I Propose We Take the Four Organisations in the Following Order: Artlands, Common Ground

I Propose We Take the Four Organisations in the Following Order: Artlands, Common Ground

Vice Chairman: We will now discuss utilising the arts to combat disadvantage among the young, the old and socially disadvantaged and to encourage their greater integration and social inclusion within local communities. I welcome the witnesses: Mr. Conor O’Leary, Artlands; Ms Breeda Fitzgerald and Ms Margaret Fox, South Tipperary Rural Arts Group; Mr. Kevin Murphy, chief officer, Voluntary Arts Ireland; Ms Siobhán Geoghegan, director of artistic programme, Common Ground; Mr. Mark O’Brien, acting director, Axis Arts Centre, Ballymun; Mr. Philip Maguire, deputy city manager, Ms Margaret Hayes, city librarian, and Mr. Ray Yeates, city arts officer of Dublin City Council.

I propose we take the four organisations in the following order: Artlands, Common Ground, Axis Arts and Community Resource Centre, and Dublin City Council. I propose we take the opening statement by each of the four groups and members can then put questions to the groups. I request each group to take a maximum of ten minutes for its opening presentation. Is that agreed? Agreed.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons, or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements you have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee’s website after this meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Before I call on the witnesses to commence, I echo the view of the chairman, Deputy Ciarán Lynch, who is unavoidably absent, that organisations which encourage people to express themselves artistically are an invaluable resource for all our communities. They are not middle class luxuries but essentials for all, through which the community and the individuals who comprise it come together and work with a shared commitment to achieving communal goals and reflecting shared values. They allow for individual and group expression, which is very important. Society is comprised of many different voices and it is the expression of the individual just as much as the communal that leads to a shared outlook.

Our role today is to consider how public representatives, Departments, agencies and local authorities can assist local groups in their efforts. Our primary objective is to identify how this work can be done more effectively and efficiently. We want to identify whether we are doing all we can in the most cost-effective and efficient manner, and whether we are reaching out to those who need it and adding value to local community involvement and participation. I will be very interested to hear what the witnesses have to say and what suggestions they might make.

I invite Conor O’Leary from Artlands to address the committee. I should add that the Tipperary connection is not the reason for calling Artlands first.

Mr. Conor O’Leary: I thank the joint committee for the invitation to Artlands to participate in this discussion and I express our appreciation to the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas for their courtesy and assistance. I acknowledge the 50 submissions from interested passionate people who responded to my request for feedback for this debate. People throughout the country wanted the opportunity to have their views heard in the Oireachtas.

Participating in the arts and crafts is fertile ground for creativity and helps people become creative in their own lives, with the bonus that they can bring this creativity to the other groups and organisations in which they are involved. The skills and experiences of living in a vibrant and creative community can lift all else within the community, provided we deliberately seek to integrate all the people who reside there and their respective talents. This is crucial.

We have significant problems in rural areas now. Shops, pubs, post offices and businesses are being lost, with a consequent feeling of helplessness. We need new thinking and local solutions to restore pride and confidence. This can only come about if, as communities, we recognise that creativity is a cornerstone for our personal and community well-being. Once that happens we can harness that creativity in all the other fields of endeavour in society. A creative society is the foundation stone and an essential first step before we can build a creative economy.

As a teenager growing up in east Kerry, I was aware of the rich tradition of Irish music and dance that was part of life in that area. Johnny O’Leary, the great accordion player lived across the road and three miles to the north was the village of Knocknagree, where Dan O’Connell’s pub came alive every weekend with set dancing. When I got my first tape recorder, I became aware of a whole world of music and emotion that lit up my world. While I could bring the sounds and lyrics of the bands into my headphones, the idea that any of them would visit my homeplace seemed an impossibility, yet those dancers hopping to Johnny in Knocknagree, the vibrancy of the local pantomime group and the emotions of the bands to which I was listening made the world a brighter and better place. They proved that culture took many forms and all could be rewarding.

Who makes decisions on arts and culture in rural areas? Who decides how it will be utilised to combat disadvantage or to build creative communities? Later, Mr. Kevin Murphy will give a sense of the voluntary arts activity that goes some way towards filling that void. In truth, there is often an absence of local decision making because policies do not reach local community and many people do not realise what is possible or how to begin. We have at least part of the solution. If we harness the power of voluntary arts activity and inspire local cultural decision making, we can bring about an incredible positive social change.

The piece that I bring to the jigsaw is Artlands, a social enterprise which is all about creativity and inspiring communities. This is a response to the cultural and social disadvantage experienced by many communities in the regions. The specific cultural disadvantage experienced in rural areas was documented in the ESRI report: In the Frame or Out of the Picture: A Statistical Analysis of Public Involvement in the Arts. Do members know the report showed that, based on residential location, those least likely to attend arts events lived in small towns and rural areas and that they were significantly disadvantaged as well? The same report also contained a chink of light. It showed that attendances at arts events in community spaces were not affected by variables such as income, gender and social status. I argue that utilising those venues can break down barriers to participation in the arts.

I am displaying a photograph in which one can see a giant African drumming circle in Donard in County Wicklow. It is an example of what I am talking about. This was part of Africa Day celebrations organised in that community in May 2009 by a voluntary group, the West Wicklow Arts Network, who have received funding from Irish Aid. It hosted a series of primary schools drumming workshops and a free headline concert featuring music group Motema from the Congo. It was a sensation. All ages, from toddlers to grannies, made the gig, with a total audience of 300 people. Nothing remotely like it had ever been seen before in the village, and what made it so powerful was the active involvement of local volunteers to promote and organise the event. The network aspect meant that people from the neighbouring villages and towns also got involved. Some 300 people, most of whom would not have seen a concert like this before, socialised and mixed with their neighbours and made new friends.

The Arts Network model and the other programmes on which I work explicitly bring a community development approach to cultural development, and that is what is so powerful about it. When using a community development methodology, inspiring local communities to remedy the situation is an essential part of any sustainable solution, thus enhancing the quality of life, promoting a sense of place and contributing to community, cultural and economic development. Part of this is driven by the simple reality that services are only accessed by people when they are within easy reach. This is increasingly important for people without their own transport and limited resources and incomes.

The experience of those networks has shown that local groups can promote and encourage arts activities with modest financial support but with investment in appropriate training and resourcing. The results have been positive. Communities with which I have worked have organised more than 400 arts and cultural events that otherwise would not have taken place. These have been attended by more than 23,000 people. To date we have worked with volunteers, local development companies, Irish Aid, the Arts Council, VECs and arts officers in 15 counties. Volunteer-led arts networks have been established in Laois, Wicklow, south Tipperary, Westmeath and Limerick. All the projects are based on the following key principles: empowerment, local decision making, reaching out to new audiences and building inspiring cultural communities. These principles are equally relevant in urban areas.

The activities and experiences which arise from these interventions are determined by local people as they respond to what they see as the relevant local needs. Westmeath Rural Arts has been particularly successful at developing participatory initiatives in the community such as the schools workshops shown on the screen. It has also organised digital photography and kick-started amateur drama. Some 100 miles further south in the Ballyhoura region of County Limerick, Mulcair Arts Network plans to break down the isolation experienced by many artists and get artists and communities talking, while the South East Laois arts network has successfully hosted a wide range of touring and arts oriented events.

I invite Ms Breda Fitzgerald, chairperson of South Tipperary Rural Arts Group, to outline its experience as an arts network in the community.

Ms Breda Fitzgerald: I thank the committee for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. South Tipperary Rural Arts Group is a volunteer-led arts network set up in 2004 under the guidance of the Rural Arts Network. Since its inception, the overall aim of the group is to programme, host and promote quality arts and cultural events in the local rural communities. Covering an area of approximately 20 square miles and including the communities of Ardfinnan, Ballyporeen, Ballylooby, Burncourt, Cloheen, Duhill and Grange, South Tipperary Rural Arts Group has to date co-ordinated and hosted more than 50 events.

South Tipperary Rural Arts group is a self-funding voluntary organisation. The events have been diverse and have included those aimed at opening local communities to different cultural experiences, such as Africa Day, visiting choirs from Wales, and bluegrass performers from the US, to encourage intergenerational projects such as involvement in the Bealtaine Festival, to promote inclusivity and events which appeal to all social classes, such as drama of different genres, to provide a platform to showcase local talent but also to provide accessibility to recognised artists and to cater for a variety of tastes such as Liam Ó Maonlaí, Nóirín Ní Riain and Tommy Tiernan.

The locations for these events have been local community halls, local churches and local hotels. Hosting events locally has helped to enliven communities and encouraged positivity with a realisation that communities can provide for themselves culturally and artistically. There has been a noticeable trend in the local communities of a growing confidence in the hosting of events and the forming of new groups or the reforming of local dramatic societies. It has also given people in the local communities an opportunity to participate in events to which previously they would not have had easy or reasonably priced access, thus helping to combat rural isolation.

There are other benefits to the work of groups such as South Tipperary Rural Arts Group, such as the social, financial and tourist benefits resulting from visiting artists staying in local communities, visiting local attractions and, on occasion, visiting the local day care centre meeting and providing workshops for the elderly; and the empowerment of volunteers by the development of personal skills and abilities to confidently host and promote quality events in rural communities. This has involved the sourcing of artists, providing accommodation, management of funds, the logistics required in hosting events and preparing venues.

South Tipperary Rural Arts Group wishes to move forward and develop its role by functioning as an umbrella group which would oversee a broader network of like-minded groups in the region. Such an umbrella group could act as a co-ordinator, and by linking with and reaching out to other groups and committees, it would allow groups and individuals to learn from each other. It could also give the groups leverage in the sourcing of funding. An overall group speaking on behalf of many other groups in a community would have a much stronger voice. An umbrella group which is accessible could set out guidelines for best practice which may be used by all groups.

Another area in which the group hopes to make a difference is to build on using art and culture in an intergenerational approach, linking young and old. This might be achieved, for example, by living history projects. The ongoing motto - on our doorstep - is to continue to promote arts and culture in local communities, helping to bring colour to the lives of all.

Mr. Conor O’Leary: The photograph on the screen is of Liam Ó Maonlaí when he came to the south Tipperary village of Cloheen. He described the experience as magical. It is testimony to the strength and skill of the groups to host quality events such as that one.

It is important to highlight that the arts networks and the majority of my work would not have happened without the vision and support of local development companies through the Leader programme. They are a significant player in tackling issues of cultural and community development in rural areas. County arts officers have also been involved in funding the arts networks and other groups through the Arts Act grant, where it is available, and supporting smaller projects. However, the resources are limited. It is important to highlight the support I received for two years from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. Its model of long-term investment and support for projects and individuals with innovative ideas is valuable and recognises that long-term support is vital for maximum benefit.

The committee has heard much about the local and social entrepreneur perspective and Mr. Kevin Murphy, chief officer with Voluntary Arts Ireland, will describe the impact of the voluntary arts.

Mr. Kevin Murphy: It is terrific that we have a burgeoning infrastructure. We have very individual groups that do a lot of good work in their local communities. They tend to do what south Tipperary has done which is form a network. Traditionally, in other places a national development agency is established and Voluntary Arts Ireland has been established here. There are over 5,000 voluntary and amateur groups across Ireland. The main point that we would like to get across today is that they are local and these grassroot groups are local community assets. It is an area that is well worth examining.

We have carried out research with the Third Sector Research Centre on the benefits of grassroot community arts groups. They are as follows: they enhance the health and wellbeing of individuals and provide common ground for social contact that reduces isolation and brings pleasure; they bring people together for a common activity, build a sense of belonging and help to develop social cohesion across class, ethnic and generational divides; they help people acquire new knowledge and transferable skills that can enhance employability; they benefit the local and wider economies through memberships and advertising; they often provide employment for professional artists; and creative expression helps individuals gain greater understanding of themselves. Local communities already have these assets but sometimes they are underutilised, under-recognised or undervalued.