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U.S. visit helps Ireland’s arts groups face funding challenges

Last month, in my capacity as a board member for Creative Alliance Milwaukee, I had the pleasure of sitting down with an arts delegation from Ireland and Northern Ireland. The group was touring the U.S. to study policies and practices in the non-profit arts that could possibly help strengthen their cultural institutions. The group was here courtesy of the Irish Institute at Boston College whose work is supported by a grant from the Department of State.

The opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange regarding issues and ideas that are critical to the arts and business was just too good to pass up. So, along with other members from CAM, I spent a couple of hours talking about Milwaukee’s tradition of supporting cultural programs with a combination of non-profit partnerships, collaborative alliances and private donations as a way to support our thriving arts community. I also learned much more about the challenges Ireland’s cultural institutions are facing.

In Ireland, the arts are mostly government-funded. But as Europe’s economic problems continue, austerity programs are forcing Ireland’s cultural institutions to change their business models, curtail programs and look for new funding sources. As they seek to find ways to safeguard their programs, these institutions are pondering how to transition to a model that incorporates private donations in a country with little tradition of individual philanthropy. They’re also looking for ways to partner and collaborate with other each other in a way that could strengthen their programs.

As the delegates ponder how to embrace change that will strengthen their organizations, they are firm in their belief of the importance of their mission. As Catherine McCullough, Head of Learning and Partnership at The National Museums of Northern Ireland said to me after the meeting, “Art is not a commodity. It’s a basic human right. It must be protected and preserved.”

Catherine’s comments continue to linger in my thoughts.

While Ireland’s cultural institutions struggle to figure out how to sustain their art forms, I realize that we are lucky to live in a city where so many believe passionately that art is an essential part of our lives and our regional economy. While our funding structures are different from Ireland’s, our challenges are much the same.

How do we preserve and protect essential cultural assets that provide us with a vibrant, high quality of life today and a lasting legacy for tomorrow? I’m encouraged to have met new like-minded friends from across the Atlantic with whom to share ideas and work to find solutions to the pressing challenges that affect us all.


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