We have all the state-of-the-art theatres and arts centres we need, writes GUY BARRISCALE . The problem is that there is not enough funding to create the art to fill them
WHEN THE NEW visual arts centre in Carlow opened recently, I was as “gobsmacked” as Martin Cullen when he opened it. But maybe my state of “gobsmackedness” is a little different to the Minster.
I am one of the thousands of unseen workers who try to pay their bills by labouring in the arts. I am not an artist or an actor, a musician or director, or indeed a financially prudent though woefully underpaid arts manager. I am not an eloquent, erudite member of Aosdána and I don’t get any tax breaks, though 20-odd per cent tax on an income of nothing, even with additional levies, is still nothing.
I am none of these, but you may have heard me saying 1. . . 2 . . . into a microphone, or seen me hanging around the back doors of a theatre at two o’clock in the morning. Maybe you’ve woken up early and seen me standing in the pouring rain with boxes of film equipment, muttering quietly and hoping that the electrics will dry out sometime before someone says “action”. Maybe you’ve taken a picture to my shop to be framed or commented on how beautiful my costumes were in the latest period drama on the television.
I hang off ladders, fix the heating, open the building early, move the chairs around, set up the projector for yet another presentation, hang the paintings, sweep and paint the stage, make the props and more often than not the coffee as well. I know about things with plugs on them and I know how to make and fix almost anything. I can dig your computer out of its most recent blue-screen death-roll and I can advise you about how you realise your latest spur-of-the-moment idea without requiring another €100,000 to do it. I do grumble occasionally and backstab and bitch, but when you’re in a hole I’m the first person you come to.
I work short contracts for low wages, indeed some of the jobs I do are specifically excluded from the European Working Time Directive. Job security is whether I’m working next month or not, I’m not even sure what “full-time contract” means and I’m a well known face at the dole office, although inevitably I’m not really qualified for anything other than what I do already.
I know a thing or two about the arts because I’m well educated or at least well read, for what else do you do while you’re waiting for the latest artistic difference to subside? I’ve seen how all the money has been spent over the last few years and, yes, I’m “gobsmacked”. I have seen galleries, theatres and arts centres opening across the country, some a little more successfully than others, every one of them “state-of-the-art” at the time, designed for the most part by architects and consultants who were – and I’m putting this as kindly as I can – not altogether sure what would actually happen in the building after it finally opened – usually about three months behind schedule.
I’ve seen beautiful, polished, hardwood floors on theatre stages that couldn’t be painted, screwed into or even looked at askance; I’ve seen access doors that weren’t accessible; galleries you couldn’t get large artworks into; theatres with barriers across the front row of seats, in case you might fall out of them; lighting gantries you have to crawl around on your hands and knees wearing a hard hat; auditoriums where you can’t hear anything said from stage; leaking roofs and expensive finishes that deteriorate expensively; beautiful foyers and primitive facilities for anyone who dares to work there.
I have seen all of these cathedrals to the arts rise up, and I have seen the money poured into the capital programmes to build, equip and open these follies, for isn’t it the case that if your neighbouring town has a “state-of-the-art” arts centre, isn’t that what you want and what your local TD will get for you.
But wait – to paraphrase Robert M Pirsig – a cathedral is not just the bricks and mortar, it’s what happens inside: it is the people who make it a cathedral. An arts building without anything happening within in is an expensive pile of stone, albeit an architecturally interesting one, that has won many awards. This is what really “gobsmacks” me.
For all the regeneration of venues and galleries, for all the tax breaks for artists and companies, for all the capital ploughed into the newest buildings, with their shiny glass and aluminium, and for all the hi-tech wizardry and equipment that is referred to only by a letter and some numbers, there is an awfully sulky, sullen pachyderm, dressed in black from trunk to tail, sitting in the green room.
Our arts centres and theatres, galleries and production companies are in crisis. Revenue funding, which allows them to make or facilitate art in whatever discipline, has declined and is in line for further cuts.
With so many new buildings our theatres do not have enough product to show because it is spread too thinly, and they have too little money to produce shows themselves. They are forced into renting the stage to acts who may or may not get an audience, taking a punt on up-and-coming comedians and risking box office splits that can often turn into revenue negative evenings. This wasn’t in the artistic vision when the building opened, and for our culture, brimful of world-class writers, dramatists, actors and musicians, this is a tragedy of Greek proportions.
The touring theatre companies have too little money to mount the bedrock of theatre: regional tours. They are forced into the potentially damaging box office splits and the idea of a surplus at the end of the financial year is a forlorn hope.
Publicly funded galleries are struggling to fill the white cubes that have sprouted across the country, not just through lack of money but also lack of staff. As for the film industry – what talent we possess and what little we seem to be able to do with it. And now we have another very beautiful, “state-of-the-art” centre. I wish the new director all the luck in the world; she’ll need it, for she is destined to face the same challenge as every other arts organisation in the country:“It has a lovely roof but not enough cash or staff to do as much as we would wish underneath it”.
SO MARTIN CULLEN, FROM ME AND the thousands like me around the country, with kids and mortgages, who oil the cogs of the arts, thanks very much but we’ve plenty of “wonderful cultural infrastructure” now.
The “best and brightest of this great country” would like to see you back up your words. We aren’t “an optional extra”. We’ve taken our “share of the pain” compared to our European friends I can assure you. The cultural sector is indeed dynamic but a great deal of that €11.8 billion of economic impact would simply not happen without us – the floor sweepers and technicians.
And so, to wrap, I’ll be as succinct as I can: what we need is money to make the art, not the building to put it in, it’s really as simple as that. Any chance?
P.S. My contract is up in December, the public sector moratorium means I won’t get it renewed, and yet another “state-of-the-art” cultural beacon will be down to two staff and the cleaner. If anyone’s looking for a polytechnician with a head for heights and their own steel toe-caps, you know where you can find me. I’ll be the one hanging off the ladder, totally “gobsmacked”.