When the National Cultural Institutions Act was being debated in the Seanad (Irish senate) in 1996, it was described by the then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins (now, of course, President of Ireland), as representing “one of the most significant legislative initiatives, in cultural heritage terms, that the Irish State has undertaken since its foundation”. Its aim was, again to quote President Higgins, “to establish a modern legislative structure within which our major cultural institutions could be enabled to thrive”. He went on to say that “that autonomy provided by means of statutorily established boards will give these institutions greater discretion and accountability over the handling of budgets; some flexibility over personnel resources; stronger powers to develop policies on acquisitions, the holding of exhibitions and integrating these important institutions into the national culture all within a broad compass of guiding principles set by the Oireachtas”.
The National Cultural Institutions have experienced major budget cuts and are subject to a punitive Employment Control Framework which imposes a rigid regime of staff reduction up to 2014. Though this embargo has now been lifted the funding levels of the cultural institutions remains unchanged in 2014.
Table 10: Cultural Institutions Funding, thousands EUR, 2008-2012
|National Library||11 875||10 742||9 251||8 084||7 120||-12%||-40%|
|National Museum||19 017||15 415||15 125||14 240||12 585||-12%||-34%|
|Arts Council||81 620||73 350||68 649||65 167||63 241||-3%||-23%|
|Irish Film Board||23 189||21 840||19 272||18 431||15 690||-15%||-32%|
|IMMA, Chester Beatty, NCH & Crawford||17 763||15 631||14 069||12 896||11 870||-8%||-33%|
|National Gallery||12 455||10 640||9 826||9 847||8 335||-15%||-33%|
|Total||165 919||147 618||136 192||128 665||118 841||-8%||-28%|
Organisations are reeling in their attempts to grapple with this scenario and have considered responses ranging from a reduction in services to contraction of access and opening hours. The National Museum, with a 27% staffing cut since 2008, has announced its intention to close galleries and reduce educational tours. Varying and inconsistent missives from government called on the national cultural institutions to consider different merger propositions and shared services to reduce costs. While the general public response to these DAHG proposals has been that they were poorly thought through and, as borne out by international experience, would deliver little by way of savings, the response from the national cultural institutions can be shown to have been in good faith and constructive, waiving any fees as well as tabling positive responses to the sharing of back-office services etc.
Now in a move that runs contrary to the spirit and intent of the 1997 Act, legislation is in preparation that will see at least two of the national cultural institutions – the National Museum and the National Library – reabsorbed as part of a centralisation move into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. There is little doubt that such action will set these organisations back to the decades preceding the 1997 Act when the Library was part of the civil service structure, a period characterised by under-resourcing, inactivity and neglect. The National Cultural Institutions have protested at this policy shift.
Ironically despite the funding crisis, the independence accorded the national cultural institutions through the 1997 Act has had significant positive results, headway having been made by the National Library for example, on issues of access and the digitalisation agenda as well as making inroads into the considerable backlogs in cataloguing and for the first time, a feasible plan to address the lamentable state of storage of priceless national cultural holdings. The National Library has also entered into discussions with the University Libraries in Dublin to address the problem of storage collectively. This initiative is also being stymied by lack of funds and an unwillingness on the part of government to engage with the issue. See chapter 6.2 for audience figures for the National Cultural Institutions.
The irony of the these threats to the cultural institutions, coming as they do at the outset of the Irish Decade of Commemorations 2012-2022, the centenary of a number of significant events in Irish history around national sovereignty, has been remarked upon by many commentators, especially as Irish financial sovereignty had been virtually surrendered in recent times.