Thursday, 13 July 2023
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
52. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she met with the Arts Council in relation to the incorrect correspondence promising an award of €25,000 each to 141 artists under the next generation artists fund at a total cost of €3.525 million; if she is satisfied that measures have been put in place to ensure a repeat of this incident will not occur; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34774/23]
Ar dtús báire, tapaím an deis seo biseach a ghuí ar an Aire Stáit, an Teachta O'Donovan. Tá súil agam go mbeidh sé anseo ag déanamh iomrá linn amach anseo arís san fhómhar.
This question relates to the Arts Council, which issued a congratulatory notice to 141 artists saying they had gotten an award of €25,000 under the new generation artists fund at a total cost of €3.525 million. Is the Minister satisfied measures are being put in place to ensure a repeat of this does not happen? The Arts Council then had to withdraw its letters of congratulations.
Mar atá a fhios ag an Teachta, bhí an tAire Stáit tinn agus beidh sé ar ais, le cúnamh Dé, san fhómhar.
I am aware of the incident to which the Deputy refers and I am very sorry for all of the artists who were affected. Since taking office as Minister, I have been aware that precarious incomes have been a feature of the arts sector and, accordingly, I have placed a strong focus on supporting professional arts practice. This is why I have sustained funding for the Arts Council at record levels of €130 million, and have introduced a three-year €105 million basic income for artists pilot scheme. In addition, I have increased funding for Culture Ireland, Creative Ireland and Screen Ireland.
As Minister, I have no involvement in the day-to-day running of the Arts Council, a statutory agency overseen by a board. I respect this arm's-length principle enshrined in legislation. It is important the Arts Council should continue to be an independent funding body and a voice for the arts.
As to the incident in question, I understand the Arts Council issued emails to 141 applicants for the next generation artists award, incorrectly indicating that an award would be granted. The Arts Council then emailed all affected to inform them of the error after seven minutes and apologised unreservedly. I further understand that the director of the Arts Council spoke on this matter on the "Drivetime" programme on RTÉ Radio 1 on 30 June and apologised profusely. My officials have engaged with the Arts Council and were informed that the initial notification was caused by an administrative error. They have also been assured that the Arts Council has now put in place additional checks for the issue of decision letters to prevent a repeat of this error. The Arts Council is also in the process of updating its computerised grant application awards and payments system and that is expected to be live in 2024.
I am therefore aware of the incident and I am aware particularly of the understandably deep disappointment of those affected by the error. The Arts Council has acknowledged its role in the event and has taken steps to prevent recurrence. I can assure the Deputy that for as long as I am Minister, I will continue to look to maximise support for the arts and for artists.
The Minister outlined exactly what happened, namely, 141 applicants to the next generation artists fund got an email stating: "I am delighted to inform you that you have been awarded funding to the value of €25,000". Any artist I know would have celebrated straight away having got an email like that. An artist for whom this was life-changing award told me she immediately called her family to share the news and they even cried with happiness at her success. She said they were crying again again later "... when the Arts Council let all of us be crushed by their 'mistake'." Some artists told collaborators and venues straight away and discussed projects. They did not look at the follow-up email straight away and I will come back to that later. Reputations are damaged and trust is affected. Many people were left devastated. It can be dismissed as a simple mistake but there is nothing simple about it for the artists. It was €25,000 they had in their pockets one minute that disappeared the next.
I absolutely understand, as we all do, the precarious nature of being an artist from a financial point of view. I appreciate the deep disappointment and heartbreak of those who thought they had the award and discovered seven minutes later they did not. The director of the Arts Council has even spoken on radio and apologised profusely. The council emailed all the applicants to inform them of the error within seven minutes and apologised unreservedly. It was an unfortunate administrative error, but key to this in building trust is that the council has now put in place additional checks for the issue of decision letters to prevent a repeat of this error. As I said, the council is in the process of updating its computerised grant application awards and payments system and that is expected to be live next year.
I appreciate the arm's-length principle in terms of the Arts Council in that the Minister cannot get involved in its day-to-day running. However, the whole thing was shambolic because the emails that went out immediately were incorrect in some cases. They were sent after the original error. One said an applicant was rejected for a different bursary award and then another said the council hoped the applicant would not be discouraged from applying for the scheme in future, despite 2023 supposedly being its last year. It seems to have been a comedy of errors rather than just one issue. People welcomed the personal apology from the director of the council a few days later after the media attention concentrated on this, but one artist concluded, "This single ordeal brings into question the veracity and competency of the Arts Council as well as raising a doubt in their genuine interest to treat all artists appropriately". I hope we have learned lessons from this, that the Arts Council learns from this and that it will fully engage with the artists who had their hopes built up and then dashed so cruelly only a few days ago.
As I said, I understand the deep disappointment of those affected by the error. On the errors the Deputy pointed out, the council has put in additional checks. It is seeking to rectify that to ensure there is no recurrence of anything like this. It is putting in the checks to prevent a repeat of any such error that would cause such distress and disappointment to the artists we value so much. The council has apologised unreservedly, acknowledged its role in the event and is taking the necessary steps it needs to take to prevent any such recurrence.