A live dog or a dead lion?

Aisling Deng assesses the impact
of finance minister Brian Lenihan’s
recent budget on Irish artists

Aisling Deng assesses the impact
of finance minister Brian Lenihan’s
recent budget on Irish artists

How taxing is the current economic
climate we find ourselves in? Well, it seems as though the milk of human kindness is turning
sour over the cloak of depression, with the little that is left being mopped up by the glamorously attired wardrobe of politicians,
leaving the lonesome tiger rumbling restlessly and oh-so-unsatiated (queue sad fiddle music).

The unveiling of the early budget this year failed to act as a bible shedding epiphanic
light on the coming economic year; instead, it caused groups as diverse as pensioners
and students to unite in feelings of alienation and disgruntlement. It seems as though no group avoided having their feathers
ruffled. In a daring but not unprecedented
move, the finance minster Brian Lenihan has introduced a 1% income levy for artists, writers and musicians which will now, for the first time, draw them into the tax net. In the forty years that followed the introduction
of Charles Haughey’s art scheme, the artistic community in Ireland has gone from strength to strength as it rode on the back of the Celtic tiger, growth which resulted in more than €100 million a year income, and which cost the government €30 million. On top of that, Lenihan has also confirmed the introduction of a 2% levy on earnings over € 100,000 which will effect top earning artists
such as Louis le Brocquy, Mark O’Neill, Sean Scully, musicians Van Morrison and Enya and novelists Irvine Welsh and DBC Pierre, and result in a €3 million gain for the state.

While the minister has promised to keep the artists’ tax exemption in place, the new 1% levy will take its toll on the majority of artists that fall under the category. Most Irish artists are poor, a fact not even the state can spin or deny. The only constant thing about their earnings is that they’re guaranteed to be in flux and unpredictable, with gross earnings undulating throughout the span of their careers.

Maud Cotter, the Wexford sculptor, has acknowledged that despite her successful
career, in reality the income from her sculptures has never been very substantial. She believes imposing this levy on artists would be a disaster, coming on top of the administrative and financial burdens of cash-strapped artists, and it would detract from the cosmopolitan environment which she feels has been a significant attraction for inward investors to this country. Echoing
her sentiments, Robert Ballagh commented
that ‘from the point of view of the arts this budget is an unmitigated disaster.’ For almost 87% of artists, the average income
was below €11,000 and more than half of the 1,300 artists who benefited in 2001 from the scheme earned less than €10,000. The Artists’ Exemption Scheme has meant that, for many artists, earnings that would be subject to tax during their high earning years can act as subsidy during their low earning years. Despite much tabloid hype and public misunderstanding, the Artists’ Exemption does not represent a significant drain on the country’s resources. In fact in 2002, it represented just 0.15% of all the tax lost to the state as a result of all the various tax incentive/relief schemes. With almost everyone in the country availing of tax relief in some shape or form, it isn’t quite the pernicious
financial drain it is made out to be.

Along with a throng of artists voicing their opinions on the current state of affairs,
Visual Artists Ireland in collaboration with the Irish Playwright and Screenwriters Guild and the Association of Irish Composers
has taken a strong stance on the matter, forming the bastion of the attack on the government. They believe the broad scope of the current review will not look in sufficient
detail at the wider context of the scheme and may therefore overlook its true value and benefit to the country.
In the case of many artists, subsidising their earnings with another job to make ends meet is the only option. On these jobs artists are fully taxed, as the exemption is strictly confined to earnings from their creative
work. This encourages the realisation of the ambition to make art and not profit. What drives an artist is the need express ideas and to produce art, not the possibility
of evading tax. The exemption rewards those artists that engage with their audiences
and harness public interest.

The greater the public’s demand for an artist’s work, the greater the benefit to the artist of solidifying a symbiotic relationship between artists and society. As it stands, Aosdana and other government bursaries provide much needed acknowledgment and support to artists. This is seen as a strong indication of the value accorded to the creative
artist in Irish society and acts as a symbol
to artists that constitutes a validation of their work.
Responding to the government’s new measures, the high profile visual artist Mark O’Neill has said that he has no problem responding
to Lenihan’s call to patriotic duty in such turbulent times. However, while the economic terrain has seen a complete overhaul
during this economically challenging period, with the consolidation of many financial
firms and major economic reforms, plans which contribute to an overall shrinkage
of the landscape of Irish art and its many connecting tendons simply cannot be tolerated. Plans to amalgamate the centres
of culture, including the key galleries in Ireland, the National Gallery, the Crawford Gallery and the IMMA, and also the literature
hubs, the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives and the Manuscripts Commission, are utterly absurd.
Irish culture thrives prolifically on creativity.

It relies on exploration and growth of the consciousness and environs, not its limitations. Our identities are embroiled in arts; to stymie that would result in a domino effect in the future. Graduates of colleges such as NCAD, IADT, Crawford College and, closer to home, many English, History of Art, Music and Drama students may feel the sting of this ill-judged decision. Successful and high paying artists are direct exemplars and role models for other Irish artists; their international success raises the reputation of Irish art in general and opens doors for less established artists.
The incentive to move to where hubs of artists are located applies most especially to those younger and emerging artists, who might not yet have established a high profile. Once they have moved and settled elsewhere they are less likely to return, resulting
in the erosion in the artistic base of our culture. Without rich, fertile ground, we cannot sow the seeds of the future.
Last month, Temple Bar’s Cultural Trust conference, Culture and the City – Keeping Dublin Creative posed a question: is Irish art a live dog or a dead lion? There’s no doubt especially amongst the artistic community that where there’s a will, there’s a way. It is a live dog, and will always be alive and kicking,
but chucking a (wish) bone from the budget’s carcass wouldn’t go amiss.