The grass is always greener (…or is it?)

 

FullSizeRender 16First, let me clarify one thing, the grass is indeed greener here in Ireland! Their lush green landscape is stunning. However, when it comes to our greatest challenges and opportunities in the arts, the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the pond. In fact, some of our core issues are pretty universal.

I’m wrapping up several wonderful days in Dublin, Ireland, and heading back to St. Louis today. I met with 19 different leaders across this grand city, and consumed plenty of coffee and tea in the process! 

I dialogued with leaders in the Dublin City Arts Office, City Council, Dance Ireland, Dublin City Gallery, Anu Productions, The Ark, Project Arts Centre, Children’s Books Ireland, Dublin International Dance Festival, as well as with an esteemed group of Ireland’s Eisenhower Fellows whose fields span business, media, government and civic leadership. The conversations were informative, generous, provocative and stimulating. After exchanging ideas, exploring Dublin’s cultural offerings, and observing its people and rhythms, I think I’ve absorbed as much as I possibly could in the time I had. My head is stirring and, right now, my reflections are all over the place.

There are amazing artistic offerings across Dublin and there are committed and passionate champions ensuring that the arts have a strong presence in this city.  Despite the differences we may have as it relates to social attitudes toward the arts, funding structures, or cultural tastes in and consumption of the arts, we have plenty of shared vision for the possibilities ahead of us.

Three themes that repeatedly entered our conversations were:

  • the scarcity in funding and the fragile financial structures of arts organizations
  • the critical need for articulating and advocating for the value of the arts, and
  • the need and desire to diversify arts audiences.

Many of us in the U.S. are envious of our European peers for the substantial value placed on and financial commitment made to the arts by their public sector. The U.S. invests very little public resources in arts and culture (per capita) compared to European countries. Public funding reinforces some level of artistic expression and recognizes that our cultural identity as a society is strongly linked to the arts. Even though Ireland ranks lower than other European countries in its per capita investment in the arts, every single arts organization that I met with (across both Ireland and Northern Ireland) indicated that their largest source of funding was either the national arts council or the local municiple government arts office. It was not uncommon that these two sources comprised their entire funding stream.

FullSizeRender 19In the U.S., we rely heavily on private philanthropic dollars to keep the sector afloat. Our funding is complex, diversified and decentralized. There is no doubt that our reliance on the private sector for culture limits our artistic options and who has access to it. Both models have their pros and cons. Steep government cuts over the past several years, have forced many Irish arts organizations to dip their toe in the philanthropy waters and test the viability of raising funds from their Boards (majority of whom do not contribute financially), corporations, and patrons. Given a different economic model and social traditions, most in Ireland are not optimistic about philanthropy saving the day in the near term. Although one colleague did emphatically state that “opportunity making is the next frontier!”

The take away… there are no silver bullets. Support for and preservation of the arts continues to be at risk. This may be stating the obvious, but how the arts are funded matters. Motives and directives from funders shape our impact and the people we serve. There is so much more to this topic and it will surely be one of the BIG ideas that I stir with and continue to explore.

The funding dilemma goes hand in hand with the need for greater clarity and simplified messages when we talk about “the arts.” Some felt that we need to keep the language simple and define the arts in ways that allow for broad understanding and participation. Most said that people in Ireland do value the arts, but when we use elitist language and/or jargon, people don’t feel like their cultural traditions in music or dance count as “art.”  I heard from many about the divide between “traditional” Irish art forms and contemporary visual/performing arts. The bottom line is, if we want more people to advocate for the arts, then we need to define art broadly and encourage participation by all.

FullSizeRender 13Finally, there was a lot of discussion about the need to diversify audiences. For the most part, my Irish colleagues said their audiences were primarily white, female and middle class. There was acknowledgment that Dublin’s population was far more culturally and racially diverse than ever before, but that arts audiences (and content) do not currently reflect that diversity. We need to keep asking, how is “community” defined? In several conversations, I heard how there is a disconnect in our dialogue between audience development > participation > practice.  This is not just an issue in Dublin as we face this same challenge across the U.S.

Even as I write this, I realize that summarizing my conversations in this brief and narrow way, doesn’t do them justice. The richness of the dialogue and the range of topics we explored was exceptional. We talked about arts in education, the role of arts in tourism/economic development, the connections between arts and health, and how to best measure our impact and success in the arts. I can’t say there were any clear cut resolutions to our discussions, but I am confident that our dialogue is just getting started.  The need for a global network of arts leaders to facilitate an exchange of ideas and develop next practice couldn’t be greater.  This is important work. Across the globe, all of our communities deserve access to beautiful, meaningful arts experiences. For now, I’m signing off from Ireland.  More to come when I hit the road in Brazil this Fall!

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