A Building Block into the Future – An essay by President Michael D. Higgins

A Building Block into the Future

Sometimes the phrase ‘Infrastructure for the Arts’ is used to describe the basic space and equipment that is necessary for the arts to emerge, sustain themselves, and flourish. Beneath this somewhat cold term however, lies the myriad efforts, successful and unsuccessful, of visionary artists who seek to achieve not just for themselves, but for the community of artists, the space and opportunity to work and create.

The Backwater Artist Group was and is such a group. From its foundation twenty years ago by graduates of the Crawford College of Art and Design – Deirdre Nolan, Tina Cronin, Éilis Ní Fhaoláin and Chris Samuels and their supporters, the group has not only met many of its own aims, but it has served as a model for other artists groups.

When I look back at my own period as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht from 1993 to 1997 I recall with great pleasure my visit to Cork and the heroism that was being displayed on behalf of art by those who sought to transcend all sorts of even physical difficulties so as to continue their artistic work. The sense of anticipation that so much more could be done in more adequate surroundings was palpable.

I met with the Cork Printmakers, The National Sculpture Factory, and the Backwater Artist Group and I feel that if during that time anything I or the Department did it was not to be compared to the sense of enthusiasm and determination that these living groups of artist displayed.

That twenty years on the facilities remain and flourish is indeed a matter for celebration. The structure of the group reminds me that I ran out of time before I could address the issue of what is the appropriate management structure for artistic endeavours. The structure that the group has put in place impresses me in both in its commitment to efficiency but above all else to participation.I am pleased that the advocacy of the artists groups in Cork has drawn a positive response from the Local Authority and the Arts Council. The money spent on the needs of these groups will bring a result that will endure. Indeed, I regard the half a million supplied from my Department as among the best expenditures we made and I hope it was but a building block into the future.

In the times in which we live, there are some facts of which we can be certain. Ireland’s reputation has been enhanced by its artists. This is at a time when it has not been helped by the actions in some other sectors. Then too, this is a time when creativity is our greatest asset. In the new circumstances in which we find ourselves the mind of the artist will prove to be one of our greatest resources.

In today’s world creativity is a necessity, not something simply nice to have. There is a direct link between a flourishing city and the vitality of its creative sector. That sector requires basic physical facilities as a building block. On that can be constructed strategies for inclusion and participation. The cultural space, we must always remind ourselves is wider than the economic space. It is not that culture must rely on the residue of economic growth. Rather it is the case that culture is the space where new forms of social co-operation and economy can be envisaged and realised. It has been my hope that culture would be brought in from the margins by planners and policy makers and accorded its central place.

Making the practice of art possible is a vital aspect of any city. Making provision for the cultural space is a vital contribution to citizenship. Artists working in close proximity to each other enables, not just the successes to be shared, the skills to be revealed, but also the dark periods to be transcended. I wish the different arts groups in Cork success in their advocacy and collaboration and I am so happy to wish a happy twentieth birthday and every success in their efforts in the future to the Backwater Artist Group.

Michael D Higgins 2010.

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