The arts have a social and economic value, artists tell politicians

A selection of the audience at Monday's arts husting in the Radisson Blu hotel. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

A selection of the audience at Monday's arts husting in the Radisson Blu hotel. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

The need to defend and support the arts in a climate of economic devastation, a political ideology of savage cuts to front line services, and ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’ has never been more pressing.

The arts in Galway are vibrant and healthy and for many, are among the attractions of living in the city and county. It is also vital for the county’s economy.

Events such as the Galway Arts Festival, Cúirt, the Galway Film Fleadh, and the other festivals bring in tourists, create opportunities and businesses for hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and bars, and result in a substantial cash injection into the Galway economy, which in turn sustains jobs for Galway people.

The arts - music gigs, theatre shows, exhibitions, readings, film screenings, and public art projects - also play a role in lifting people’s spirits and are hugely important to our quality of life, a factor which questions on economics can often overlook.

In an era where the influx of cash, job protection, and the raising people’s spirits is vital, political and financial support for the arts will benefit the social and economic life of Galway and help the city and county through the recession.

This is the message the Galway arts community was keen to impress on politicians standing in the General Election and it led to the National Campaign for the Arts Galway’s political hustings in the Radisson Blu Hotel on Monday.

At the meeting General Election candidates from Galway West and Galway East were invited to present their arts policy to an audience of Galway artists, writers, actors, arts workers, and arts officials.

Candidates who attended were Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív, Fine Gael’s Paul Connaughton jr and Fidelma Healy Eames, Labour’s Derek Nolan and Colm Keaveney, the Green’s Niall Ó Brolcháin, and Independents Noel Grealish, Catherine Connolly, Tom Welby, Eamon Walsh, and Uinseann Holmes.

The meeting was chaired by former Town Hall Theatre managing director and now chair of the Theatre Forum, Fergal McGrath.

The meeting was the first of its kind and was marked by a large attendance. Mr McGrath said it was artists’ attempt to “engage with the political process” and make politicians aware of “the benefit of what we do”.

Mr McGrath outlined the challenges facing the arts citing the 24 per cent cut to funds from the Arts Council since 2008 and the “dark cloud” of the McCarthy Report, which proposed abolishing the film board and a government minister for the arts.

“We have to convince people that the arts is one of the strongest tools we have to fix the mess we are in,” he told the meeting. All candidates said they recognised the importance of the arts to the local economy.

Labour’s Colm Keaveney accused the McCarthy Report of displaying “a pathological hatred of the arts and rural communities”, but he pointed out that it is not artists or rural people’s “fingerprints that are on” the causes for the implosion of the Irish economy.

He said: “The resurrection of our fine county will not come through the banks but through the people,” but that that resurrection cannot happen if governments remained attached to “attacking people” through savage taxes and cuts.

“What chance do the arts have if we attack young people through taxes?” he asked. “If the main political parties continue this young people will look to other careers and not go into the arts.”

Cllr Keaveney said the notion of artists being “freeloaders” through the artists’ exemption scheme is untrue and is a mistaken impression that needs to be corrected. However he was withering about Bertie Ahern for claiming an artist’s exemption for writing an autobiography. The mention of the former Taoiseach’s name and his status as an ‘artist’ drew much scornful laughter from the audience.

Cllr Keaveney’s contribution was warmly received, as were most of the statements from the contributors.

Catherine Connolly and Fidelma Healy Eames spoke of the work they have done to support the arts in the city. Noel Grealish and Niall Ó Brolcháin pledged they would continue to help and support the arts community.

Eamon Walsh proposed establishing a cross sectional committee - made up of governmental, local authority, and arts groups - to prepare an arts strategy for the next five years. Uinseann Holmes said he had worked for 35 years in the voluntary sector and “if elected, I will do it for free”.

However the warmest reception was for Fine Gael Galway East candidate Paul Connaughton jr. He admitted he “was not the most artistic person”, but his work with Foróige allowed him to see “at first hand” the benefit the arts bRings to people’s lives and society as a whole.

“I work with young people aged 14 to 18 and our job is to get them to express themselves in the best possible way and a productive way to do that is through the arts,” he said, which resulted in a round of applause.

Cllr Connaughton said he had involved a group of young people in designing a drug awareness and prevention programme, with help and assistance from two artists.

“The artists gave very generously of their time and the development of the programme allowed the young people to express themselves in a very positive way,” he said. “This shows that the arts have a value beyond the economic and into the personal and social and I have seen just what the arts can achieve in those areas. I will do whatever possible to continue that work.”

Cllr Connaughton’s views were echoed by Cllr Connolly who said the “essence of art is to create something unique, something of beauty, but it should inspire us to stand back and allow us to reflect on how to make society more equal.

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