On 4th April 2017, The Arts Council of Ireland presented a symposium (2023: Future Retrospectives) reflecting on the role of the artist in society, particularly in the context of the 2016 commemorations that had recently taken place. The symposium proposed the following questions: What does it mean for the State to support artists in examining a key historical moment that is future focused? What is the impact on the artist and their work? What is the impact on the community that engages with that work? Speakers included artists, artistic directors, arts administrators, academics and others, who used an imagined future distance (the vantage point of 2023) to ‘reflect’ on their position in 2017.
As a recipient of a 2016 Next Generation Bursary from the Arts Council, I was invited to write and deliver a paper to the symposium. The text of which is below.The text was subsequently published on Draff Magazine’s site here
I’m the director of Collapsing Horse. Collapsing Horse is a theatre and production company that has been around since 2012. And it’s made up of me, Matthew Smyth (producer), Jack Gleeson & Aaron Heffernan (performers), Eoghan Quinn (writer and performer) and, most recently, Kate Ferris (producer).
How we work
We make comic, lo-fi, spectacular, tactile and virtuosic work that leaves the performers really, really sweaty at the end. We work as a devising ensemble, that is to say we’ll start with either no script or a very nascent script, and we’ll work with actors and musicians to create the piece. We do this through improv, games ,discussion, making each other laugh. It works on the assumption that a group is more creative and interesting than it’s most creative and interesting member. That in conversation and collaboration, the synapses fire differently and you get a different result.
Next Generation bursary
Matt Smyth, the producer of Collapsing Horse, and I applied for a 2016 Next Generation bursary to work on making our vision for our
company that bit more real.
We have a vision of a theatre company. It’s entertaining, it’s popular, its shows are seen as part of a night out, being among community, like pre-drinks, going to a match or watching the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s serious about play. Like a combination of Keith Johnstone’s Theatresports, Theatre du Soleil, a soap opera cast and a travelling troupe of Elizabethan players; this is live theatre, created by virtuoso performers, working as a dynamic ensemble, putting out work quickly and regularly… our theatre is a space for the audience to witness something that is teetering on the edge of either failure or glory, to enjoy that drama, that comedy, and to be generous to it and to each other. We take playfulness very seriously.
We wanted to make that company and to get good.
We did pretty well.
We made and presented two new shows: Conor: at the end of the Universe, a collaboration between animator Jody Barker Rockett and myself to explore the concept of relativity for children aged 4-6; another was a riff on Virgil’s The Aeneid in the Dublin Fringe. We had a residency programme in Draíocht which included workshops with the youth theatre and development of work that’s now in process. We had a reading of a proposed live sitcom, which has since developed into the Collapsing Horse Science Fiction Radio Hour. We toured a show from our repertoire, Bears in Space, to New York. It’s literally a show about bears in space.
And we did all this with 27k from our residency (funded by the Arts Council, Draíocht and Fingal County Council), 16.5k from our new membership scheme, box office receipts, our Next Generation bursary of 12.5k and Matt and I got a gig as Artistic Directors of the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival.
Crucially, the regular income from the membership scheme and from the Cat Laughs job was what allowed Matt and I to go pretty much full time on Collapsing Horse and to have Kate join us part time. Matt also works with Anú and Kate works with the Lir. Now we don’t just get paid for the gigs, but for the all the work that goes into making a company that can get the gigs. We’re not paid much. Much less than the average industrial wage, for example, but we’re going in the right direction, right?
Well maybe not. As we grow, the number of things we do in order to grow grows, and the things that need to be done that aren’t making art, that aren’t getting good, grow.
From the year that was 2016, and the time that we were given by our bursary to investigate the possible sustainability of this company, my conclusion is that we’re as far away as we’ve ever been. I cannot see when we will be in a position to employ even one other artist, let alone a small group of actors to train, create, rehearse and perform for any significant portion of the year.
It’s going to be really, really hard to get any better at my art than I am now.
It’s difficult to become good at something if you’re not doing it. If you’re mostly doing the things that you have to do in order to facilitate it.
Full time v freelance: getting good
And that’s the difference between full time and freelance. Between permanent and contract. Between the employment standards of the last century and this new jobs market where we all let our spare room on Airbnb, drive an Uber or do a bit of web design on the side of our dramaturgy practice. The difference, in the former model, is that all ‘the bits in between’ are valued. The growth, the training, the holidays are all valued. In the latter, you do that on your own time.
Sure that’s the way we artists have always lived, it’s just the rest of the world catching up to us.
But why is that? And does it have to be this way?
Because it’s not like people don’t make a living in the arts. Lots of people do. There are lots of people who have jobs.
Arts jobs in Ireland
When you think about the jobs that are done in the arts in Ireland, and I mean salaried, PAYE, permanent or indefinite contracts, they’re practically all in management, administration and curation. There are exceptions of course; to take theatre as an example that I’m most familiar with – the two biggest funded theatres have recently appointed artists as their Artistic Directors, the Abbey and the Gate, after collectively 45 years with non-artists at their helm. But they are the only artists employed at those theatres. There’s plenty of artists on their staff, I know, but they’re not employed to make art. They’re employed in technical, administrative, curatorial or hospitality roles. Their art, they do in their own time. They hire artists yes, on a contract basis, according to the needs of their programme, but there are no artists on payroll.
You might be thinking about all the exceptions. Yes there’s Gary Hynes in Druid and Lynne Parker in Rough Magic etc. But were you to start listing all of the non-artists who work in all of the roles in all of the venues, arts centres, institutions, local authorities and festivals, you’d quickly conclude that there was more by an order of magnitude.
And I’m not one of these people who equates administration somehow with waste; we need administrators in those jobs. They’re stretched enough as it is. The cuts circa 2009 that got deeper through the recession left our cultural organisations on their knees. It’s not that we need fewer people working in admin, we need more. I’m not someone who thinks marketing is somehow ancillary to what we do – it’s core to what we do. But, like, so is the art.
And it’s just kind of weird how many jobs there are for non-artists, relative to artists. Right? How did that happen? It’s like we decided it, but I don’t think we did actually.
Even we in Collapsing Horse have unwittingly fallen into this trap. We’ve done the same thing with our founding members, without thinking. They get paid for the gigs they do while we ‘in the office’, get paid to run the company. They have no interest in administration or marketing or strategy, so it seems right and proper that the people who do have a grá for that stuff do it, and everybody agrees. When there’s money for shows, we bring on the artists who founded the company.
Makes sense right? Except that that’s mental!
We somehow managed to recreate the corporate structure that favours administration over art making. We all assumed that what the lads in the office were doing was more important, was closer to the core. We held onto our positions without even thinking about it. We cut the art, we cut the randomness, we cut the unpredictability, the madness, we cut the artist… or rather, we didn’t cut it. We never fully let it in. We engaged it on a contract basis when it fit our programme. Because you couldn’t give them full-time jobs – sure what would they do?
Another symptom of this slightly skewed reality we’ve created for ourselves is this: generally speaking the most in-demand actors are the ones who are most reluctant to make long-term plans. We’ve found that, as the careers of the actors we’ve had the privilege of working with from the start begin to take off, they are less likely to commit to us, even when we have a project they like and the money to pay them. They might get an ad, or a gig in the Abbey, or a few days on Vikings, or their agent may just want them to be available to audition in that time. And that’s fine if that’s the kind of work you want to do, but even for those actors who would rather be working in a devising ensemble, it’s simply not in their interest to commit to 5 months work with Collapsing Horse in a year and half’s time. 5 months in which they’d be performing one show from our repertoire, rehearsing a new show, and developing another, all the while getting better at what we do.
It’s a perfectly rational choice, but only within a skewed paradigm that we unwittingly created. It shouldn’t be an irrational choice to make long-term plans.
A modest proposal
So I have a modest proposal. Arts Council, here’s what you should do with your next million. I know you may have plans for it, but this is better. This is what you should do with your next 1.6% increase. You should employ artists. Simple as that. See what happens. Take a million quid a year. Give 25 artists the average industrial wage of €37,000 a year for 5 years at a time. You employ them to be artists.
You stagger the start dates so it’s 5 artists start the first year and 5 the next, so that it’s not the same 25 artist who are on this scheme for the same 5 years. We’d apply to you, the Arts Council, to get on this scheme. That’s fair enough. And you can assess our application on feasibility, relevance and artistic merit. You can have a panel to decide which are the best ones and all of that, but I have a special request after that: of the 25 artists, you pick 20 on the basis of artistic merit and you pick 5 at random. Yes, you’d apply a basic feasibility and ‘are you actually an artist’? test but after that, you don’t decide what artistic merit is. You get out of the way of that choice, and say to those 5 artists “what you do is important” and let’s see what comes out of simply giving artists money.
A million quid a year to employ 25 artists in this country. That’s cheap. You’ll probably want to expand the scheme to be honest. And you’ll be able to. Because it won’t even cost a million. It’ll cost €925,000. And it won’t even cost that much in real terms, because their salary should replace any fees they’d get from Arts Council funded projects or institutions. They’re free to make more money elsewhere, but this would replace their fees on Arts Council funded projects. That million that you have could go even further again if we could have an honest conversation about the government department that is actually the biggest supporter of arts in Ireland – The Department of Social Protection – particularly for emerging artists. At least some of the salaried artists at least some of the time, would have otherwise been on the dole and under this scheme they wouldn’t be. They’d have to pay tax too. They just would. The writers and painters would be miffed but they’d soon come around to the way we ‘interpretive’ artists live.
These artists would remain freelancers in practice, they would continue to need additional funding for their collaborators’ fees and production costs, but this would be a way of valuing ‘the bits in between’, of saying to them “the work you do is valuable in the same way as an Arts Manager’s work is valuable”.
I’m not just looking at the Arts Council. As far as institutions that employ administrators and not artists go, the Arts Council spend 5.5m on staff and admin and give out 60m in grants. That’s really good, right? I’m also looking at you Abbey with your 4 something million in salaries, and you IMMA with your 3.2 million in salaries. What can you do to help artists make a living? Make a life? To have some of the same secure prospects that the Director of Finance does? Or your Programme Manager does? Or your Artistic Director does? Yes, you produce their play, or you include pre-production in their fee or you buy their sculpture, but actually how are you helping artists to live? To plan? To thrive? To sit on their hole for a long time and have a new idea? To allow them to learn and develop? To buy a Mac?
I know, I know…
Look, I know I’m being a bit facetious and I know a million quid doesn’t just fall at your feet when you shake the government money tree and I know that each million that the Arts Council gets is hard fought for by the people whose job it is to make the case for what we do; but I also know that a million quid isn’t actually that much money.
It’s not that much money in the context of a time when we’re being told that the arts have earned themselves a place at the centre of the government’s strategic planning – that it is our rich culture that makes us a uniquely desirable place in which to live and invest.
This may be ‘the best little country in the world to do business’ but it’s not because we won the race to the bottom in corporate tax and low regulation, because we didn’t. We’re hardly a podium finisher in that race.
I’m looking back on my work in 2016 from the position of 2023 and concluding that I was on the edge of failing. When even we, who are in a position to raise 16.5k in recurring donations, even we who played to 90% full houses in theatres around Ireland and in New York, even we who are able to diversify into a commercial area like producing a comedy festival, are struggling to spend time on art, let alone build this live, lithe art-making ensemble; you know that there’s something wrong with the plan.
I’m looking back at the moment that Ireland took steps to become the best little country in the world to be a citizen. While its closest cultural neighbours turned inwards and closed off, Ireland opened and was brave. While the gig economy became the normal working practice and the power in the labour market shifted away from individuals and unions, Ireland invested in its most reliable but most unpredictable resource. I’m looking back at the moment that Ireland became the best little country in the world to be an entrepreneur, whether you’re a jewellery designer, a software engineer or a theatre director. The best little country in the world to be a freelancer. To say ‘fuck you’ to authority and do your own thing. The best little country in the world to be an artist, to be a citizen who can access your own rich and thriving culture.
We had a golden opportunity in 2016 in Ireland – we were brave and we bucked the global trend; in Ireland, we got serious about play.