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Voices and Visions by Philip St. John and Joanna Kidney

A year of the Wicklow Artists Salon

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Images courtesy of Wicklow Artist Salon

In 2019, Wicklow County Arts Office held a funding seminar in Mermaid. Afterwards, three of us (visual artist Joanna Kidney and writers Philip St John and Olivia Fitzsimmons) were talking about how much we had learned from listening to artists from other disciplines. We were surprised that, although there is a lot of emphasis on cross-practice collaborations now, there are few enough opportunities to get to know people working in other artforms. Wouldn’t it be useful if we could have regular get-togethers in an informal but structured setting?

As far as we knew, there was no model for an event like that in Ireland. There are arts festivals, of course, and these mix different art forms, but are aimed at a more general audience. Our event would be for all disciplines and would address issues of particular concern to artists and cultural practitioners.

After a lot of discussion, we devised a format. Each event would have a facilitator and a panel of two or three artists. The panellists would begin the evening by sharing some of their work. The facilitator would then guide them through a conversation on a set theme. After forty minutes or so, the rest of the gathering would join in with questions, comments and suggestions. This would be followed by a mingle over tea and coffee and an invitation to continue the talk in Duff’s Bar.

Crucially, the Arts Office and Mermaid agreed to support the venture, and recently the Courthouse in Tinahely has also offered itself as a venue.

So, after three salons, what have we learned about the realities of being an artist in Ireland nowadays?

Surviving as an artist is tough

Even the most high profile of our guests were finding the creative life a struggle. One guest, a performer, memorably described a moment on stage when they realised that absolutely everyone else in the room was earning more than they were. Others talked of banks refusing to give mortgages and rent increases forcing them to move out of urban centres (where performing artists in particular are most likely to find work). Income was sporadic, unpredictable and even when it came was rarely enough.

Resilience seems to be as vital as talent in this career. One guest told us they hadn’t earned more than twenty thousand Euros in any year across two decades. And their partner is also an artist, which doubles the financial pressure. Another artist became so frustrated with the amount of time they were putting into earning a living in low-paid jobs in the service industry that they ingeniously blended creative work into their paid time: they created art on the job.

All our guests were generous with financial advice—one wisely advised us to put aside a small percentage of any income, however tiny itself, and to keep a rigorous written record of incomings and outgoings. Others spoke of the importance of such innovative schemes as Mermaid’s Transform, which buys the practitioner time to develop or sustain their career. And of course the Basic Income for the Arts Scheme would go a long way to easing the stress on artists if it became permanent.

Finally, we were struck by how younger and older artists differed in their attitude towards income. A couple of older artists said that no-one had asked them to be an artist and that whatever hardships they were experiencing were of their own making, whereas some younger artists expressed a stronger expectation of financial support: art is important, and you can’t have art without artists—so fund them!

Art can take a long time

Many of the projects our guests discussed with us were years in the making. This is especially the case with collaborative art, where different opinions and visions have to be integrated. Then there is the need for funding. Finding adequate support can require patience and persistence.

We need to look after ourselves

All of our guests had suggestions about how to deal with the stresses of the lifestyle. Two are regular sea-swimmers. Another finds an escape in playing in a band and roller-skating. Another centred himself through playing music to the tick of a metronome for an hour each day. Many guests stressed the need for breaks from work, the benefit of taking the weekend off, sticking to office hours and also setting limits for time spent on admin. And however individual a practice might be, and however strong the felt need for time alone, all agreed that creative buddies are essential for support, advice and solace.

Ireland is alive with creativity

One really exciting aspect of the salons has been the opportunity to have under the same roof such a dazzling array of visions and skills. During the introductory section where each artist shares aspects of their work with us, we’ve had an enthralling bodhran solo, a gripping novel extract, images of cutting edge theatre, a poem, an overview of a piece of art critiquing surveillance technology, a self- portrait in the form of brain-imaging, thrilling dance visuals and an artist-video of a communal sea swim project. It is really heartening and inspiring to experience such powerful, adventurous pieces alongside one another.

What next for the Wicklow Artists Salon?

Our fourth salon, Taking the Initiative, will take place in the afternoon of Saturday, June 24th. This time, we want to make it easier for artists based elsewhere in the county to have an opportunity to attend, so The Courthouse Arts Centre in Tinahely will host the event. For those from the greater Bray area who would like to participate, we have arranged a bus to bring artists to Tinahely and back.

In Taking the Initiative, an exciting range of artists and cultural practitioners will share with us their experiences of creating a new theatre festival, an internationally acclaimed literary magazine, and two art centres. Why did they do this? How did they do it? In what ways did it impact their individual practices? What have they learned from doing it and what advice might they have for other artists and 

cultural practitioners who might be thinking of taking an initiative?

All the details of the line-up, theme, and schedule for the event (which is free but ticketed) can be found HERE. Join us for the salon at 2pm, and if you have time come beforehand, come for a chat over lunch in the Courthouse from 12.30.

PS The salon will recommence with a new programme of topics after the summer. Keep an eye on the arts office newsletter and Mermaid Arts Centre’s programme for details.


Wicklow Artists Salon, ‘Survival’, L-R: Facilitator: Susan Coughlan and panelists Mia Gallagher, Emmet Kirwan, Yurika Higashikawa, Mermaid Arts Centre, Februrary 2023. Photo credit: Leigh Anderson. 


Wicklow Artists Salon, ‘Survival’, L-R: Facilitator: Susan Coughlan and panelists Mia Gallagher, Emmet Kirwan, Yurika Higashikawa, Mermaid Arts Centre, Februrary 2023. Photo credit: Leigh Anderson. 


Wicklow Artists Salon, ‘Minding Yourself’, L-R: Facilitator Teresa Nanigian and artists Jessica Kennedy; Rónan O’Sondaigh and Emma Finucane, Mermaid Arts Centre, March 2023. Photo credit: Joanna Kidney