‘Things are getting ready to happen out of sight’
I love this line of Eavan Boland’s from her poem ‘This moment’.
As artists and organisations tentatively edge their way towards presenting work for the public, Eavan’s line seems a good way to describe our times. Festival programmes are being unveiled, venues are reopening and audiences are taking cautious, yet enthusiastic, steps out.
Covid-19 has shown how vital artistic expression is in a time of crisis. Throughout the last 16 months, cultural activity has enabled individuals and communities to express solidarity and to maintain a sense of collective well being, despite the alienating effects of social distancing. Like never before, it is now acknowledged that artistic expression is urgent and vital and that our artists have the potential to make a major contribution to Ireland’s recovery and renewal.
Artists’ livelihoods are particularly vulnerable due to the uncertain nature of their employment patterns and a forthcoming report of ours will show clearly that Covid has exerted a particularly detrimental effect. Over the past year, our research shows that 4 of 10 jobs would have been lost without state support. These jobs were already amongst the lowest paid. Findings also show that even with government supports, 39% of artists have experienced a 50% drop in income.
Before Covid 19, the topic of poor pay for artists was very much under the spotlight and the pandemic’s impact has underscored the particular fragility of the profession. Underpaid or unpaid work by artists represents a hidden subsidy to the cultural life of Ireland. This is both unfair and unsustainable. Introduced in February 2020, our Pay the Artist policy continues to press home the urgent need to address these inequities.
Increasing diversity in the arts profession is a core concern for everyone at the Arts Council and this is intrinsically linked to any discussion about payment levels. Inadequate pay for artists means that only people from particular backgrounds can realistically contemplate a career in the arts. Those without safety nets of independent financial support from family or elsewhere will be unable to consider this area of work. This will result in a homogenous landscape, unrepresentative of the diverse richness of contemporary Ireland. If the artistic landscape does not tell the story of Ireland in all its richness and diversity, it is poorer, and the public will be deprived of a true reflection of our contemporary society.
In the past, pandemics have changed the contours of human life. The shared existential threat of Covid 19 is stimulating and accelerating our understanding of how we can improve the world for future generations. Lately, I have been struck by these lines from Canadian educator George Dei: ‘Inclusion is not about bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone’.
Now, within our grasp, is the opportunity to create that space, to make a civic forcefield of artistic activity to energise and cohere the nation. That forcefield will comprise appropriately paid artists from all backgrounds delivering work of the highest quality to the widest possible public.
These past 16 months have been times of both tumult and stillness and it has caused many of us to feel untethered, isolated and restless. But we now find ourselves at a truly exciting point, poised to recover and renew. Like never before, this is our moment to introduce lasting, meaningful change.