The following is an extract from a tribute given by Catherine Byrne, Chair of The Ark’s Board at the launch of The Ark’s Summer programme The Beautiful Beasts on Sunday 2 July 2017.
Attending the event were representatives from the Arts Council, Department of Education & Skills (DES), Creative Ireland, educational establishments including DCU, NUI and MIE, along with past and present members of The Ark’s Board and staff and other esteemed colleagues of John’s over the years.
“On behalf of the board and staff of The Ark it is my great pleasure and honour to pay tribute to a great scholar and tireless advocate for The Ark and its mission and for the right of all children to fulfil their creative potential through access to the Arts. Professor John Coolahan has been a member of the board of this unique children’s cultural centre for the last 13 years.
John. You have crossed the threshold of this building many hundreds of time over the years for board meetings, performances and exhibitions (often with your grandchildren), to address conferences, and to meet directors. You always bring with you a personal warmth and care for all you encountered, great wisdom, knowledge and insight, a word of encouragement and appreciation for artists and teachers alike, and always demonstrating a deep understanding and appreciation of the innovative, creative and high quality art that is made and delivered in this special place for children, a place that fires the imagination of all who pass here. A quote from the Charter for Arts in Education sums up beautifully and eloquently the essence of your beliefs and endeavour for arts in education.
“We truly believe that creativity must be placed at the heart of our future as a society and as a country. The arts are our first encounter with that rich world of creativity, and we believe in placing the arts, alongside other subjects, at the core of our education system”. I have often wondered if you had a hand in penning those words!
Today John we want to give back to you a little by way of celebrating your sterling contribution and relentless advocacy for Children's inalienable right to art and culture and the rich world of creativity. You have dedicated your life’s work to advancing the case for placing creative, artistic and cultural experiences at the heart of learning - from the earliest years of children’s lives and not as a peripheral add on.
Most of us are aware to a lesser or greater extent of John’s illustrious career (both at home and internationally) as an academic, a researcher, an author, a primary and second level teacher and as a teacher educator. The breadth of his involvement in the formation of policy in Irish Education from the early 70s through every decade to this very day is truly mind boggling. John set the stage on so many occasions, taking ideas through discussion and debate from white paper to green paper to legislation.
Today we focus on and shine the light on one aspect of your work, one that permeated everything you have done - your relentless endeavour over five decades to bring The Arts centre-stage in Government thinking and planning and to align the players in education – the DES, Dept of Arts and Arts Council to deliver an integrated approach to the delivery of Art and Culture to Children throughout this country from their earliest years.
At the risk of leaving something critical out, I want to pick out a few highlights from your achievements. In 1978-79, as part of an arts council team, together with Ciaran Benson, Seamus Heaney and Sean O Tuama, you produced the report on the Arts in Irish Education. This became the foundation stone for so many of the developments that have occurred since, including the establishment of The Ark itself. It is a report that is still relevant today and much referenced in recent developments such as the Points of Alignment which set out to open up partnerships between the DES, Arts Council, the Charter on Arts in Education which you chaired and the Creative Ireland Programme 2017 to 2022 which has moved the debate and policy to the heart of government.
I think it is fair to say that the stars appear to be aligning and that your vision and effort is about to blossom. As you said recently in Listowel in another Arts Forum there is now a new sense of confidence and optimism for the way forward.
If Creative Ireland’s Pillar 1 is to build on the best work and reports of the Arts Council over many decades, it will be no coincidence that it will be building on the vision that you have shared throughout your illustrious career. It is our great hope that all will come to fruition through real collaboration between the Arts Council and The DES as part of the Creative Ireland’s strategy.
I know that all of us assembled here today who are involved in the business of developing and delivering Arts policy and practice for children could pay no greater accolade to Professor John Coolahan than to continue to build on his lifetime of work and commitment - to fulfil his dream of giving every child access to the highest quality art and cultural experiences and real opportunities to engage. Therefore John, in recognition of your unique contribution to creativity and the arts for all children in this country, on behalf of The Ark I am delighted and very proud to announce today our intention to create an artist’s bursary in your name. In the first instance in 2018 this bursary will allow an artist to develop his/her practice in association with The Ark for an early years’ audience. We look forward to announcing more details of the John Coolahan Ark for Artists Bursary in the autumn.”