institution. One way of doing this would be to demand, for if we ask nicely we won’t get it, that all working artists who made tax returns last year be guaranteed the Covid-19 €350 payment until at least next April, for that is the surest way to give a bit of needed security to the present day equivalent of those who started Galway Arts Festival.
Last time there was a bail out, the government sent all the money upwards in the form of bank bailouts and cheap loans for those who were already millionaires or billionaires. This time we must ensure that some of that money goes downwards towards those creating the art and literature of the future.