Colloquy 1



The Question of Public Engagement

National Concert Hall, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2, 15th May, 2013


NCFA COLLOQUY #1 from NCFA on Vimeo (Photographs by Tony Kinlan)


The NCFA Colloquia brings together key stakeholders involved in the delivery, reception and the creation of a policy context for the arts. The overall aim of the NCFA Colloquia is to develop a research agenda for the arts/arts policy and improve dialogue about the arts in Ireland.

This first of the NCFA Colloquia focused on the fundamental subject of the public and public engagement in the arts. Where exactly are we at in relation to the status, position, future and value of the funded arts sector in Ireland? What is going on with the perpetual advocacy mode of the arts? What serious ethical and political questions about participation and access, if any, are being asked here? Who’s talking?

This colloquy tackled the realities of political and public apathy, competing expectations, and the problem of honesty in communciation and the use of language.

Each colloquy opens with a provocation from a cultural policy researcher who is based outside Ireland, followed by a response from someone active and experienced in the Irish context. The rest of the events use a ‘world café’ style format to allow for concentrated and lively discussion on specific questions, following on from the provocation and response.

Our first guest was Professor Elizabeth B. Silva.

With particular attention to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s critical interventions into the links between culture and cultural policies, she specifically considered the origin and reproduction of the concept of ‘cultural capital’. Specifically, the rewards of individual cultural competences and the contexts in which ‘cultural capital’ is acquired. Drawing on her contribution to the book 'Culture, Class, Distinction' (2009), Professor Silva used examples from research participants to illustrate the key issues and make what is at stake here more vivid


Our first respondent was Pat Cooke.

Pat Cooke is the director of the MA in Cultural Policy and Arts Management, UCD, and previously the Director of Kilmainham Gaol and the Pearse Museum.

Tables and Plenary

On public engagement, described as a two-way process and shared responsibility, some of the more fundamental questions that came up asked whether ‘the public’ know or care whether the argument for the arts concerns itself with the funded arts sector or not – is it an irrelevant distinction? The answers aired as to ‘what’ engagement essentially is or means ranged from understanding engagement as the consumption of culture to something more ‘affective’, more felt, about having a feeling of connection and a relationship with others.

Engagement was proposed as being distinguished from entertainment by sketching the latter out in terms of it having only fleeting value and a typically passive approach to audience presentation. Red herrings inevitably arise around the subject of engagement including those between production/practitioners and consumption/audiences. The complexity of this kind of discussion was revealed in the debate on the importance of counting heads as a way to illustrate successful or unsuccessful levels of engagement. Is the involvement of 300,000 people in Ireland in amateur dramatics public engagement; ditto 25,000 singing in choirs outside the funded arts? Is it just the policy makers that speak of public engagement but mean numbers/statistics? And are programmers different because when they talk about public engagement they mean something more qualitative?

The metaphor of the archaeological dig was offered as a counterpoint – stressing the revelation of engagement only comes with multiple inquiries conducted simultaneously, horizontally. This led to discussion of class and social mobility and claims that artists know and accept there are different levels, depths, and vectors across people’s experience of social status and expectations, but it was proposed that policy makers don’t. It was argued that any success of the publicly funded arts is because of the dialogue with artists. It is up to everyone working in the arts and in any position of influence to remain open and responsive and expect the state and the public to be the same. To respond is the most important thing: to the artists, to audiences, to the wider arts sector.

This led to discussion about the place or role of the state – ideas about citizenship and entitlement, social interaction and public space. It was important, some agreed, that things that make life a socialised space – like art – should be seen as important in terms of, for example, the historical reason for the development of arts councils, first established in the UK out of the post war experience, to ‘humanize’ life post-conflict. The project of the democratization of culture continued from there: civic, patrician and it was partly about cultural entitlement for everyone.
Do artists really want to engage in this discourse? It’s a distraction, being singled out – it’s a ‘scary place’ to be.

There are many questions to weave into the developing conversation across the subsequent colloquies.

Plenary Session

In the plenary session, it was recognized that while research into the arts and culture in Ireland exists, there are too many interregnums and intervals. As well as a need for consistency in maintaining research activity over time, it was pointed out that one of the strengths of the arts is that they it is typically exploratory and increasingly includes process-based actions as part of the making of the artwork in whatever medium, discipline or form. It was suggested that the exchange of information and thinking about how to research required more conversations with people who are not the usual ‘go to‘ people; in fact, artists were singled out as especially good in this role.

The general view in the room was that some actions could be taken immediately in response to the event: that people attending could share anecdotal evidence of the work that they do with a view to being better at organizing case studies and collecting stories. There was a feeling that the ‘sector’ needs to get better at capturing this. Even when the public express the desire to speak on behalf of the value of the arts, the ‘sector’ don’t really mobilize that.

Some excellent examples of work that could converge with the help of a third party or framework for cooperation, arose in terms of mapping arts programmes in particular areas. Increasingly easily done in terms of using technology. The Geography Department in NUI Maynooth and the local authority in Fingal are already mapping in this way and are strong advocates for how possible and positive this shared activity has proven to be. Also, in NUI Galway, cultural indicators have been developed to assist in this kind of work and again the researchers are very willing to share; see website.

Finally, many felt that the NCFA needs to be in conversation with other sectors that are not necessarily connected directly to the arts. Time to create lines of communication is now.

Help the NCFA continue to advocate for the arts in Ireland.