Business as Unusual
There’s never been a few weeks like it. A worst of times that makes the hard times look like the best of times. Covid-19 has devastated Irish theatre, and the governments less than measured response is yet another covering of the ears while retreating into la la la la land. Arts, and artists, simply aren’t being heard. Even so, some claim artists are over-reacting. Trying to hustle the limelight by claiming people couldn’t survive the lockdown without them. Elbowing in on the medical professions fifteen minutes of fame. The arts might be vital, they claim, but they’re not essential, especially in a lockdown. They make it bearable. Like a good supply of toilet paper. The message is clear: you may be L’Oréal, but you’re not worth it.
All of which leaves artists doing what artists do best: trying to survive and take care of each other. Indeed, Stephen Jones deserves all the caps tipped in his direction for undertaking a double marathon to raise money in support of artists. The New Theatre’s short season, which kicks off online tonight, is also giving most of its voluntary donations to supporting struggling artists. The examples multiple, as PR becomes everyone’s new practice as people conduct business as unusual. Leaving social media saturated with songs, dances, interviews, performances and coaching offers to say, “we’re here for you, we’re in this together, we won’t be beaten.” Even the PR event of the year, The Irish Times Theatre Awards, refused to lie down, even if it didn’t go ahead with its usual finery. Keeping it business as usual, the awards delivered some worthy, wonderful, and occasional wacky winners (well done to all), along with those curiously overlooked. And if they weren’t celebrated in their usual style, the even spread ensured almost everyone got to go home with a prize. Not everyone’s idea of how it should be done, but it would be nice if the government adopted a similar policy.
It doesn’t take Covid-19 to show that the arts funding model isn’t working. Crafting viable business plans for project applications, requiring administrative this, and outcome that, and a Phd in Contract Law, has already left many bewildered or bereft. Not helped by an Arts Council who, ensuring its own running costs are covered, are trying to perform a loaves and fishes miracle with the stale crusts and soggy fish fingers handed to it. Similarly, the latest measures might look like they’re helping, but its once again a thinning out of the funding cake to look like everyone's getting a piece of the pastry.
Even the language is wrong. Yes, the arts is an industry, but its most compatible business model is Research and Development. There will be outcomes, but they involve time, commitment, experimentation and creativity. Which isn’t a licence for practitioners to kick back and gather navel fluff. Any producer worth their salt knows there’s a balance. Yet, like the Covid-19 vaccine, art isn’t ready just because your funding wants it to be. You don’t get productivity without paying for it. Indeed, the more you invest, the better your chances of success.
If the arts aren’t essential, they’re utterly vital. As are those who dream and sacrifice to make them happen. Indeed, the only business term that matters here is value for money. And nothing gives greater value for money that the arts, socially, culturally, and all the other -ally’s you can think of. So it might be time to kick up a storm in the middle of a storm and push back. Because when money gets thinner on the ground, as it surely will when this is all over, artists might find these were the best of times in comparison. Be strong, be resilient, be there for each other. But be careful lest your survival starts to kill you. And never forget:
You’re worth it.