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Clare county arts officer Siobhan Mulcahy

Taking the artists’ view

THEATRES and concert halls closed, TV productions stalled, art galleries shut, it has been a hard time to work in the creative sector in Ireland.

Siobhán Mulcahy is Arts Officer for Clare and she acknowledges that the last seven months have been very hard. “It has, I suppose on two fronts.

“Number one with the closure of cultural venues, that would be the most obvious one, or to the public it would be the most obvious one anyway.

“It has affected those artists that might have been working on programmes and projects, which have now been delayed or signficantly altered because the public elements of them have changed, which can be very challenging, if you’re working on something and things change. But they have changed for society generally so most people would be very understanding of the necessity that artists have to regroup and realign, in terms of what they are doing.

“That would be one element and the second element, that would be very challenging for artists as well, is the pressure being put on and the feeling what’s going to get us out of this difficulty we’re in at the moment. People are looking towards music and the arts to be the light at the end of this very dark tunnel that we’re all going through.

“There’s a huge sense of responsibility there, that artists take on themselves, and there’s a sense of pressure and an onus on them to react and to create in this environment, which can be very difficult as well.

“The one thing about artists is that they are resilient and creative, and it’s in their very nature to react and create, that’s why we’re seeing wonderful initiatives and projects during this difficult time.”

With the arts scene in disarray, those working in the Clare Arts Office had to change their approach. “It has changed a lot and it took a while for us to regroup as well. One of the first things we did was to look at instigating supports for artists to help them to work in this new world that we’re in. We would have set up things like digital training courses for artists to upskill them in things like using digital media and to transfer from live events to using online platforms.

“We would have done a lot of that work over the summer months. Building on that we would have moved from our normal Artists in Schools programme to working with artists to develop what we’ve called the Zoom Art Room. These are projects whereby artists Zoom into the classroom and do a specific workshop, it could be art, it could be music, it could be drumming, we’d have dancers, we’d have puppets and they’re literally Zooming into the classroom to do artworks with the children, online but on a face to face basis.”

They are helping to give an outlet to children in schools, people with disabilites and to the elderly, while supports are being organised for artists. “We are establishing a number of bursaries for artists and filmmakers, these will be announced before the end of the year, and it’s to provide employment for those who may have lost project opportunities during the year. They will be awarded to people on a project by project basis and it has given people the time to regroup and to change the ideas they had to work in a Covid era.

“Some of these are national initiatives and others are being run on a local and regional basis. For example we have set up a residency along the River Shannon, working with our colleagues in Limerick, Tipperary and Cavan. That was advertised recently and we had a huge reaction to that so we’re currently in the process of going through all those applications.”

Few people, even those who attended regularly, will have made it out to see a film, a concert, a play or any cultural event over the last few months, and what the future holds is very uncertain.

Siobhán feels that the limitations have helped many people to realise how important art really is. “It’s often said that it’s the most basic instinct that human beings have. If you hand a baby a crayon the first thing they’ll do is try to make their mark. A child will dance before it’ll ever walk. It’s innate to who we are, and if anything this has made people realise how much it is part of their daily lives and the importance of creativity and having it as a tool for personal development, and also having it as a way of connecting with other people, socially, emotionally and creatively as well.”

She also feels that artists have shown their worth, with a lot of events organised to raise the public morale. “You have artists who give so generously of their time, there have been examples of this throughout the county where people have done impromptu pop up gigs and guerilla exhibitions. A lot of it has been about the themes of being positive, mindfulness and promoting mental health.”

While many people’s jobs and careers have been very badly hit by the pandemic, she says it arrived particularly early for those in the arts, and they will be the last to return to stability. “For many people no more than in other sectors of society, they had the rug pulled out from under them. Yes, it is precarious, it’s a gig economy, job to job, but that has been wiped out and it was the first thing to go. The closure of venues was one of the very first things to happen, and it also looks like the reopening of venues is going to be one of the very last things to happen.

“In many instances they have been hardest hit and it’s very hard to plan for all eventualities and when things might get back to normal or whatever the new normal is going to be. They have been extremely hard hit, a lot of sectors have been, but they were one of the first and it looks like they will be one of the last to get back to any kind of normality.”

A suggestion some months ago that creatives who were out of work due to the pandemic move into other sectors provoked a fair degree of annoyance, and Siobhán understands why. “I think it was misinterpreted but it certainly did raise a few eyebrows to say the least. I think it showed a lack of understanding.

“Many of the artists are highly educated, highly intelligent people, who are committed wholly to this vocation that they have, of creating artwork and of sharing the work that they have. Rather than retraining, maybe there should be extensive supports to continue what they’re doing, we would hope that would be the line that people take, to value the significant contribution they make to society as a whole. To invest in that, rather than taking those skills out of that area to use in other areas.”

In time people will use the experiences and feelings of 2020 as inspiration for new work in a range of cultural forms. What that will look like remains to be seen. “”I think there has been a reaction to the situation that people find themselves in, but it’s probably a bit too early to say, we’re still only about six months into it. It’s still very soon and often it takes time to process emotions and process reactions.

“I’m thinking of the beautiful exhibition that the artist Rachel Macmanus put together in Glór, of children’s responses to Covid-19. They were very bright and beautiful images, but often they portrayed very sad situations, things like a child looking in the window at the grandparents, that type of scenario.

“A lot of people would say that some good has come from this as well, going back to values and communities supporting one another. That is something that artistically people will feed off of. I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom, I think artists will reflect all of society, good and bad, and that will come through.”

About Owen Ryan

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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.