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Arts is more than a nice-to-have

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Ann-Marie Flynn

ALWAYS as we move through life, there are characters from your schooldays that stay with you, either real or fictional. Schoolteacher Thomas Gradgrind, from Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, is one such personality. Dealing only in facts, and all that is perceived as useful, practical and serviceable, Gradgrind ran a tight ship, his miserable charges schooled strictly in science - facts, figures and statistics - free from the ‘corrupting’ influences of poetry, fairytale, or song.  
It’s been hard over the past decade to avoid comparisons to old Gradgrind, amidst constant refrains of cuts, of tightening our belts, of savings, prudence and lack of investment. Ten long years of nobody really having enough money to do anything but plaster over cracks and apply band-aids to creaking, cracking operations like our infrastructure, health service or most basic public services.
Amidst all the talk of cutting our cloth and reverting to this almost utilitarian state of mind, where the practical trumps all, has our creativity been stifled, or has it against all the odds fought for air and made its way back to the surface?
A few weeks ago, this paper carried an interview with Seán Walsh, the director of Ballina Arts Centre. In my day job, I have the pleasure of dealing with Seán on a fairly regular basis, and I recently listened as he gave a talk on the importance of arts in the community. It became quickly clear that what may seem like a nice-to-have is actually part of the glue that holds our society together.

Importance of arts
Seán touched on things like the importance of escapism and enjoyment; time spent watching a play or listening to a band is life-enhancing, entertaining and a means of escapism; something in other words to keep us sane in a sea of negativity. Consider the pride a local production can inspire in a community.
The importance of the arts to our children cannot be underestimated; we know that artistic and creative activities have a positive impact on children’s development as a whole, including on their literacy and mathematical abilities. Not to mention for adults, the opportunities for self-development and new challenges that come with participation in amateur drama.
Studies also show that participation in the arts leads to better mental health outcomes in later life. Indeed, access to alternative and creative therapies like art and music, with their proven benefits, is sorely lacking in this country, with its rigid focus on medication and institutionalisation as ‘cures’ for mental ill-health.
The arts are also a space within which inclusiveness flourishes and difference is celebrated. The recent production and subsequent recognition of the ‘Silent Moves’ movie in Ballina, with stars from Western Care’s Ridgepool Training Centre being just one example.
And of course, there’s the economic argument. Ireland’s reputation as a land of poets and musicians has yielded untoward economic benefits; for decades we have punched far above our weight in producing artistic talent by the bucketload. Something upon which the government has been all too willing to hang its hat, while simultaneously and cynically starving the arts of investment.

Value of culture
In the Facebook era however, it’s easy to castigate spending on the arts when people are lying on trollies in hospitals or homeless on our streets. Of course, it’s easy to make the case for prioritising spending on essential services. But at some point, if we are truly to be called a progressive society, we have to move from the reactive realm to the proactive. Utilitarianism didn’t pay off for Thomas Gradgrind, and it won’t pay off for us.
Investing in nurturing creativity is more than a nice-to-have; it should form a core element of our public policy, rationalised by taking the value of our culture as a starting point, continuing with the social and educational benefits and only ending with the economic. The ambitious new Creative Ireland policy, which aims to improve access to cultural and creative activity in every county, has the potential to have a hugely significant impact on the landscape of this country – if delivered.
Far from bemoaning money invested in the arts, we should be lauding it as a supremely cost efficient and cost-effective means of enriching our country – in more ways than one.

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