Opinion: I've been trying to write about my growing unease at artists’ chronically weak position in society.

I’ve been finding that difficult to do without worrying it will look ungrateful or even antagonistic to the excellent people I work alongside who run funding bodies, venues, festivals and arts organisations. That worry, in itself, is a small indication of the uneven nature of the arts sector. I work freelance as both an artist and arts manager, so I have a relatively rare viewpoint of both 'sides’.

None of our arts organisations are adequately funded. For years, government funding of arts and culture has been almost the lowest in Europe, and that has worn us down. The people who work in our festivals, venues and arts organisations perform miracles on the small amount of subsidy they receive. And they work exceptionally hard on usually low wages to do so – for many, lockdown has been a rare moment of respite from a gruelling pace.

There has been a sense across society during this crisis that we’re all in this together, but we are certainly not all equal in our suffering. That inequality is glaringly apparent in the arts, and will only become more so as lockdown continues to lift. Freelance artists and arts workers (who make up the body of the arts sector and often have to work side-jobs to support their arts work) will struggle to get back on their feet, while many arts managers and administrators (though sadly not all) will continue in the salaried jobs they had before the crisis. The ever-present truth, which is rarely acknowledged, is that those who receive a salary to work in the arts are in debt to their colleagues who don't.

The newly formed government has announced it will be supporting the arts with an additional €25 million, meaning that the arts community will not be wiped out, as many of us feared.

Artists are asked regularly to work for free by people who are being paid. The recent Arts Council policy #PayTheArtist was generally welcomed by the community and began to address some of the more blatant abuses of artists’ time. As artist Emmet Kirwan said at the launch of the policy "What is this exposure? It doesn’t pay bills."

However, what is yet to be addressed is the systemic power imbalance that is felt between artists and the rest of the (salaried) arts sector, and the lack of value placed on artists’ time and work through structures that have been in place for decades. I’ve seen that systemic inequality played out in so many small ways – from the days and weeks of unpaid time that it takes to fill in convoluted applications for funding, to programmes of support for artists put in place with no consultation with artists, to artists themselves feeling that their only option is to cut their own fee to make their meagre funding cover a project. All of these small actions give the signal that artists are worth less, are less able, and are less worthy of agency.

After a period of time working as an independent artist in Ireland, the endless applications for one-off funding and support (which is all that is available, as there are no mechanisms within the current system for independent artists of any kind to become regularly funded entities) begin to feel like begging letters. No matter how established you are or how professional you have proven your work to be in the past, each application for funding puts you back, essentially, at square one in terms of your relationship with funders. You must prove your worth each time from scratch. If you are lucky, you may have champions or allies in venues, festivals or other arts organisations who will support you, and those relationships are lifelines. Which is why questioning the power imbalance in the system feels dangerous.

None of our arts organisations are adequately funded. For years, government funding of arts and culture has been almost the lowest in Europe, and that has worn us down.

The newly formed government has announced it will be supporting the arts with an additional €25 million, meaning that the arts community will not be wiped out, as many of us feared. It is testament to the hard work put in by the National Campaign for the Arts, and all of us who love the arts are in their debt. Now I can’t help thinking of all the professional, highly-experienced, internationally acclaimed, mid-career and established artists, and the hours, days, and weeks of unpaid form filling that is ahead of them if they are to hope for part of that.

Crowds gather for the annual RTÉ Culture Night event in Dublin

These inherited paternalistic systems intrinsically disenfranchise the individual artist, and leave them in a position of weakness, both financially and (perhaps more damagingly) in the eyes of society. In this system artists will forever be seen as beggars and people looking for handouts; chancers who are lucky to do what they love, rather than people who can give meaning to life, provoke joy, and power a huge part of our economy.

There are so many good people working in arts organisations, but good people can uphold bad systems if they don’t work actively to fix or reimagine them. And as we have been learning over and over again – from #WakingTheFeminists, to #MeToo, to Black Lives Matter – just because we have inherited a system does not mean it’s a good one.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ