Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Whole Picture

The Whole Picture

A Case For a Centrally Planned Arts Infrastructure

By Frank Brannigan

Ireland’s Celtic Tiger brought a wave of prosperity and the anarchic logic of the free-market spilled over into the arts. An ‘up, up and away’ attitude seemed to supplant sensible planning. Much infrastructure improved, but it was haphazardly hit-and-miss and opportunities were missed. This has largely to do with how Ireland is organised and governed.

The head of cultural development with Temple Bar Cultural Trust Gráinne Millar raises this very point. Millar argues that a massive reorganisation of the arts bureaucracy must take place. Ireland must develop new and unique modes of administration particular to Irish needs1. She goes on to call for a review of existing State bodies and their remits. We would go much further.

The self-directed Arts Council operates under the umbrella of the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism. Culture Ireland, IMMA and the Crawford Art Gallery Cork share a similar relationship to the Department. The Arts Council provides financial support to organisations, individuals and localities; it leads consultations, policy papers and audits on the arts; it “promote[s] and develop[s] the arts, often in partnership with others.”2 Yes, it has considerable influence, but fundamentally it gives us the heads up and controls by the purse strings. This is not central planning. It is not a political body, it is a funding and advisory one.

Currently local authorities are responsible for the planning and development of the arts. Yet, the counties of Ireland date back 700 years. It is derivative of a feudal and colonial means of jurisdiction and organisation. Today, some counties are subdivided and city councils are effectively equal to counties. This totals 34 separate authorities. Unfortunately, there are many shortcomings to this micro-level planning as a county is only as good as its Arts Office. Some counties have developed dynamic public arts programmes, others not; some have built state-of-the-art municipal galleries, others re-use old buildings. More, with contemporary suburban sprawl, county borders are crossed on a daily basis. If medieval lines divide Ireland regardless of ongoing population shifts3 does it make any sense for a county v. county ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ approach?

Co. Clare is suffering from a lack of integration into a regionally or nationally coordinated central plan. Ennis, has Glór, a theatre that has allocated some wall space in an upstairs corridor for a ‘gallery’ (something to lean on during intermission we suppose.) The current renovations of the DeValera Library Gallery, will be an improvement on its previously abysmal state. The Burren College of Art Gallery is perfect for contemporary art, but is remote and it is fully controlled by a private college. The Ennistymon Courthouse Gallery, the best public venue in the region is neither here nor there geographically. Four galleries vying for funding, but with Clare’s proximity to Limerick and Galway, what resources should be committed to an arts centre, if any?

Galway, ‘The City of Culture’, lacks essential arts infrastructure, this is especially acute in the visual arts. The Galway Art Centre is inadequate as a visual arts exhibition space, even under a best-case redevelopment scenario. 126 Gallery is a small space for experimentation. The Galway Arts Festival and Tulca continue to annually let vacant commercial spaces. Public and heritage sites, like the Fisheries Tower, remain unused or unsafe. In contrast, Sligo, Carlow, Cork, Meath, Donegal, South Dublin, etc. have new municipal visual arts centres. Where is the municipal purpose-built/renovated visual arts centre for the 'City of Culture'?

The ultimate failure for ‘joined-up thinking’ lies with IMMA (Irish Museum of Modern Art). The building itself is not a modern art museum, it is the Heritage Site: Irish Museum of Modern Art, Kilmainham Hospital. It is known that the physical limitations and protected status of the site prevent IMMA from functioning as a proper museum4. The result: IMMA is bypassed by many of the best shows traveling Europe. Remarkably, it is not capable of preventing work in its collection from being “damaged because of substandard storage conditions”5. As new and inspiring visual arts venues sprouted around the country, it is hands-down, the biggest missed opportunity of the Celtic Tiger that an iconic, purpose-built facility to house IMMA was not constructed. The painful irony is that there remains unused land on site to do it. Shouldn’t the nation’s contemporary art museum be a priority?

Theorist Terry Eagleton characterised Ireland as “a country with a first-world economy and a third-world political system.”6 If Ireland has become a single globalised economy, a culturally post-modern nation, isn’t it time to scrap a pre-modern system of cultural planning, governance and delivery? Wouldn’t it be better to have a unified, centralised body instead of a fractured system of varying quality? We are not proposing a crude and hasty amalgamation of existing structures. Rather, for a new forward-thinking and democratically elected central body, that would be aware of regional contexts and serve as a hub of pooled knowledge and experience. Ireland's arts must loose the county council system and develop a central planning body for the development of its visual arts. Yes, we must find uniquely Irish solutions for uniquely Irish problems, but the first step is to look beyond the existent endemic provincialism towards the whole picture of a single Ireland; to politically re-organise the visual arts from a national perspective.

[1] “Why we need a ministry of joined-up thinking”, March 8, 2010, Irish Times
[2] pg. 6, “Partnership for the Arts Arts Council Goals 2006-2010”, December 2005, The Arts Council
[3] “Regional Population Projections 2011-2026”, December 4, 2008, Central Statistics Office.
[4] “For art's sake”, Saturday, August 2, 2008, Irish Times
[5] “Museum's modern art treasures damaged due to poor storage”, August 8, 2008, Irish Times
[6] “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger by Fintan O'Toole”, 28 November 2009, The Guardian.


  1. The problem with Visual in Carlow is that it was built in the wrong city.

  2. Yes get rid of the county council arts officers and the system that has spawned so much mediocre contemporary art - but some are actually doing a great job - only some however so who gets to judge the standard? the arts council have recently begun to have an opinion on quality apparently and reduced funding therein but this is very unclear and uneven... IMMA btw do have plans to build better spaces but funding had dried up

  3. The proposal is to replace the council system with a "democratically elected central body" for arts planning.

    The article asserts that "the biggest missed opportunity of the Celtic Tiger" is not building a new facility for IMMA. Plans or not, this remains true.