Access and participation in art and culture for all citizens in Ireland is evident as a strategic goal and objective across many levels — from national cultural policy frameworks and semi state cultural agencies’ strategies and mission statements to local authority levels. All aim to affirm the right of every citizen to access and participate in cultural life. Museums and galleries in Ireland are free of charge for all to attend. But even though the entry may be free, there remain many barriers. Participation in the arts in Ireland varies markedly according to a number of factors, including educational level, socio-economic status, geographical area, and age. This variation is associated with a range of inhibitors such as economic costs, poor transport, lack of literacy, and social and psychological barriers.
Cultural organisations in Ireland have developed programmes to attempt to diversify and expand their audience as well as outreach programmes focused on art and cultural participatory engagement. The Education and Outreach Policy of the National Council of Cultural Institutions has developed a stronger focus on cultural inclusion.
Although ‘access’ and ‘participation’ are not explicitly referenced within the Arts Act (2003), the described functions of the Arts Council — including the stimulation of the public interest in the arts — are clearly linked to these subjects. There is explicit reference made at strategy level within the Arts Council and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. The Making Great Art Work: Leading the Development of the Arts in Ireland, Arts Council Strategy 2016-2022 states in its vision that “the centrality of the arts to Irish will have been strengthened by” amongst other actions “the depth and breadth of people’s engagement with the arts as a valued feature of their lives.” Further the vision states that the Council is inspired by the prospect of an Ireland “where the arts are practiced and enjoyed widely in our communities”.
Public engagement is one of two priority areas within the strategy. The Council commits to championing the value of amateur and voluntary participation in the arts and develops an advocacy framework of amateur and voluntary practice and participation.
Of the five pillars of the Creative Ireland Programme 2017-2022, representing the Department’s strategy arising from the Culture 2025 Framework National Cultural Policy (2016), two of the pillars focus on participation: 1. Enabling the creative potential of every child; 2. Enabling creativity in every community. The first creates participatory opportunities for children and young people within and outside of the formal education setting in partnership with schools and other youth services. The second supports over 2500 creative projects in partnership with the local authorities. Local authorities in Ireland have a clear legislative mandate to support social inclusion in the arts: Local authority arts offices are required since 2003 to produce an arts or cultural plan for their local region. Arts organisations are now encouraged through the principles set out in the Culture Ireland Programme to open access further and to create new partnerships with community organisations to offer greater participation. The aforementioned policy frameworks and strategies offer evidence of a recent trend in policy away from an exclusive priority focus on supporting artistic excellence towards an emphasis on culture’s potential as an instrument in citizen wellbeing.
A valuable resource in understanding participation and engagement in the arts was undertaken in 2018 by Behavior and Attitudes (B&A) on behalf of the Arts Council. The study confirmed that the arts provision in Ireland is successful at reaching what they called ‘cultural aficionados’ (people who attend 5+ arts events in previous 12 months). The survey data suggests that the Arts Council policy is relatively successful at reaching a group identified as ‘regulars’ (3-4 types of arts events in previous 12 months). But the data also suggests that the Arts Council still struggles to increase participation levels from the group defined as ‘occasionals’ (1-2 types of events in previous 12 months). Since the 2018 study, the Arts Council has aimed to develop better understanding within individual arts organisations of using census data to understand the profile of their local communities in order to reach out to new audiences. This work is in early stage of development.
There remain a number of psychological barriers to participation and engagement in ‘high culture’ or ‘art’ that is linked to Ireland’s past colonial sublimation as well as perceptions of classist or elitist distinction. Recent cultural policy has attempted to increase participation by widening the definition of culture within policy. Strategic intermediary organisations such as Dublin City Culture Company at a local authority level, or Creative Ireland nationally have been established to operate across and between local neighbourhood communities and cultural institutions as mediator.
 Arts Council/Behaviour & Attitudes (B&A) (2018) Attendance, Participation & Engagement with the Arts in Ireland 2018: Arts Council National Survey.