Today on Artist Strong we highlight another voice to help articulate Why Do the Arts Matter? We welcome Catherine Abbott, who has worked in a variety of arts organisations and institutions in Ireland, UAE and Oman. She is currently director of Jamann Arts Consulting based in Morocco.
Why do the arts matter?
Having been involved in municipal arts management at local government level in Ireland for over a decade, budget time was always a constant battle. I would spend weeks briefing various financial committees about the value of the arts and why financial investment at a strategic and policy level was as important as funding spent on social housing, road maintenance and water treatment plants.
The task was a challenging one. It was often difficult to convey the message that the local authority had a responsibility to ensure that new and emerging practitioners must be supported and encouraged to flourish. Existing practitioners were struggling to survive and operate in an increasingly competitive marketplace where quality and distinctiveness were critical to success. Practitioners and stakeholders needed vital financial input to continually innovate to maintain and raise standards within the sector to ensure collective and individual success.
I laboured the importance of why the arts mattered and how issues such as infrastructure, professional development and training were critical to the future viability of the sector. I was seeking to consolidate and strengthen the arts sector in practical and quantifiable ways by communicating and further developing the core values that underpinned the arts in the region, by representing the interests of practitioners and identifying and articulating key development needs in the sector.
I cited various financial studies about the economic value of the arts and how every 1 euro spent on the arts generated 5 euro for the local economy, if people for example bought a theatre ticket they were also likely to enjoy a pre theatre dinner or after dinner drinks at a local bar, on top of paying for parking or a taxi to attend the event. It was an ugly game I played, devaluing the arts to mere pounds shillings and pence but one that had to be played to maintain the ever-dwindling budget in a harsh economy. The arts mattered greatly because people’s livelihoods were at stake. What one person saw as an entertaining way to pass an hour on a Thursday evening was the way another person fed their family.
Six years on, I believe that the Arts have become more critical than ever in the country’s reemergence from the global recession. It is our artistic and cultural wealth, which is fostering the much-needed positive and innovative image of Ireland both nationally and internationally, it gives us a mandate to develop our cultural wealth to enhance our economic potential.
The arts also matter because they infuse the most private of lives as well as the most sociable of communities. The breadth and depth of what is going on in the arts in any corner of the world at any one time is nothing short of incredible. I currently reside in North Africa and creativity is evident in every aspect of Moroccan life, everywhere, every day, people of all ages and abilities are enjoying the arts: reading books; going to plays; acting or helping produce local school drama; painting or making art for themselves; playing or listening to music; singing songs; dancing; going to concerts or jam sessions; enjoying films; going to exhibitions or performances.
The variety of projects, festivals, and events throughout the year bears testimony to the strength of its creative tradition. The arts play an integral role in Arabic life from local community groups to innovative enterprises, from solo practitioners to larger organisations. The world of arts is woven so tightly into everyday life that it is easy to take it for granted and forget that it does matter and why it matters. Each and every one of us owes the global artist community a debt of gratitude for their support and commitment to this process and for all they do to keep us curious about the arts and confident in the arts and for bringing the opportunity to participate in and enjoy the arts into our lives.
Former Irish President Mary McAleese at an address in honour of the efforts of local authority arts officers in 2009 quoted Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw by saying “Without art the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
“The arts” she said “cannot help solve our national and international financial problems but they can lift us, heal us, accompany us, entertain us, interest us, surprise us, explain us, explain others, comfort us, challenge us, blame us, vindicate us. They can and do in a million different ways make life bearable and they do that in good times and in bad, for the arts are part of the enduring and always needed zeal of Irish life.”
In 2005 I remember my despondence after reading a copy of John Carey’s book What Good Are The Arts, which I felt was an exercise in futility, as I was fairly certain that it was almost like preaching to the converted, that any potential audience already knew the value of the arts and were just looking for reassurance that they were involved in an industry that made a real difference to society in a world dogged by niggling philistine doubts instead of being proud of their chosen career and the mark they were leaving on the world however small.
I will close with these eloquent lines from John Tusa, former director of the Barbican Centre in London, from his recent book Pain in the Arts who articulates why the arts matter better than most.
“The arts matter because they are universal; because they are non-material; because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world; because they link us to our past and open the door to the future; because they work beyond and outside routine categories; because they take us out of ourselves; because they make order out of disorder and stir up the stagnant; because they offer a shared experience rather than an isolated one; because they encourage the imagination, and attempt the pointless; because they offer beauty and confront us with the fact of ugliness; because they suggest explanations but no solutions; because they prevent a vision of integration rather than disintegration; because they force us to think about the difference between the good and the bad, the false and the true”.
“The arts matter because they embrace, express and define the soul of a civilization. A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future.”
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: How do we extend our reach beyond the inevitable “preaching the choir?” What are your thoughts on this important question? I want to know! Tell me about it in the comments below.
Catherine Abbott has worked in a variety of arts organisations and institutions in Ireland, UAE and Oman. She is currently director of Jamann Arts Consulting based in Morocco.