‘Making Great Art Work’

ALTHOUGH the Arts Council’s 2016 Strategy Document was introduced under the enigmatic headline of ‘Making Great Art Work’, in practice the AC appears to have rather little to do with ‘Great Art’. And there was no sign of any involvement of the AC during the recent, rude scattering of WB Yeats’ most personal ‘great art’ and belongings – although there should have been.

Since the Arts Act 2003, the AC has, in effect, operated as a very efficient distributor for the funds allocated by the Department of Arts. But the AC has paid much less attention to section 24 of the Arts Act 2003 which empowers the AC to much higher ambitions like ‘stimulating public interest in the arts; improving standards in the arts; and otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts’. And importantly, the Act states that ‘The Council shall be independent in the performance of its functions under this section’.

Just outside the massive Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there is a separate museum devoted to Vincent van Gogh who is celebrated in the public imagination as much for having cut off his ear as for having painted the Sunflowers. Van Gogh’s collection could easily have been accommodated in the vast Rijksmuseum but by presenting his ‘great art’ as a separate tourist attraction, the Van Gogh Museum attracted no less than 2.1 million visitors in 2016 bringing in an estimated €20 million to its coffers. That’s how the Dutch make their great art work for them.

What a shame then that John Butler Yeats’ self-portrait, which he himself had described as his ‘masterpiece’, was hawked around at auction last month and allowed to leave the country

Contrast this experience with poor WB. There is indeed a very good exhibition devoted to WB Yeats in the basement of the National Library on Kildare Street and approximately 68,000 people visited this modest shrine to perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century last year (free entry). Of course there should be a major museum devoted to the two great sons of John B Yeats, and the AC should be amongst the leading exponents for its creation. What a shame then that John Butler Yeats’ self-portrait, which he himself had described as his ‘masterpiece’, was hawked around at auction last month and allowed to leave the country. The phenomenon of a great poet and a great painter in the same family is a great story in itself. There is no doubt that a museum devoted to the Yeats family would be a huge success.

Only the AC has the capacity to Make Great Art Work in this country by promoting the work of great Irish artists both as an inspiration to the emerging generations and as a source of further funding for the arts through tourism. Already the AC should be planning, with the national cultural institutions and Fáilte Ireland, an international Festschrift to mark the centenary of the publication of Ulysses in February 2022 – a massive celebration with international conferences, exhibitions, readings, publications and fireworks and, most importantly, the involvement of schools nationwide, to celebrate the creation of one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. In essence, if the AC is to live up to its own slogan of Making Great Art Work it must move on from its established role of paymaster for the Minister (about whom it has recently had good reason to complain) to become the real exponent for great art and artists in Ireland today.

In that respect, it was encouraging to see John McAuliffe, the Deputy Chair of the Arts Council striking an independent note in relation to the AC’s funding last month and let’s hope that we will see much more of the same.

John Mulcahy