What Good Are The Arts?

Posted August 28, 2016 in Arts & Culture Features

RD Dublin 2018
Water Gun Fun #3

Art occupies a strange place and it can be as wide or as narrow as you wish or feel or think.

I spoke to a few different people over the course of a few days. I spoke to Willie White, Artistic Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival and a member of the National Campaign for the Arts; chatted with Lynn Scarff, Director at the Science Gallery; talked to Jesse Jones, the artist who will be representing us at the Venice Biennale next year; gabbed with Mice Hell, an artist who works mostly in drawing and textiles; messaged James Moran, comedian, writer and (curiously) cyberpsychologist who’ll be performing at TULCA come November; emailed with Kerry Guinan, an artist who graduated in 2014 and ran for election in an act of art this past year; questioned musician Dylan Tighe who recently released his album Wabi-Sabi Soul; and reflected on the strength of art as therapy with Ed Kuczaj the Head of Arts in Health and Community Practice at Crawford College of Art and Design, who is involved in September’s Perceptions 2016 a cross-city exhibition of the work of supported studio artists.

I did this to try and parse and to try to understand what the role of the arts is in society, and more particularly in Irish society. I did this to try to understand what its value is and the ways in which it is valued. What I gleaned was that it’s hard work, that the work is unreliable, that it’s worthwhile.

When I was in Leaving Cert the recession hit. Our teachers told us it would be over by the time we were finished college. Instead, I feel pathetic at 25. Instead, I have a lot of anger. It’s that feeling of just having missed out on the promised land. Just having arrived those few years too late. Of being thrown under the bus. Of being expected to leave. Of being expected to move to Australia or Canada or somewhere when I really don’t handle extreme temperatures all that well.

The people I spoke to often voiced variations on the themes I’m drawing. I asked what it was like to be an artist in Ireland, I asked what are the challenges.

mice hell


“I was gonna say first, ‘Well, what’s it like being a person in Dublin, in Ireland in 2016?’ … A lot of the issues faced by someone making art are the same as someone who’s just trying to live and make ends meet.” – Mice Hell

“Being an artist is next to impossible unless you have access to secondary finances, be it your family or another unrelated job that will take up most of your time.” – Kerry Guinan

“On the whole, Ireland is an extremely hostile and unsupportive environment in which to be an artist. Funding is at the lowest level of any EU state and the regime is only interested in art as a PR exercise to try to sanitise their neoliberal austerity and contempt for the arts. But artists lives are no more precarious than those of other workers in the context of privatisation, zero-hour contracts, the slashing of social supports and services.” – Dylan Tighe



James Moran is a funny man. I asked him how often he gets a paid gig.

“I don’t get them too regularly. People genuinely let me know know beforehand whether or not the gig is paid and then I can decide whether or not I want to do it. I’m generally happy to do profit sharing gigs too, as long as it’s in good faith.”

I don’t need to tell you that young people leave Ireland. Nearly half a million people of all ages left Ireland between 2008 and 2014. This isn’t the first time a generation has left the country en masse. It seems to be a habit. It seems to be something that’s expected. It’s just how it is. Personally, I’m sick of losing friends and entertaining and erudite acquaintances to the rest of the world. Artists, like those in many different industries, are attracted by the opportunities available overseas. I’m sure they are also going to be attracted by the availability of studios. Dublin has lost 50% of its studio spaces. The economics and politics of this is tied up with the same dynamics that manufactured the housing crisis. It’s just difficult to even live in Dublin anymore.

Jenny Jones


Jesse Jones told me, “I’d like to see more support for practising artists based in Ireland. I’d like to see more studio spaces being available to allow for the possibility for people to access a practice as an artist and not have to leave Ireland for better production facilities. There’s even very little collection of contemporary art that happens in Ireland and we’re really going to miss this moment as it happens when we look back. We’re going to miss it because nobody is really taking care of it or collecting it at the moment and art can be very ephemeral if it’s not preserved.”

IMMA is currently showing IMMA Collection: A Decade. Its press release tells us that “A large number of donated works feature in this exhibition and reflect IMMA’s almost exclusive reliance on private philanthropy in recent years. As a result of significant funding cuts, IMMA has not had the resources to have a viable acquisitions budget since 2011. As a result, the practices of younger and mid-career artists from the past 5 years are glaringly absent from the IMMA Collection story.”

Ireland is at the bottom of the pile for government investment in culture and the arts, investing just 0.11% of GDP in 2012 in the sector, in comparison to a European average of 0.6%. That’s a bit embarrassing. There isn’t a lot of private spending in the arts in Ireland. We don’t have a Peggy Guggenheim. I wish we had a Peggy Guggenheim. Or I wish the government would just amp up spending a bit. Or that the government didn’t have to be hassled into retaining the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.



Lynn Scarff is at the helm of the Science Gallery, an institution that has a diversity of funding, from TCD, from touring exhibitions, from the state, from corporate and philanthropic sponsorship. It’s a successful and dynamic model. She told me: “I’d like to see less of the rhetoric around the idea of why the arts has to justify itself. We should be past that conversation by now. There is vast quantitative and qualitative evidence of the economic benefits of the arts and how economies and countries that invest in their arts and culture lead in other areas. What we should be doing is thinking about the kind of strategies that will enable us to continue to lead.”

I think what she says is true. And I think that part of our leadership needs to be the expansion of the arts into everyday life. We are lucky. We have great artists. We almost always have had. But participation in the arts and attendance at arts events are skewed in favour of those with money.



“The truth of it is we still need to work on the demand side of things. Unfortunately the means that the state has for forming its citizens tastes and values is the education system and there’s still a woeful under-provision in the education system of an arts or cultural education. It tends to either be more instrumentally focused or the initiative of an inspired teacher or a wealthy school but citizens in general do not have the opportunity to experience the arts and learn about the arts as they ought to.” – Willie White

When I spoke to Ed Kuczaj he brought up the colouring books that are now stocked in newsagents as a salve for anxiety, as another method of mindfulness. Kucjaz saw the popularity of these books as an indicator of “a hunger” for a type of creativity, even if not maybe the solution to that hunger. He said: “We almost have a cynicism about play in that it’s something children do and it’s not important but if you actually think about it children play as a way of understanding their place in the world. What we play or what we played as children is just a reflection of what we experienced around us so it was about relationships, it was about love, it was about death.”

When I was 20 I went to a gallery for the first time. I didn’t know how long to stand in front of the paintings. I was so aware of my limbs, how I held my limbs. Art was so foreign to me.

Mice Hell told me that “ideally, art should be normalised. Everyone needs art to some degree, even if it’s just spray paints of weed plants. Some people like running around a park five times to keep them feeling good, some people draw. Whatever. Art should not be a luxury commodity, it should be part of the world and people could have their favourites, the way everyone has a favourite mug for tea.”

kerry guinan


Kerry Guinan asserts that “I’m not sure what the art world is and I don’t think it’s a very useful term because there’s so much stratification within it. I’d like to see artists stop framing themselves as members of a different world and start making connections between their situation and the situation of other workers that have been impacted by austerity.”

I asked people what they wanted and what they hoped for. I am a complete sap and isn’t it nice to imagine a nicer, brighter world? I always wish for more tasty dinners. I eat a lot of oven pizzas.

“My one hope for the future is a kind of learning ecosystem on this island that balances formal learning systems with informal learning systems so that our young talent of the future gets to operate in a truly trans-disciplinary space and that they aren’t, from an early age, siloed as being ‘the artistic student’ or ‘the scientific student’ or ‘the maths student’, but that are given the freedom to move between different areas and spheres. And I think that by doing that we actually come to be – and I hate the term ‘knowledge economy’ – but we come to be people who are really creative, flexible thinkers who can move between different areas.” – Lynn Scarff



“I would hope that people today are really minding the future, whether you are an artist or not. Not in a worrying sense, but in the way that if you’re looking after your present the future will be looked after, that if people are thinking through things in a thoughtful, creative, caring way then the future will be a lovely place to exist in.” – Jennie Guy

I feel less sure of myself than before I chatted to anyone at all. I had a certain belligerence about the injustice of life and art that kept me keeping my mouth shut while standing inside and outside exhibition launches. Now I just feel like everything is in flux, that the world is changing around us. Lynn Scarff told me that the top ten jobs on LinkedIn in 2013 didn’t exist five years previously. An Artists Union has just been founded in the UK. Kerry Guinan was telling me how she is involved in the foundation of one here. Willie White is one of many involved in the National Campaign for the Arts.

I feel like the world is demanding all hands on deck. I feel like of course the arts are going to play a big part. I feel like the proliferation of memes is proof enough of that. The whole world is changing and the arts can feel so large and so small, so trivial and so powerful, and when Willie White said that his hope is that “more people in Ireland will get to enjoy excellent art” all I could think was, “Me too dude, me too”.

Words: CSO Keeffe

Main Image: OnMongul.com



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