TAITMAIL Border blues

By Patrick Kelly

Last week the newspapers in Cork were delighted to report that local heroes Pat Kinevane and Gina Moxley had just carried off a trio of awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for their separate theatre shows. But what was also significant was that there at the podium, beaming and congratulatory, was Ireland’s Minister for the Arts, Josepha Madigan.

She took the opportunity to announce another of half a million euros’ worth of government investment in the arts. The cash will involve promoting the work of Irish artists and arts organisations to present 125 projects, covering circus, dance, film, literature, music, theatre and visual arts in 40 different countries.

Both Moxley and Kinevane have already been beneficiaries of Ireland’s annual showcase at Edinburgh, which has been backed by government subsidy, for some years. Creative Scotland, Arts Council Wales and Arts Council Northern Ireland have all been doing something similar in recent years. It’s interesting that after much intense lobbying from Edinburgh-bound English artists, Arts Council England has finally come around to funding it’s own showcase https://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/1736-ace-plans-2-25m-fringe-performance-showcase.

Cork, it might be remembered by the more ancient readers of this column, was a European Capital of Culture back in the early 2000s, an accolade no longer available to UK cities, since our decision to leave the EU.

But the lovely city of Derry/Londonderry did enjoy its own moment in the sun, as the UK’s very own city of culture back in 2013. One of the highlights of that fantastic year for Derry was the Turner Prize what was to become Nerve Visual (pictured), part of the marvellous refurbishment of the city’s historic Ebrington Barracks.

Last week, it was announced that the gallery was closing its doors, a victim of dwindling resources and diminishing political support.  The gallery had been funded by the Northern Ireland executive office, and as there is no longer a Northern Irish executive, thanks to a political stalemate between the major political parties there, there was no longer anyone to support its grant.

A contrasting tale of two cities then, but also a tale which reminds us that amid all the talk of the Irish border, there already is a border and it is a massive one, dividing the arts in both parts of this small island.  It’s not that there aren’t a host of examples of cross-border cooperation. Individual artists and arts organisations, museums and libraries have been involved in dozens of projects, covering every conceivable art form over the years.

There’s also a bit of funding for cross-border culture projects as part of the peace process. But there has been little or no cultural co-operation at the institutional level. Take those Edinburgh show cases – both Arts Council Northern Ireland (north) and the Irish Arts Council (south) promote their own artists at the Festival and Fringe. Back in the day, both arts bodies supported visual and performance artists at the Venice Biennale, through ACNI no longer has the funds to do so. These and other promotional efforts are expensively replicated by two small countries when they could save time and money by working together. But they don’t.

Compare this with sport or tourism, where the relevant authorities have collaborated on a range of joint projects, in addition to work in their own area. In both fields, the economic benefits of working together have triumphed over any historic or political reluctance to ignore the border.

Culture is different, you might say, being bound up as it is with ideas of identity and national pride, notoriously tricky areas in the Irish context. And, indeed, an example of just how hard this can be, was also revealed last week when highly respected arts group Eastside Arts, which happens to be based in Loyalist East Belfast, had to issue an abject apology after it emerged that Sinn Fein MEP and former IRA member Martina Anderson had attended an arts event there. People complained (though not, it seems, anyone who was actually at the event), the politicians duly issued their condemnations and poor old Eastside buckled under the pressure.

But blaming the politicians is really just an excuse for inaction. Shrugging one’s shoulders and avoiding the issue is not an option, either for artists or for the organisations that support and promote their work. It’s the job of the arts to challenge conventional thinking; it’s the role of culture to promote understanding and celebrate difference, not run away from it.

In the absence of any political leadership, it should be incumbent on the likes of ACNI, the Irish Arts Council, National Museums Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and Irish National Museums to take their own initiatives. Why not set up a conference to discuss joint funding proposals and insist that governments support them? Why not enlist the help of major arts charities like the Gulbenkian to investigate the potential for cultural co-operation across the island of Ireland? Why not harness the potential of the arts to do good? Isn’t that their job?



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