60 years of the Arts Council – the Role of Literature

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Alison Wells

Later this year the Arts Council celebrates its 60th anniversary. I met with Sarah Bannan to discuss her role as Head of Literature and the aims, challenges and opportunities for the Arts Council in promoting Literature in the future.

I asked Sarah how she came to the role of Head of Literature – Sarah revealed that she hails originally from the U.S; she came to Ireland through an internship with Lilliput Press, and originally joined the Arts Council ten years ago. After an interval where she worked at the Film Institute she returned to take up her current position in 2007.

So what does being the Head of Literature involve? Bannan’s role has several strands, one of which is the assessment and granting of Individual Bursary Awards, and Travel and Training Grants.  Another element is that of identifying gaps in the literary landscape and developing appropriate policies and strategies to address them. The Writing.ie website was born from one of these strategies – the development of online technologies to promote literature. Another gap identified in recent years was in the area of Children’s Literature. The Arts Council’s policies resulted in initiatives such as Laureute na Nóg, supporting the founding of Little Island (the children’s imprint of New Island) and awarding bursaries to Children’s authors.  Literature is designated €2.5 million from the Arts Council’s budget of €65 million, but benefits from ancillary funding from the wider activities promoted by the Arts Council.

Bannan’s literature brief also involves developing partnerships with a wide variety of bodies such as the Library Council, Udarás na Gaeltachta, Local Authorities, Children’s Books Ireland and Aosdána. The Arts Council is also involved in the Writers in Residence schemes in UCD and St. Patrick’s as well as in the Ireland Chair of Poetry. Other projects involve reaching out to the public in guises such as the Arts Council Stage at the Electric Picnic Festival.

Looking at the Arts Council over the last 60 years, how does Sarah Bannan see the literary landscape during its tenure? In general she believes that ‘the infrastructure for the Arts has developed hugely over that time’ in terms of the organisations and the venues now available to writers.” She also cites the explosion of festivals and events. In the 1980s there was no circuit in which writers could showcase their work and reach out to readers. In recent years the success of festivals is skyrocketing. For example, this year the Mountains to Sea festival organised by the DLR broke previous audience figures and the Galway Cúirt figures were up by 33%, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the recession.Sarah Bannan clearly displays enthusiasm for the role and its variety. On a given day she might be involved with assessments for funding, policy and budget meetings, monitoring the health of funded organisations or talking to the Revenue about Artist Exemptions. What she enjoys most she says is talking to writers; there is also the satisfaction of contributing through bursaries to a work of Literature that shines in the public eye at a later point. Sarah Bannan is emphatic that the Arts Council’s role in assisting with artistic integrity is crucial. Arts Council funding enables writers at different stages in their career to concentrate on artistic quality and excellence. This is a long term strategy. For example writer’s like Sebastian Barry and Colum McCann received funding early in their careers and have paid tribute to how the funding helped them. Bannan’s satisfaction in the role derives from being able to put policies into practice, by being involved with writers at festivals and seeing what’s happening in the sector. The world of literature, writing and books is a ‘welcoming arena’ she says.

One of the most significant elements over the Council’s history was the introduction of bursaries which, at the time, was groundbreaking but now has become a matter of course. Certain local authorities have been involved in arts funding over many years – for example, Clare County Council, who recently celebrated its 25th year of arts funding.

In terms of direction over the years, the Arts Council’s strategy focus cycles between the production of literature or its dissemination. This influences how their funding for organisations is deployed at any given time.

Of great interest to many writers is the Bursary Award Scheme. About 30 to 40 grants are awarded each year out of about 200 applications. Bannan told me that the process by which bursaries are awarded involves an in-house shortlist followed by assessment by a panel consisting of a novelist, poet, critic and chairperson.


What makes a successful applicant stand out? ‘Quality’ she says, first and foremost.  It is particularly important, she tells me, that writing samples submitted should be relevant to the project for which money is being requested. Apart from that, the applicant’s track record is one of the main aspects that is taken into account. What tips would Sarah Bannan give would be applicants. ‘Don’t leave your application to the last minute’ she says and ‘take great care in selecting your best work.’ What many writers don’t realise is that the Arts Council is happy to help with queries regarding applications. ‘Call us,’ she says ‘if you want to check up on the budget element of your application or anything else’.

In these recessionary times the Arts Council of course has been affected by budget cuts. What does Sarah Bannan consider to be the role of Literature in society, especially in the current economic conditions?

‘It’s often said that the arts are what show us what it means to be human’ she says and ‘the arts certainly contribute to our quality of life’. ‘There so many free and affordable events, such as readings and theatre that can be enjoyed by everyone.’

Something that isn’t emphasized enough, Bannan believes, is that the Arts make a major contribution to the economy. The Arts Council supports 3000 jobs across 500 organisations contributing 192 million to the economy. Two thousand Arts events generate 54 million annually. When you examine peripheral industries the figures go up to about 382 million and cultural tourism is worth as much as 2 billion each year! From what she tells us, it’s clear that the Arts are a vital part of our economy, not a luxury.

Bannan also observes how, for its size, Ireland enjoys a great cultural reputation. It’s rare that Ireland is not represented in major international cultural awards such as the Booker or the Oscars she says. In the current recession, where Ireland has endured negative publicity over it’s economic problems, the strength of our cultural reputation is something we need both to be thankful for and to safeguard.

If literature reflects the concerns of society at a particular time what effect do both emigration and immigration have on the literary landscape? In terms of immigration the Arts Council are cognisant of, and involved in, research on cultural diversity conducted by organisations such as Dedalus Press, UNESCO and the Local Authorities. Emigration – apart from changes to Artists Exemptions, making it a less attractive prospect for writers to stay in Ireland – is was not necessarily a bad thing for individual artists, Bannan believes. The connection with Irish writers living abroad remains strong.

I asked Sarah Bannan if she considered that there was anything that made a body of work identifiably Irish or if ‘Irishness’ mattered as opposed to the general quality of a writer who happens to be Irish.

Bannan’s opinion is that Irish writing is diverse and that there isn’t a particular set of themes or a certain style that makes it Irish.  ‘What makes it identifiable is that it is good’ she says and ‘there is a general, international reputation for quality.’ She cites a strong Irish connection to revered publications such as the New Yorker.

So as the Arts Council moves into a new decade of it’s existence, what qualities and developments would the Head of Literature like to see in the literary landscape in the future?

In terms of opportunities for publishing, Bannan sees technological changes such as the eBook as important. On a topic that is close to my heart, she agreed that ePublishing might be a way for smaller presses, including short story ones to become more financially viable and extend their accessibility. The publishing industry’s current state of flux, with new methods, cost cutting and new formats, is a precarious one for the writer. The Arts Councils job is to continue to free up writers, financially and time-wise, to be able to concentrate on their work.

In terms of the wider literary landscape, Bannan has two main items on her wish-list. Firstly she would like to see literary organisations working more closely together. This would take the form of a Literature Alliance that would facilitate the effective sharing and utilisation of resources as well as seeing them engage in joint projects and collaboration. In her view, the area of literature lacks the cohesion and thus the bargaining power and strength of other cultural groups such as Art.

‘Read!’ is Sarah Bannan’s second exhortation. She hopes that the policies and strategies of the Arts Council in it’s 60th year can promote a familiarity with a range of literature among both pure readers and writers alike. It is, after all, reading that keeps literature alive and gives it a future.

About the author

© Alison Wells, October 2011

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