Tuesday 9 April 2024

A New Year, A New Low - provisional funding

And so another financial year has come and with it, one looks forward to the year ahead. For any business that seeks to assist people, this is the time for implementing plans, consulting with beneficiaries, renewing programmes and processes and a general reinvigoration of an organisation. Others may even be preparing for festivals or big events. Of course, for those working in the arts sector, that renewal would be the expectation but, it appears, thanks to the neglect of the sector by the Department for Communities, that unfortunately is not the case. Instead, we received word from the principal funder of arts and culture here, The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, that the Department had not signed off on their budget so we can only be offered a provisional indication of funding!! And of course, for all those offered, that represents funding at a standstill  - same as last year, same as the year before perhaps...perhaps all the way back to 2014. 

I know that many out there think the arts and cultural sectors just seem to greet and gurn about funding all the time and constantly rattle the begging bowl before whoever is in charge. And you’d be right for thinking that for a very good reason. The arts in the north could never command the sorts of funding levels that they have come to appreciate in the Republic for the last decades. Nor could Northern Ireland assert that we received anything like the funding per head received in England, Scotland or Wales our nearest comparator, where the Welsh government could distribute £10.35 per head, where our administration could only muster a mere £5.07. The South of Ireland enjoys a comparative figure of £25.90 - over 5 times the level of investment that we ...(ahem) enjoy. (Figures based on ACNI strategy consultation, 2022/23 financial examples). 

The Taskforce believes the NI Executive should  collectively champion and invest in culture, arts  and heritage. While a future Minister for the  Department for Communities must spearhead  this, Ministers of all departments need to  recognise and value the key contribution these  sectors make to their departmental priorities and  to the well-being of society. The Taskforce presents this report to support Government in  finalising a strategy and action plan which can be  brought forward for wider public consultation.  

However, right now the sustainability of these  sectors in Northern Ireland is perilous. Long standing structural underfunding; a stagnated  post-COVID recovery, and cost-of-living crisis is  risking closure of organisations, venues and loss  of heritage, including physical and historic  infrastructure. Local talent, innovators and  creative entrepreneurs are compelled to leave  these sectors and our region in increasing  numbers.  (R Johnston, chair - Investing in Creative Delivery - A Report from the Culture, Arts and Heritage Strategy Taskforce - July 2023) 

And those of us who volunteered for months, on both the Ministerial Covid Recovery Group in 2019 and the Culture and Arts Taskforce last year (who produced the report from which the excerpt above is drawn), understand from our colleagues across the breadth of the sector, the precarious situation that we all endure as we wait for a government strategy to emerge but now, ironically with the return of the Assembly and its executive, things have really reached a new low. 

I have been ceo of my organisation for more than 20 years and have worked in this sector since my youth. I have NEVER known it so bad. To have a whole industry, which employs over 5,000 people, to be informed, over a week into a new financial year, that the main distributor of essential public funding cannot offer any guarantees of any funds! It's incredible.

And we have sadly grown used to the sad reality that standstill funding is as much as can be wished for and we all understand that there are significant pressures on all public expenditure. We all know this from bitter experience since 2014. And we all have learnt to be patient in our nail-biting anxiety around when we might receive word of our funding for the year ahead, through a Letter of Offer and indeed, what we might receive. 

Over the years, that date we receive that letter has slipped back further and further. But for our sector now, in the second week of a new financial year, to have only a provisional offer of , at best, “standstill funding”, with a clear statement from that funder that the governing department has yet to agree any budget for the year, well this is a significant new low, and by some degree. 

If only we had a fully-functioning government administration back at Stormont, with a minister in charge… oh, wait …of course we do. 

Now, we all know that in a universe where everything is relative, the term “standstill” is by no means a fixed term either. Whilst it is defined as “a situation or condition in which there is no movement or activity at all” , when it comes to funding, that is not the case. The value and buying power of money shifts constantly and often dramatically. Economic shocks, like wars or commodity crises are nothing new and affect the value of the money in our pockets day and daily. This current so-called “cost of living crisis” as the media would have it, is yet a steeper decline in living standards that we have endured since 2014. 

Over that decade, it is interesting to note the changes in value of money. Say an arts organisation was granted £100,000 in 2013/14 and over the intervening years, have been on “standstill”. Given all that has happened to wages and interest rates, with inflation etc, what does that “standstill” represent? Using HM Treasury’s own deflator indices, we can understand just that. 

In 2013-14 that £100,000 granted now has a real terms value in 2024-25, of £133,306 - meaning that if actual “standstill” funding was to be provided, an additional £33,306 would be required. 

If we look at the amounts of government funding to support the arts locally, take that 2011/12 amount of c£14m in revenue funding above. For that amount to be maintained (so-called “standstill”) that number would have needed to be £18.355m for the year 2023/24. However, the amount ACNI actually received was £9.682m, meaning, in real terms, there was a shortfall of £8.673m or 47%. And of course, as we enter a new financial year, the disparity is rising. The Arts Council themselves calculated that they required an additional £23m last year, just to “align better with our counterparts” ie to catch up with Wales for a start. 

But, that was then of course. We have a brand new Assembly now, fresh from hiatus, with a new minister and loads of new money, as agreed by UK Government, whose Command Paper heralded the return of the Assembly at Stormont and “sets out a series of measures to visibly evidence the government’s commitment to Northern Ireland –  and to strengthen it further –  as an integral part of the United Kingdom both now, and for the years ahead.

A representative of the political party that “won” these concessions is now charged with guiding the Department for Communities. We’ve heard about all the budget wrangling on the airwaves, because of course there was the offer of an extra £3.3bn to Northern Ireland, expressly to stabilise our public services. And we know that £600m of that was to support public sector pay increases. But there was an unallocated £1 billion to stabilise the public finances across the board. 

But for an arts organisation, funded to the same amount of funds as it was in 2013/14, how do they support pay increases when in real terms they are almost 25% worse off, even with so-called “standstill” funding? How do they pay for light and heat? How can they ever hope to compete in a Creative Industries sector so underfunded locally?  Then read about the ambition that we all share for the creative sector in Northern Ireland…  

ACNI’s 10 year strategy closed for consultation last Friday. In it, ACNI states its ambition for our sector and our society:

We have derived a set of outcomes for the art sector, and a set of outcomes that the sector then delivers as a result for society. The outcomes overlap and are reliant on one another. ARTS SECTOR 

● A more financially stable arts sector. 

● A sector that develops and looks after its people and is more inclusive. 

● A sector that is better supported to develop through experimentation and innovation. SOCIETY 

● A sector that contributes to social and economic benefits and cares about the environment. 

● People from all backgrounds can enjoy arts experiences.  

● A sector that is more valued across society and government. 


The logic of this interconnected set of outcomes is clear - support our sector to support our society. But, yesterday, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland could only make a provisional offer of standstill funding, only because the sponsoring government department has not agreed a budget. Fair play to ACNI to actually try to offer the sector some modicum of surety when they, the board and directors of that arms length body, have no certainty about their own budget. 

But really minister, is that what the arts and cultural sector and indeed our society deserve, bearing in mind what ordinary people believe here:, 

  • 87% of respondents to the General Population Survey believe that arts and creativity play a role in good health and wellbeing, and ... 

  • 81% believe that arts and creativity contribute to creating a shared future / cohesive communities.

  • 81% believe that arts and creativity play a role in stimulating the local economy.

  • 56% believe that arts and creativity have a role to play in providing a sustainable environment.  

So, having struck this new low of entering a financial year without an agreed budget for this sector, can anyone here ever hope for better at all? Will the arts and cultural sector see any benefit from the Command Paper the Windsor Framework delivered and the much vaunted additional £3.3bn? And if not, what comes after hope is gone because it was all that was left at the bottom of the box? How long can any resilience last after a decade of pummelling and austerity? 

Ultimately, the path to our sector’s recovery and sustainability after a decade of testing its resilience, requires more than a well-articulated vision, or a screed of well-intentioned and ambitious strategies. It requires our government in Stormont to recognise the value of the arts here and more importantly the value of people's lives associated with the arts, whether as producers, audiences or participants. The arts matter, even if government keeps acting otherwise! 

Tuesday 5 March 2024

A world of words

From the moment we’re born, how we relate to each other and to the world around us depends so so much on what we hear and what and how we say it. The sounds we make as children and how we relate them to our parents for example shows a striking commonality the world over. The evolution of language for a person and even a species stretches so far beyond back... back beyond our knowing, beyond our remembering and it is of course intriguing. The striking similarities of sounds that we make in early infancy that offer us comfort (the m and d sounds of mum and dad) are shared by a multitude of highly diverse cultures across the globe.

The development of our social bonds helped determine the accompanying development of our language. How we speak and what we say has always mattered, to bind us, as family groups, tribes and peoples. So that arc of language development and creativity takes us from prehistory right through to today. The nuance of the noises we make and the ideas we transmit within them is more ancient than any history. 

The ancient inhabitants of this island have been finding ways to speak locally to our immediate peers, but also more regionally to our fellow tribes for over 30 millennia. As our interactions became deeper through our ability to travel more easily, we developed more ways to communicate more diversely. And with the later formalisation of writing and reading, we strike a crucial moment in our developmental story, so much later on than our aural linguistic traditions. But we never stopped singing when we started writing.

If we think that only for some 5,000 years have we been reading and writing as a species, isn’t it astonishing the progress that we have made since? And not just the notation of words but of thoughts and ideas in the sciences as well as the arts, that describe phenomena not just of this world, but around very distant suns. 

The ancient art of writing came to Ireland long after cuneiform was developed in ancient Mesopotamia but with the development of Ogham, we not only see the emergence of writing but its interaction of music, art and intercultural connection with neighbouring lands and of course with Christianity. At the same time, on neighbouring shores, ancient Celtic languages vied with Latin and later Germanic and later still French. 

And in all this time, the words we use, the ideas we transmit, the promises we make, have become so embedded in our culture that we almost take them for granted - the promissory notes that translate to money, that has given way to the tap of a card; the bargains and contracts of handshakes and scribed onto vellum that today we enter into every time we click “accept” on our smartphones. 

The sheer weight of words now that we encounter everywhere, everyday can be overwhelming. The Internet contains trillions upon trillions of words, in the mechanics of the software and the screeds of communications. But in all this, there are words that we recognise universally that mean more to all of us, that we have written about for aeons, that reverberate through our own lives and the lives of all people since the dawn of civilisation: Love, Peace, Freedom, Truth and Home. These central ideas continue to hold the most profoundly important place in our writings. They underpin so much of what makes us all who we are. They make up the vast bulk of our writings, ancient and modern. They are the ideas behind the words that have drawn writers to offer their thoughts, poets to offer their verse and philosophers to provide insight, down through the ages. And they continue to be so utterly part and parcel of who we are and how far we’ve come. 

 So this week, if you happen to be celebrating World Book Day along with millions of others, don’t just revel in the diversity of books and the joy our children derive from them; but instead take a moment to recognise the power of creativity, evolution, history and ideals that has forged our human development until this moment and to celebrate the good fortune to enjoy those core themes of Love, Peace, Freedom, Truth and Home if we can, and then recognise the plight of so many across the world who cannot in these immensely troubled times. 

(Dedicated to David George Turkington RIP) 

Monday 5 February 2024

Spring into Action

As February begins, opportunities must be seized. As we note a hopeful change in the seasons and the arrival of our newest government executive, Spring may well be the time of plans and projects, but we all know spring weather is never consistent.  (I've come over all Chance the Gardener* it seems.)

Our individual and collective creative endeavours must be tended to and stewarded carefully over the months and indeed years ahead. So, the DUPs Gordon Lyons now carries much of the high level responsibility for that stewardship as he becomes minister in charge of the Department for Communities, which in turn of course, has statutory responsibility for arts, culture and heritage in our corner of the world.
After two years lacking very much progress on the latest programme for government (around the arts or anything else) and a dozen years and more, where the only constant was standing still, this new incumbent will have a lot in his intray as political commentators are apt to quip. If we are relying on old adminsitrative metaphors, to the exclusion of digital efficiencies, then I hope we don’t regress any further given the debate about our postal services...
The years of funding our arts to a standstill and then watch them wither, serves no one’s interests. And when a corollary to this underinvestment is the impact on the young to actually engage in the arts, something is badly wrong. Last week, the celebrated culture magus, Melvyn Bragg, drew the House of Lords attention to the fact that education is key to change and "can lead us to a new state of the arts" but that uptake in GCSE music has dropped from 50,000 entrants in 2009 to 29,000 in 2022. Can a contemporary society afford to see its creative future reduce by half and still expect to cultural and creative output not to suffer? The Creative Industries of the UK are reaping the rewards for a generation of earlier investment by a previous UK government. And here, we surely have even more reason to see beyond the immediate and imagine a creative, collaborative future of diversity and dynamism, rather than dysfunction, deminishment and decay.  If this place, half way into the second decade of the 21st century cannot see what so much of the world has seen, that arts, culture and heritage actually mean more to people than trophies, symbolism and codification and matter far more to our physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing and to carving out new futures filled with flourishing careers and creative ambition, how can we make it clearer? I suspect only by repeating our arguments, year after year and pointing to the abundant evidence - and of course, telling the stories of how the arts transform peoples lives.

So, with that in mind and with a few months still to go, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland is seeking consultative responses to its strategy to support those creative benefits and that ambition. 
It’s a rather muted document, carefully tempering expectation with the experience of the last dozen years still reverberating, but also ever-hopeful the seedlings that we so prize do indeed find fertile ground. But given, by its own (I’d say conservative) calculation ACNI reckons we need an additional £23m pa to support the sector and align us to our closest budgetary counterparts in these islands ( ie Wales, where each citizen receives £5.28 more than we do per capita every year) , anticipating anything like that from this new “Assembly Spring” may well be far too optimistic, even for those whose careers are to make the imagined become real (I'm referring to artists here, not politicians obviously). As the chair and chief executive of ACNI opine in unison, "it is a regrettable truth that government investment in the arts sector in Northern Ireland has not always matched the incredible potential and impact it holds".
Still, the strategy represents a future for the arts. I'd urge you, if it merits your support or you think it’s deserves some further spade-work, just follow the link here and respond. https://artscouncil-ni.org/resources/strategy-2024-2034

Further opportunities spring


And, a word for the Anne O’Donoghue award (hosted by CAP and funded by the aforementioned Arts Council of Northern Ireland) which closes applications this week. If any arts manager or administrator in the community/health/youth or participatory arts sector can carve out the headspace for making an application to this award, it may well be incredibly worthwhile. With a maximum award of £5k on offer;

  • is there a project that can be dreamed up where you're mentored by some arts guru with practical and inspirational thoughts and ideas to help re-potentialise your career? 
  • Is your organisation in transition (is there an organisation that isn’t?) where real in-depth advice and guidance would prove to be invaluable?; 
  • are there areas of development where you’d really appreciate a deeper understanding or a helping hand?; 
  • Is there a programme or two out there, in the big wide world, with which you’d love to work to extend your own ideas but just never afforded yourself the time, headspace or indeed, the cash? 
If you can answer yes to any or all these questions, then you need to get familiar with the guidance and get writing this application right away. The link is here and it closes on Friday, 9th February - ie this Friday

So, while Hope may not spring eternal here, at least Spring does indeed offer opportunities ... it’s time to start digging again. 
*if you havent seen 'Being There" or read the book, I suggest you enjoy this timeless classic.

Tuesday 2 January 2024

2024 - a legacy year in the making

It is utterly amazing and perplexing how the time flies. It seems like only yesterday that I was doing songwriting workshops in various locations in Belfast for an organisation wanting to support real change in my home city - New Belfast Community Arts Initiative. 

But of course, one cursory glance in a mirror and the realisation that indeed that was almost a quarter of a century ago is all too vivid. 

But, the time I believe (and indeed, the evaluations show) has indeed been well-lived.

24 years ago, on December 22nd 1999, our patron Martin Lynch established this organisation as the Belfast child of the Community Arts Forum. Of course in 2011 through the merger of CAF and New Belfast, a new organisation was born... Community Arts Partnership that now serves the whole region and indeed beyond.
Over the course of all those years there have been many trials and tribulations, not least the untimely loss of our good friend and music champion Geoff Harden in 2006, to whom we have dedicated our music studios. We have seen other friends and colleagues battle hard against disease, some winning and some unfortunatly losing that battle. Ill-health can be so hard to endure and so indiscriminate in its impact. And of course, for many of those we serve, their health status has left them more vulnerable to a society that more and more only seems to care for winners. The relationship between poverty and ill-health is so clear and well-documented and yet, for so many in N Ireland, we see public support for the vulberable and the disadvantaged constantly reduce over the last 25 years. Now, we see public services under almost daily existential threat. The harsh Darwinian realities of life are all too often too real today - where has the social contract to protect the weakest and most vulnerable gone, amidst all the squabbling and wrangling, the pettiness and hubris? 

But, some organisations have managed to survive the turmoil of constant cuts to arts and cultural funding over the last 15 or so years, and these surviving organisations, like the people they support, may yet have a longer timeframe to realise their strengths, pursue their dreams, and leave a legacy. And these reflections offer us greater freedom to be who one wants to be, express oneself, and choose what is personally meaningful. Will you support us to take advantage of new possibilities for leading a more fulfilling life?... because engaging in community arts can do just that.

As we enter our 25th year of operation, we renew our offer hope and ambition for better days ahead, through connecting community and creativity. 

I never dreamt that in encouraging community groups and individuals to write songs and express their innermost dreams that I would be here, directing this orgainsation almost 25 years later. And in this year of renewal and celebration, we will herald new strategic developments for this organisation; to not only recognise the legacy of those 25 years, but to build upon it and renew the basis for taking community arts forward into the next quarter of a century. We will be making a series of ground-breaking announcements and opening new possibilities over the weeks and months ahead. Do stay tuned.
So, I pay tribute (again) to all trustees, staff and freelance artists, volunteers and facilitators who have helped us reach this point and also to all our community hosts and partner organisations and centres of learning, thank you for the ongoing support and participation.
To you and all of them, to all our funders, especially our principal supporter, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and to Belfast City Council with whom we have been a multi-annual client for over 20 of those years and indeed to all our colleagues and friends, we wish you a happy and healthy 2024 and we at CAP look forward to working with you and supporting you through dedicated community arts practice, advocacy and delivery for this year and the years ahead.
Mind yourselves
ceo CAP





Wednesday 22 December 2021

Happy birthday to us and a Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to you

22 years ago today, Martin Lynch established this organisation as the Belfast child of the Community Arts Forum. Of course in 2011 through the merger of CAF and New Belfast, a new organisation was born... Community Arts Partnership that now serves the whole region and indeed beyond.
Over the course of all those years there have been many trials and tribulations, not least the untimely loss of our good friend and music champion Geoff Harden in 2006, to whom we have dedicated our music studios. But these past couple of years have probably been among the most difficult for CAP and of course, for so many people across our sector and indeed our world. 
At this time of reflection as one year closes and another opens, the turbulence that we find in our lives has never been greater. On this, literally the darkest day of the year, we can only look forward to brighter days. We are anxious about our health in the face of a devastating global pandemic. We are concerned for our family, our friends, our jobs. We’ve missed so many opportunities and we’ve experienced terrible loss, made worse by restrictions designed to protect us all. We've seen anger and confusion turn to toxicity. We've seen division grow around questions of identity and belief. And amidst all this, amid the lockdowns and circuit breaks and pings on our phone, somehow we have struggled through. But we have all been changed for better or worse by the experience. The struggle for freelance artists and performers has been so acute - their world has been turned upside down and for many it has unbearable. As a creative community based organisation, we understand this and we've seen the wider impacts too... we have seen them reflected back to us in poetry, images and music. We have also seen how our sensitive and professional artist/facilitators have supported host groups and schools express their experience and the hope and ambition for better days ahead.
 CAP has radically altered the way we work in the past 22 months, how we engage with our community organisations and schools right across Northern Ireland and into the South and we have relied as ever on the good graces, the wisdom, the generosity and the creativity of our poets, our artists,  our filmmakers, project coordinators and host organisations that have done their level best to maintain creativity within our communities. Thank you each and every one of you.
I really want to express my gratitude to the CAP team, Gordon, Steven and Josh, taking turns to be in the office and keep information services and programmes open ; our board of trustees too who have met via zoom or conference call and kept the governance of the organisation going; all the project coordinators: Sally, Heather, Tracey, Carole and Shelley who have kept the projects moving.
To you and all of them, to all our funders, especially our principal supporter, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and all our colleagues and friends, we wish you a happy and healthy holiday and look forward to working with you and supporting you through dedicated community arts practice, advocacy and delivery in 2022.
Stay safe
ceo CAP



Tuesday 22 December 2020

Birthday celebrations and thanks

Back in 1999 when the thing that people feared the most was the Millennium Bug which only was thought to affect our computers (but of course was seen as a doomsday scenario) who could’ve thought that 21 years later the whole world would have been so convulsed in such turmoil through a global coronavirus pandemic. When we think of those heady innocent millennial days when Martin Lynch had the clear sightedness to develop a community arts initiative that would link communities right across Belfast in fundamentally creative ways. Now, 21 years later, Community Arts Partnership is not so much celebrating its birthday as recognising the resilience of the artists and communities we serve, for whom these 2 decades have been far from easy. And today, we pay tribute to hundreds of thousands of people across our towns and cities, our villages and townlands, who are struggling against this massive upheaval and coping with pain, loss, loneliness and fear.

Everyone in our community has suffered in different ways; many have heard the plea from the arts sector but the community sector and indeed the organisations and populations that it supports, has been equally devastated. Of course, many industries have been decimated and many lives have been changed forever. Many friendships have struggled to be maintained against the divisive backdrop of coronavirus and the restrictions to contain it. And old divisions have surfaced, with anger and intolerance. But we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement address one of those fault lines in our world and we all hope for better days, beyond racism and sectarianism and fear. It was never acceptable for sectarianism, racism, sexism and hate to become so casual and pervasive. Just a few weeks ago, in a public forum, I experienced the casual sexism of others for the first time in this sector. A leader of another organisation threw a brickbat charged with sexist language without any remorse or apology. If this society is to grow, move on and build, especially in the difficult centenary year of 2021, then such causal dismissals of our neighbours need to stop. We need to focus on the real enemy in our midst – poverty, injustice and inequality and not waste our energy on the careless and the spiteful.

For now though, our thoughts are with the present struggles.

If life is to get back to normal and we all hope that this vaccine allows something like normality at least for a little while (before the next winter of COVID19 arrives) then we must re-dedicate ourselves to healing the divisions in our society: not just those between the two main traditions here but also the wide gulf between the powerful and the weak; between the wealthy and the impoverished; between the physically able and the disabled; between the young and the old. A vaccine will not change those determinedly entrenched difficulties in our society that have only been made worse through the pandemic but it will give us a platform to go out and re-engage and to actively address the problems that face our society and hopeful correct the course of our shared journey.

And of course there is no better way for our communities to repair, to respond, recover and renew themselves than through the expressive ability of the arts. Whether it’s coming up with a new plan for an area; reopening a community centre or a nursing home to visitors; a school that has been decimated through absence and sickness or a community that has seen too much loss over this past nine months, our ability to creatively build back and solves problems will see us through.

I would like to thank all those people who have been careful, sensitive, supportive and indeed perhaps even angry about just what is going on around Covid19 and its management here. We will need to question why certain things were done and what wasn’t but for now we can take some measure of consolation at Christmas, even though for many it will be an isolated, lonely time. Still, we know who our friends and family are and we are thankful that at least, we can talk to each other and see each other, albeit electronically.

21 years of New Belfast/Community Arts Partnership – 2021 also heralds the 36th anniversary of Community Arts Forum as well. I really want to thank the CAP team, Gordon and Steven who are taking turns to be in the office and keep information services and access open, our board of trustees too (Happy Birthday Carole) who have met via zoom or conference call and kept the governance of the organisation going; all the project coordinators: Sally, Heather, Tracey, Shelley who have kept the wheels turning on the creativity bus and Josh Schultz for his enthusiasm and energy in securing opportunities for the organisation.

I especially want to thank all those community groups and schools that are working as hard as they can developing creatively their skills and imaginations as we conclude 2020 and look forward to a happier, healthier 2021

I also want to thank the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, the Department for Communities, Social Enterprise Northern Ireland the Enkalon Foundation Northern Ireland for their consistent generosity and determination to support our mission and this sector through its darkest times. And I wish every artists and arts worker applying to the second round of the Emergency Funding for Individuals every success in securing some monies that might just soften the blow of a years lost earnings.

So, happy birthday New Belfast Community Arts Initiative and CAP and may I wish all our readers, participants, artists and volunteers, a safe and healthy holiday season and the happiest New Year that we can make it. Here’s to our future.

Take care

Stay safe

Get Creative.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

'The Scream' for resources from the arts

If anyone has ever looked at Munch's painting or a print of The Scream, they will understand that it communicates so much. The image conveys the depth of fear and anxiety and sheer incomprehension that the strange almost skeletal figure struggles with, while with standing starkly and forlornly in the foreground, on a platform jutting out from land, alone, bar two people with their back towards him. It is a picture that resonates with the immediacy of a threat, the anguish of the moment and the inadequacy of understanding how to respond to it.  For a great many people at this minute, in this crisis, we are screaming!


The arts community for so long has suffered an existential anxiety ("will we even survive?") but nothing at this level created by COVID-19 and the consequent necessity to close doors and shut up shop. But of course, exactly the same goes for the community that we serve. Not only the public, nor audiences, nor artists and workers, but the great bulk of small, local organisations, groups and schools that the arts, and in particular community arts, strive to support in creative and expressive ways year after year.  We are all experiencing a whole range of challenging circumstances and indeed ongoing anxiety and uncertainty. 

Much is consistently said about the resilience of the arts sector. Of course that's because for decades we have toiled without adequate investment and worked in a perilously underfunded area of the creative industries. That insecurity has impacted on many within the sector, but today, that anxiety is amplified to deafening levels, across so many organisations and their staff and freelance workers. This cannot be sustainable either on a personal nor indeed, organisational nor strategic level. And we have still have a long way to go before any optimistic notion of normality, never mind "new normal" emerges.  

This is an emergency not only for the arts but for our society as a whole. In terms of financial support, we have all understood that we have had an ongoing crisis in the arts, due to historical under-investment, but Covid 19 has further undermined our collective viability. Much has been made of how resilient the sector is but it has to be said again and again, that resilience comes from being exposed to challenges that are not overwhelming but with which we can actually cope. However, for a great many within our corner of the sector, the additional burdens and challenges related to the multi-layered impacts of Covid 19 pandemic may mean that this period of upheaval may overwhelm us all. 

In my opinion, the abject failure of an enterprise culture within the arts, predicated on growth and outputs, with only narrow notions of outcomes-focused research and output-focused accounting, has meant we are less able to meet the contemporary challenges of the impact of this pandemic. This has been remarkable and devastating. In the Republic of Ireland, a value for money argument is/was applied to paying artists during the pandemic, even though they could/can not actually carry out the work contracted for. It's understood that maintaining arts workers' incomes is strategically and structurally so important to the notion of 'national good' that it was mandated by funders, principally the southern Arts Council. In the North, I've heard such interventions written off immediately as 'welfare', insinuating that approach as wholly inappropriate to the prevailing government funding model. But what could be more appropriate than recognising the welfare of our arts community and its ability, if maintained, to continue to serve the public good? 

We need a new, radical focus for the narrative around the work that we do; ditching the old assumptions of competition, productivity and endless growth as currently (and perhaps always) bankrupt and instead focus on the production of development, health and wellbeing and mutual interdependence. This approach would allow us to embrace environmental and ecological benefit, see care as a positive feature of our economy, and recognise voluntarism as a powerful and valuable resource. For example, many feminist economists argue economics should be focused less on mechanisms like income and neo-liberal policies that constantly look to extract wealth and resource, and instead look to more emphasis on wellbeing and a multidimensional concept embracing income, health, education, empowerment and social status. Indeed, the arts do try (and should be encouraged further) to actively explore the direction of cultural, social and material dynamics of well-being much more deeply, amplifying the benefit of active participation in the arts (whether as a creative or participant) and more the more passive benefits of audiences. Government still doesn't get it. That has to change. Perhaps this is the moment?

And of course, much has been made of the eco-system of the arts here. Seen positively the creative ecology model does move away from industrial, discipline- centred understandings of the work of artists and arts organisations and instead places focus on the system of relationships and interdependent need present within and across the widest community. Such ecological thinking is currently being applied in many sectors as part of the search for more effective ways of analysing and responding to a context of rapid change and disruption, such as our current global pandemic.

And as such, an ecological response (or emergency measures) cannot be Darwinian, instead should focus on nurture and sensitive management, relating to the interconnectedness of our fragile eco-system in the arts. Ecology particularly seeks to learn about and understand the symbiosis within natural systems, as a mutual exchange of benefits that draws nutrients and energy from the environment while at the same time helping to sustain it in the process. Therefore creative ecology should be understood as an emerging concept in cultural policy that places the arts and creativity within a more including, holistic worldview and reveals interdependencies with economic, social, cultural and environmental systems, where society as a whole then benefits. Whatever quantum of emergency support the Assembly grants us, we should recognise this creative ecology as an active collective concept, not just a descriptor of people and organisations all working in a similar "field". If we are to build back better, we must understand and celebrate the different approaches, not just say our need is greater because we have lost more money!

I know many thoughtful people in the arts may well share these positive convictions, but we still work within a constrained template that has hardly altered in decades. This is not the fault of funders, far from it, but of our government's failure to understand us and support research and development in the arts to inform and embrace change. In a risk-averse policy culture, as we toil within here, the creativity of the arts can therefore undoubtedly be stifled. The bean counting culture misses the depth and breadth of what we do and how we do it.  

In the midst of this pandemic, it is clear that we all must adjust and improvise to survive. It is also abundantly clear that the losses incurred by shutting down our operational capacity to work has created a huge economic and cultural deficit that cannot be allowed to continue. That's why the emergency funding of £33m is so crucial - not just to plug the losses, but to give all of us a necessary platform to renew our range of practice and enable our community during this hour of need.

Of course, many, many arts organisations have leapt to digital solutions which offer some modicum of contact and can be used to present a range of work but it's just not the same. The restrictions of social distancing may seem at odds sometimes for theatres compared to bars and restaurants or private clubs. If the government has shut down so many sections of the arts, the government must protect them as result. As other industries have seen furloughs etc, but many artistic processes and performances shut down first and are still closed down and desperately need support. 

And we may not return to any normality for some time as we hope for a vaccine to be developed and if successful, to be widely available. When will that happen? The reports say not until at least halfway through 2021 by which time many organisations would be faced with redundancies, layoffs and potential closure if they do not receive the life-blood of sufficient emergency support to stay alive. Bear in mind that 7,000 livelihoods are at stake, with thousands of households depending on those jobs.

So, in our conversations, we have identified a range of immediate and longer terms needs. We also have a range of proposals and propositions that enable a more collaborative sector to emerge from this crisis whenever that may be.

In the immediate term, we need financial support for our operational capacity, just to keep our organisations working and our core missions to support the communities we serve, alive. For a great many organisations, this means maintaining staff levels, enabling freelance artist/facilitators to survive this crisis, and develop the capacity of organisations, personnel and communities to access different ways of working and creating collectively for now and the future.

We also need financial assurance that we can build back from this crisis in the years ahead and to this end, there is a widespread necessity for additional funds and support in 21/22 and indeed beyond.

If we are to build back better, providing access, supporting participation, enhancing innovation, origination, authorship and creativity and ultimately ensuring the ownership by participants and the public of their creative and cultural choices and their impacts, then greater support for community arts and socially-engaged practice is essential, along with funds to ensure that all sectors of the arts survive this chaos of closed doors and financial ruin. A proactive strategy to see the £33million investment realised and to then support its on-going and necessary development and implementation is crucial to both the sector’s survival but also the necessary participation that is so unquestionably craved by communities across our region.

By the way, the artist Munch was 32 when he created 'The Scream". In his head he clearly thought he was a goner, incapable of dealing with the fear and death all around him. In fact he would live until 1944, when he turned 81. 

Long live art!