Earlier this month, six new members were elected to Aosdána, the association of Irish creative artists. Five of them, I was delighted to see, were women, including the winner of the Booker Prize, Anna Burns, and the poet and essayist Doireann Ni Ghriofa.
Aosdána members are inducted by a process which does not allow for self-proposal. No application can be made on one’s own behalf - current members must propose eligible artists, who are then elected. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Aosdána can be perceived as a forbidding, almost esoteric organisation. Understandably, it might feel to a novice artist a little like an affiliation of unapproachable gatekeepers. Perhaps omission from it might seem to constitute a mark against their ability to consider themselves a "real artist".
One of the major barriers to people without independent wealth pursuing a career in the arts is the simple fact that there are so few visible examples to follow.
But what is good and right to criticise and consider about Aosdána must also be countered by reminding ourselves why it needs to exist. Isn’t it better, after all, that there’s something to gate-keep than nothing at all? While the idea of an artist’s guild might sound romantic to our neighbours, the reason it needs to exist is that the Irish state is comparatively tightfisted when it comes to supporting the arts. €2.7m is spent to support Aosdána, a number which might sound a lot to a layperson until you reflect on the fact that £24m is given to the Royal Opera House alone by Arts Council England each year, to give one example. Ireland has tended to spend 0.1pc of its GDP on the arts, compared to 0.6pc as the European average. Despite the pride we take in being a nation of creatives, and despite our favourable tax situation when it comes to artists, we are not so good at ensuring that the artist has any income to be taxed upon in the first place.
So I am all puffy eyed and emotional 😭 but delighted to announce that along with my incredible artist friend #ClareLangan and poet @DoireannNiG we were elected to @Aosdana yesterday. An incredible honour and a day I will remember for the rest of my life.— Aideen Barry (@AideenBarry) April 6, 2019
Most of the funding given to Aosdána is used to support the existence of a means-tested grant which members are eligible for. To be funded, the artist must give up any non-creative employment they have previously been engaged in to make ends meet - its point is to free up time to allow for the production of art, allowing for the reality that most art no matter how lauded critically will not pay its way financially. In a country where habitation in the capital city is an increasingly unrealistic prospect for the non-rich, this kind of financial support is vital if we want to keep creative talent from leaving.
Despite the pride we take in being a nation of creatives, and despite our favourable tax situation when it comes to artists, we are not so good at ensuring that the artist has any income to be taxed upon in the first place.
One of the major barriers to people without independent wealth pursuing a career in the arts is the simple fact that there are so few visible examples to follow. I have often thought that the first day of schooling in a creative field ought to be on how to apply for grants. Personally, I’m dreadful at it. I never really learned how to speak the appropriate language, and am never successful when I apply. I support my creative projects through more commercial writing work instead, which has been a fair compromise but also means, time-poor as I am, it takes me years to produce anything I care about, the kind of work I’m truly good at. I’m not complaining, but it is soothing, while I try to work my way up, to think there might be some day, somehow, when I will be able to focus on creative work.
It’s important to have supportive structures, visible in public life, like Aosdána, which show that such a life might be possible, if we believe that art has something to offer beyond monetary value.