The recent conference - 25/25 Arts & Culture in Local Development in Limerick celebrated the 25th anniversary of the appointment of the first County Arts Officer in Ireland and the building of an infrastructure which linked the Arts Council to local county councils. 25 years on there are arts officers in all of the counties and the conference could rightly point to significant achievements in transforming occasional and sporadic arts provision to creating regular core provision. The appointments also brought the arts to the county planning table and part of the decision making process.
As well as celebrating the past the conference sought to look at where this initiative goes from here - to ask the question what should the next 25 years look like? Given the huge societal shifts that are likely in the forthcoming years this became a very interesting question. In the context of Ireland's shaky finances, state support for the arts has been in doubt. We were heartened to hear that in the announced austerity budget that the proposed cuts to the arts sector were significantly less than expected. However, the battle will still rage in individual county councils - all of whom will be considering what they spend their money on. Will local authority arts officers remain? If some retire will they be replaced given recruitment freezes?
All of these questions, though important seem somewhat inconsequential when we consider the shifts in the ways people connect, access their experiences and participate in activities. In essence the established pathways, hierarchies, means of engagement are being transformed. The essential principle behind having a local authority arts officer is to have someone to act as a catalyst in a local area. This makes sense when you look at a country and divide it up into counties and areas and local citizens interact logically with that framework. However, as we know people don't interact in these ways and perhaps for the first time technology has made it possible for us all to in some way bypass this framework and establish our own, "pop-up" frameworks available from multiple access points that require virtually no overheads.
The upside is that we now have many local arts catalysts and the capacity for local arts provision to affect positive change is being amplified. That, of course is a new challenge for local authority arts officers who still operate within a system that traditionally wants to be the author of activity it supports. It seems to me that local authority arts officers have been very good at facilitating local arts over the year and navigating the bureaucracy of the organisations they work for to enable arts to flourish in their locality.
I can't help wondering now how they need to be now in order to facilitate the generation that is coming through - a generation that will not recognise the existing framework and will expect to co-author their experiences.....interesting times ahead.