Arts workers get their apps together

“Welcome to Facebook. You added “arts” to your interests. You joined the group Dublin Central Arts Workers. You are attending a meeting with your local TD. You are now friends with several thousand people.”

So goes the Newsfeed version of what has quickly become an electronic-political groundswell, a movement intended to mobilise anyone who makes a living from the arts. It delineates membership according to constituencies and marshals its members to campaign for the survival of their professions. With members connected via Facebook, email lists, and honest-to-goodness physical meetings, the movement is both localised and diffuse: if members visit a local councillor, for instance, their activities are recorded on blogs, while group meetings are accompanied by place markers inserted into Google maps. It can only be a matter of time before someone designs an appropriate iPhone App.

The idea began with Gavin Kostick, writer, performer and Fishamble's Literary Manager. Stimulated by this year's Theatre Forum conference in June, which abounded with, he says, “some very negative messages and some very stirring messages”, Kostick was “a bit miffed” when one seminar gave him the impression “that none of us could use a computer”. At the final open-microphone session, Kostick announced his idea from the audience: to use Facebook to set up a members’ group for people who make their living either wholly or partly through the arts within Dublin Central, with the hope that any artist could set up similar groups across the country, across all the art forms. Currently, membership of the Dublin Central Arts Workers group is 500, with about 3,000 members across constituency groups through the country. 

“One of the ways to make movements politically is through residents – people in the constituency,” says Kostick. “Historically, because arts workers are quite dispersed, we're often invisible.” The diffusion of artists may also explain why, historically, they have been slow to speak up when under threat. In July, at the opening of Druid's production of The Gigli Concert and in the wake of the punishing recommendations of the McCarthy Report – to sheave the Arts Council's budget, dismantle the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism, dissolve Culture Ireland and The Film Board – Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes spoke with passion of the importance of a unified and coherent resistance.

Much like the cuts of 2003, from which Theatre Forum emerged, the present crisis has had a galvanising effect: focussing purpose, courting media coverage and leading to such initiatives as The National Campaign for The Arts, announced last week.

The constituency-based arts groups have attracted fewer headlines, but are proving invigoratingly active. “Your local representative's job is to listen to the concerns of the constituents,” says Kostick. “These people are looking to get elected as well. So you look at the broader picture. At council level, we were very well received by the Lord Mayor.”

Given the emphasis on social networking technology, ITM wondered if the medium was the message: useful tips for engaging with politicians, for instance, are shared online, such as “always go in pairs so one of you can keep a record”, and “make sure you agree an action plan, first.”

“I think Facebook is a very good instant galvaniser,” says Kostick, although any members averse to Facebook or still clinging sadly to MySpace are contacted via email. “But I feel strongly that physical meetings are important because otherwise you don't get a sense of a community.”

At a recent meeting for Dublin South Central Arts Workers, the reach of the community was impressive. Chaired by the performer Peter Daly and attended by a large group of actors, choreographers, directors and power-brokers, the group agreed an action plan. The group's efforts to define an “arts worker” have been careful but not leadenly restrictive – an arts and crafts shop proprietor is just as eligible as a playwright. Members would advocate for the preservation of the Department of Arts, and an Arts Minister; campaign for a standstill grant to the Arts Council for 2010; and request that the position of Dublin City Council’s Arts Officer remains after Jack Gilligan's imminent retirement.

The discussion roamed far wider also, through issues of self-definition, the value of their profession, the role of the media and an analysis of political brinkmanship. The McCarthy Report was “a provocation as much as anything else”, said Fiach MacConghail, who has a sober understanding of governmental process but little interest in social networking. The effort of connecting and politicising artists could be started with just two steps, he said: “One, to join us, and two to register to vote... That can be just as powerful as going on Facebook.”


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