An assessment of the status quo and the prognosis for access to and participation in the arts was given an airing at the CREATE and Voluntary Arts Ireland Arts and Civil Society Symposium in 2011. The overall state of civil society in Ireland, largely dismantled in the boom years by a process of government cooption, provides a sorry context for the particular contribution of the arts to this agenda. The diminishing arts budget offers little opportunity for doing much more than protecting artists, the institutions and established programmes of the sector, so laboriously built up over the years. Even when it was the beneficiary of more significant funding, the Arts Council could do little more than pilot or demonstration projects in the domain of arts participation, its policies never having the reach to impact on the population at large, despite impressive advocacy on its part, particularly in the crucial domain of education. The arts in Ireland were and still are the domain of the privileged or the lucky. The new Arts in Education Charter (see also chapter 1.2.6) which might have the potential to achieve greater spread for the arts and to improve access, has occasioned mixed responses, some commentators feeling that it lacks commitment to real investment and relies overly on publicly funded artists and organisations, requiring them to donate time to education projects.
The Arts Council has long classed itself as a development agency for the arts in Ireland but this claim can be easily refuted. It is increasingly clear that in relation to key aspects of Irish society, the arts agenda has not begun to approach a desirable level of impact. This is all the more serious as Ireland has been forced to concern itself with the bread and butter issues. The powers that be can dismiss the arts as relatively unimportant when jobs, health, and education are in crisis. The decreasing funding of the arts has further aggravated matters, making arts bodies draw in their horns and focus on the protection of their own constituency. As long as there is no capable and cogent arts voice at the table when the economy, employment, equality, social inclusion and integration inter alia are being dicussed this will continue to be the case. And the arts will remain marginal. The only hope for change resides in the Arts Council’s awareness of this lacuna and its growing realisation that in order to fulfil this role, it can no longer continue to function in the same way. Thus the agenda for change outlined in Inspiring Prospects is of the highest importance. The support of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG) is indispensable to this change effort. The failure of the Department to achieve anything notable in cross departmental issues that have relevance to the development of the arts or to the role that the arts could play in societal development in Ireland makes such support all the more vital if the arts are not consigned to a poor relative role for the coming decade.