Over the past number of years, we in Cork have learned to expect the very best. A city of jazz, film and midsummer madness, City of Culture in 2005, and now one of the world’s Top Ten Cities to visit, Cork has never had it so good in many ways. But we learned yesterday that Ireland as a whole must get used to a lower standard of living. According to the OECD, a lower standard of living will become the norm over time due to the huge imbalance in the public finances. Even those who are still in work are finding cutbacks affecting them in small ways – grumpy staff in shops (pay cuts), nobody answering the phone in call centres (lay offs) and longer queues almost everywhere.
On Tuesday night I went to see the classic Ibsen play ‘A Doll’s House’, directed by Alan Stanford (that’s George from Glenroe to most of us) at the Everyman Palace. The play is a literary classic and features on the Leaving Certificate syllabus. The Everyman was, I would estimate, about one-quarter full. The play was fantastic. Beautifully produced and directed, fantastic actors and a thought-provoking storyline. But so few people were there to see it that I wondered how the theatre and company could afford to tour.
We are accustomed now to hearing that practically everything (farming, the public sector, the Catholic Church, schools, newspapers, the health service etc) is ‘in crisis’. And the arts are no different. With cutbacks threatening practically everything, supposedly unprofitable lines of spending like the arts – like ‘A Doll’s House’ - are first in line for the chop.
A new group, the National Campaign for the Arts, is gathering momentum in its campaign to retain funding for key parts of cultural infrastructure such as the Irish Film Institute, which supports about 6,000 film industry jobs, and Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish drama, music, art and writing abroad.
The group held a meeting in Cork recently which was strongly attended, and artists and arts workers across all regions have come out to voice their concerns. While much of their concern is of course for their own employment prospects, part of what understanding art is about is seeing the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is that, while you can’t do a straightforward cost-benefit analysis of our investment in the arts, it sows economic seeds from which the country reaps enormous dividends.
Ireland is known internationally for its writers, theatre, music, poetry and even film, and our reputation abroad as a cultural Mecca is well established. Cork’s stint as European City of Culture 2005 contributed massively to the city’s arts scene, not least by giving a confidence boost, which was noted in the Lonely Planet guide.
Being able to see a literary classic done by a top notch company, at a reasonable cost and just five minutes’ walk from home is just one of the reasons I love living in Cork. Dublin does not offer the same proximity, and none of the other regional cities offer such variety.
And how was I able to do it? Because of the support given by the Arts Council to venues like the Everyman, and to artists like those in Second Age Theatre Company.
Protecting and nurturing our domestic arts scene is the only way that the money-spinning international artists of the future can learn their craft. The arts provide the only international platform on which Ireland is genuinely respected and influential. They bring a huge volume of high-spending tourists here (€5 billion annually), although our cultural exports are more difficult to quantify, with Irish artists having won Grammys, Tonys, Oscars, and the Man Booker.
As the only Irish city in the Top Ten, and the only Irish City of Culture, Cork has an obligation to support what has made it great.
So get online, to www.ncfa.ie, write to your politicians, and make sure that the near-bankruptcy of the public purse does not leave us culturally bankrupt as well.