Those of us in the arts and creative industries in Scotland often gaze wistfully across the Irish sea. We see a nation where writers, artists and filmmakers in particular are recognised, valued and celebrated by the people and state. We see the Irish film industry thriving and supported through tax breaks, we see artists of all types living in Ireland, and we see Irish writers and artists celebrated. That recognition comes from the state and also from the public. A radio phone in on the future of the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland, during a relatively recent crisis, demonstrated 94% support for it.
The Government supports its artists and creative enterprises through a variety of mechanisms including tax incentives for the film industry and tax exemption on some artists’ earnings. It also supports Aosdána, an affiliation of creative artists established in 1981 “to honour those artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland, and to encourage and assist members in devoting their energies fully to their art”. Membership includes writers, musicians, artists, choreographers and architects and membership is widely recognised as an honour and mark of respect. Some of the members of Aosdana also draw down a stipend, Cnuas, but not all.
Last week’s announcement by Mike Russell of a Literature Working Group for Scotland may help focus on the opportunities to better support our writers, literature and publishing sector in and for Scotland. Authors Alastair Gray and James Kelman are among those seeking support for writers in Scotland as it is in Ireland. But the answers are not all to be found in Ireland.
Aosdana itself is not without its limitations, and its total membership across the arts is 233. Artists, including writers, who are not in Aosdana can be awarded a bursary by the Arts Council. In addition, there is a degree of tax exemption on income earned for sales of art. But the amount of funding available for the individual artist is subject to significant reductions at this time in the Irish economy. The Arts Council, in common with other public agencies in Ireland, has already taken a cut in its funding for 2009 equivalent to 10% less than 2008. Inevitably, because individual bursaries and projects tend to be considered later in the planning cycle than grants to organisations, there is likely to be a disproportionate cut to individuals. Further, the Arts Council is bracing itself for a further cut to 2009 budgets later this week. This is all bad news for the artist.
A survey I directed in 2003 for the Scottish Arts Council about economic conditions for artists in Scotland showed that 70% of visual artists earned under £5000 from their practice – and its unlikely that that figure will have changed significantly.
At a time of recession it is essential that artists are supported through by the state and recognised as vital and important in our society. But Ireland doesnt have all the answers for Scotland.