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!

 


Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The arts can build back better

Like anyone involved in the arts in the North / N Ireland, I am anxious that not only do the arts survive this pandemic, but that all associated with the arts manage to be in a position to support our community as we take two steps forward and one back around re-opening after lockdown and re-establishing ourselves and our role. Because the arts can be a formidable force for good, an incredible means of supporting a population that has been traumatised by inter-community violence for decades and was starting to come to terms with itself, this wave of Covid 19 and its horrific impact on our community will reverberate for years to come, compounding our trauma, exposing the vulnerability of our elderly and those with underlying conditions (approaching 90,000 households here) and increasing disorders like depression and anxiety in our teenagers and new mothers, etc . And this is only the first wave of this global pandemic. So, as a lot of us have done during the lockdown, we have turned to the arts for respite, release and escape. The next challenge for the arts will be to offer consolation, express fears, manage bereavement and cope with loss. If as a creative community we manage to rise to that challenge, then we will assist this society move another step toward resilience.

But among the outcry from a small group (including the actor Sean Kearns who was a brilliant advocate) representing theatre, venues and audiences last week that presented to a committee at Stormont, came the warning that the sector faced "cultural Armageddon" (although another has a survey entitled "After the Interval" which doesn't communicate much in the way of the obliterating of a sector, on the one hand, never mind offering scant sympathy or regard towards the thousands of lives lost and millions affected by the global pandemic, equating it to a theatre intermission, on the other). The catastrophist pronouncement along with the alarming insistence that all organisations in the sector "face obliteration" might make for good press coverage, but the truth is that all arts organisations have been faced with economic uncertainty as an ever-present for years and each is working hard to make sure that this is not the last battle, but unfortunately yet another challenge in a litany of setbacks, cuts, historic under-investment and lack of adequate financial protection and security. The acute emergency of having no audiences for theatre is of course a massive immediate challenge to an already weakened position.

If the last 12 years were characterised by cuts and further neo-liberal pressure to become more economically self-sustaining, the next 12 will be even harder, as we stare into the biggest recession the world has ever seen. The challenge is for our whole society to #buildbackbetter , finding ways to amplify the fantastically creative possibility that a greener, more people-centred economy might be advanced by the humanity and compassion of the arts, rather than fighting to save our place in a failing economic model, that has never embraced the arts adequately.

To all those who claim that the arts sector is part of the Creative Industries, it is time to recognise our place within this and perhaps to see ourselves somewhat apart.  TV, Gaming, Films are extremely expensive to invest in and are hugely profitable businesses - you need only look at the all-too-often mentioned TV show about swords and sandals and snow (I watched one episode and that was that!) . But the figures around the creative industries are massive because they embrace a huge swathe of economic activity that is not connected to what we do in our small arts sector - Advertising and Marketing and Architecture are part of the creative industries - and do not relate directly to anything most of the organisations in the local cultural sector are engaged in. IT, Software and Games account for over 40% of this Creative Industries catch all - accounting for £45bn in 2018 in the UK.

Music, culture and arts by comparison accounted for 8% of the GVA of the Creative Industries.  What I'm trying to get across is that by constantly associating our arts sector with one of the most profitable areas of the economy projects us in the wrong light; it says that we generate massive profits. We don't - if arts organisations break even, they are doing well. That has always been the case. Now, venues in particular are faced with losing 90% of their box office, which will be devastating. But others are quickly finding new ways to develop and present product and change will be at breakneck speed over the coming years. The new normal must offer progress, otherwise its just another empty promise.

We are the culture and arts sector, the Cinderella of any Creative Industries - left to the funding vagaries of the public purse and dependent on between 30% and 70% subvention from government or  philanthropic funds. The organisations that keep craft traditions alive, that work tirelessly with older people in residential homes (how necessary is this now???) the organisations that reach into every community centre, school, disability group, supporting newcomers and native residents , in every corner across the country, facilitating projects in film, fashion, poetry, dance, drama, sculpture, visual arts, painting, drawing, designing and offering a platform to the arts of yesterday to be maintained and grow and support us all,  as we look forward to tomorrow.

Don't confuse us with the for-profit sectors of the Creative Industries! No, no, no... this is the for-people sector of arts and culture. There will be many more struggles ahead, this is not Armageddon, the final battle. The arts will fight on.

But we do need help, badly. That reality has been recognised and has meant that an extra €25m was allocated to the arts sector in the South just two weeks ago. If we in the North, were to receive the equivalent per capita, it would be approaching £9m of 'new' money.  This is crucial - the British government must offer additional funds to our devolved Assembly, a portion of which must help save the arts, especially those that have seen their income 'fall off a cliff' to quote the overused phrase. We need our political class, not to petition our Minister to find more cash locally out of already stretched budgets (albeit the £4m June monitoring funding announced by Finance Minister Murphy may be a boon, once we understand how it's to be deployed)| but we need to direct our plea to the British Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer to release additional emergency funding and recognise the unforeseen circumstances that this sector finds itself in.

So far, those additional monies have not materialised yet we read everyday of the quasi-Keynsian budgetary investment being made by the Tories - but not to the arts. Scotland has tried to shore up its sector. The Arts Council of N Ireland have done their utmost to assist individual artists and organisations, offering £1.5m in emergency funds. But here, we need a Barnett Formula applied to the emergency monies being allocated in Britain and we need it right now. We need it across those sectors that assist the public to manage to impact of it all - health services, social services and the arts and cultural services. We're not seeking billions. No. It's a tenth of the money spent on an abandoned track and trace app, or one percent of the RHI overspend or 0.05% of the annual budget here.

So, as the deadly waves of Covid-19 sweep across the world, let's recognise that we all want our life to return to some type of normality. One of the fastest ways to that returned sense of well-being is to tap into the expressive power of the arts and get ourselves out of our bunkers, mentally and physically and allow the arts an opportunity to help this society process the impact of coronavirus on our lives and give us a platform to move forward and build back better.

The new normal must be better than the old one - for all our sakes.

#ArtsMatterNI
Baineann sé le tábhacht na nEalaíon sa Tuaisceart
#BuildBackBetter

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

no quick fix

In this part of the world we know only too well that there is no such thing as a quick fix. The outworking of the social disarray that this society has had to live with over the generations , before, during and indeed after the Troubles, still has a way to go before being in any way really fixed. Now, in the face of Covid-19 and the constant anxiety and daily uncertainty, we know that this global upheaval will take time, years and years, before we either return to something we recognise as normal, or we normalise the unrecognisable life we currently lead.

Within this, there has been a headlong stampede to embrace the digital world - with rock stars, old (Ancient even) and new, blasting away from lockdown at their iPhones in their living rooms, sounding pretty ropey ( not all of course, Springsteen still manages to sound amazing singing into a quality microphone).  Organisations, my own included, have had to develop presentations on line to finish off programmes or announce awards etc the Seamus Heaney Awards. Everyone still hoping that this is only a very temporary situation.

But, as hard as we try, this disembodied digital experience can also be quite isolating, because it can often starkly remind us that things have utterly changed and that the contact we might enjoy via a screen can never replace the human contact we all took for granted for so long.

But little networks, smaller eddies of conversations and generosity have been springing up all over the places. NI SCRUBS for example, where individuals with connections through arts programmes like CAPs Trash Fashion or Tides Dare to Change project, are now sharing resources- overlockers, sewing machines, materials and creating a productive community that is directly assisting in the challenge to resist coronavirus. Some of these participants are taking refuge here from the Syrian war and now are helping medical teams battle Covid-19. New deeper connections are made. Not built on profit, or narcissism, but on mutuality, generosity and togetherness. It’s no surprise that many have enjoyed that connection through highly expressive community art practices and programmes.

So, in looking to the future, we can rebuild our community connections, we can renew solidarity and we can together find ways not be overcome by these days. In other words, as a community, we have often shown the resilience to continue.

But of course there has always been a terrible cost. Today, as death rates mount astronomically in the case of the U.K. and US, and we see the terrifying numbers escalate in our elderly population, especially those poor souls in care, we must reach out to that population, thoughtfully and creatively and offer them some respite.
CAP has an Artful Older People that is offering kits of materials and ideas to a set of care homes to bring some welcome distraction and support moments of calm creativity. Many organisations are doing likewise.

We cannot be complacent. While the arts community is seeking emergency support thanks to the programme that the Arts Council has just opened up, it is only a short term exercise as well. 100 x £5,000 and that fund is used up. And we know there are many more artists and creative practitioners who really need support now because we will be counting on them to assist all our community to come together again: to make sense of this trauma and to celebrate the humanity in our lives and shine a light in the darkness, paying tribute to the loss and exploring the failures. The means for all this to be experienced is  will fall to our creative community. Take time to take care of these workers. They may not be frontline but their work will be crucial. To express; to resist; to grieve and to renew.


Stay safe
#TakeHeartMakeArt

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Assurances amid uncertainty

It’s hard to comprehend just how changed the world has become in only a few weeks. I’m in my 7th week of total isolation or at least my household is as my wee one had symptoms almost 7 weeks ago. 
As many of us toil at home, trying to maintain our work as best we can , while watching everything and everyone around us is thrown into disarray and insecurity, some of us at least might still enjoy some assurances.  But there are precious few today and none to be taken for granted. Family, friends, food, going for walk, enjoying the arts. All of these are no longer what they once were. If we are lucky to have all of them, we are fortunate indeed because many people currently do not. 

The level of mortality is staggering. As the U.K. fatalities number 5 times the death toll in The Troubles here, we know that this is far from the end of this dreadful daily update. And it’s reported today that those numbers only count those who have passed away in hospitals and the actual total may be 15% higher. 
For many finding food has been a real struggle. Food banks are running short every day, physical distancing standing in queues is so fraught with anxiety ( albeit that I haven’t been able to visit a shop for 6 weeks). 

Accessing friends via Facebook or FaceTime is common if they live far away, now everyone lives at a digital remove, although we can still see them and talk to them. But what if those in care settings, hospitals, etc. And the times when we need to cling to each other at funerals or births! There is so much upheaval and separation of our lives at present. 
Even just going for something as everyday as going for a walk is fraught with anxiety - now 2 metres apart isn’t enough, especially if a person in front of you is puffing and blowing like an unfit jogger (and how many of those do you encounter on raids and paths these days?) 

But at least we still have the arts ... don’t we? 

Well, locally, thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland we have the organisational superstructure of 97 arts companies being offered funding to hopefully support them through this incredibly changed period. And across various city and district councils, monies are still being awarded to organisations. But what about our artists and the freelance creatives who are the “frontline workers” of the arts? Whether up a ladder adjusting lights, or sitting with school children developing poetry or art work, how will this section of our arts workforce survive this? 



We have seen some very worthy attempts to help from Finn Kennedy and Abie Spallen’s giving website (given an extra £10k from Minister Hargey and her Department for Communities). But as helpful as this may be, it’s only piecemeal for a limited number of folk. It’s a tough enough gig even at the best of times to be self employed, bouncing from one contract to the next, hopeful and resourceful. But, today, these gigs are in jeopardy. That’s why organisations like CAP and others are looking to see how best to support their core creative professionals and keep some level of income going for them. But, how long can this go on. This sector needs more than the emergency funding of an additional £1million I suspect, way more. 

While uplifts for the Theatre NI (gaining an astonishing 68%, is there a merger in the offing?) and Belfast Exposed (with a more modest 9%) are beyond the status quo of standstill funding received by the vast majority of organisations, the standout changes are 174 Trust - The Duncairn Arts Centre and Outburst both becoming AFP, core funded clients. But we do see some causalities, with the Ulster Youth Choir getting a small but significant cut and Dance Resource Base and Millenium Arts Centre both losing AFP awards. Hopefully these awards provide the platform for artists and freelancers to have relatively the same opportunity for public support, but of course, with houses dark and no contact work going on for the foreseeable future, this may not necessarily be the case.  This at least offers assurance for artists and professional staff - not to mention audiences and communities - that the creative enterprises that we have all grown to love and respect, have to platform to maintain their work. But huge challenges remain for all, in particular, those who operate or work in venues.

How can a professional who’s been used to earning in excess of £15 - £30 per hour now live on £93 per week on Universal Credit? And the sheer bureaucratic effort to apply for benefits makes a SIAP application look like a walk in the park ( er... perhaps not a the minute). Never mind calculating housing benefits. If a self employed contractor has adequate earnings over the last few years, perhaps they will qualify for the averaged earnings up to £2,500 per month.

I know many artists and creative freelance folk who are waiting with baited breath for an Emergency Fund for Artists to open up. Hopefully this can happen soon and then ACNI can actively support all  that have seen that earning opportunity completely vanish. 

But, there are caveats... the experience in the South has been very mixed around some of the additional state money that supported the Facebook/Creative Ireland partnership, where if artists apply for a Creative Ireland/Facebook performance bursary that may well have knocked them out of any other support packages, ie job keepers allowance (which is far more generous than the meagre Jobseekers in NI). That bursary payment becomes an expensive €1,000 otherwise. So be it for those thinking of applying here, you may well put yourself beyond any other state benefit. Tricky calls.

What to do then? Well, there’s the creatively and fiscally resourceful self-starters like Paul Currie, the master artistic-comic-muso polymath. He’s asking for donations for his comedy sessions, bedtime stories, morning comedy keep fit turns, etc. They are all definitely worth a bob or two. And for others, if there is a way to see some income, they are all looking for it. 

We have seen in the arts councils recently published research that almost £4 million in revenue has been lost in the three months up to the end of this May. So there is a massive deficit that organisations and individuals are experiencing and that of course undermines the security of all our livelihoods.  If this is the new normal, we must find not only funding, but other means to support our work in terms of reaching out to audiences and practitioners alike.This will be the constant challenge for the years ahead, with ever greater need for the arts in terms of wellbeing and mental health support as we emerge from the dreadful shadow of this pandemic.

#ShineALight

#TakeHeartMakeArt

Stay safe, be well, get creative if you can








Tuesday, 5 November 2019

A resilient community of camaraderie

For a group of people whose principal drive is to entertain and relive, over and over, the redemptive, transformational power of making art, the arts community seem to get it fierce hard.

This group of believers, of change-makers, social alchemists, creative powerhouses of incredible pure and imagined experiences... we have a hard time of it. Audiences and participants are convinced time and again, evaluation form after focus group, all relate their joy and sense of well-being when enjoying the fruits of theirs and others’ creativity. So it makes it all the harder to bear why something so utterly devoted to expanding and supporting our humanity and ways to express it, why it is constantly bamboozling to understand why this sector of dreamers and visionaries, has it so tough.


I was just one of a thousand who arrived shell shocked to Matt Curry’s funeral in St Patrick's Cathedral Armagh last Saturday morning. As we gazed at each other and shook hands, and witnessed the grief visited on the faces of our friends and colleagues and their families, on Emma and Nicola, the camaraderie, the friendship and togetherness of the arts community, whilst often threatened, was so tangible in shared grief.

As a community, we offer Matt Curry’s family circle, every sympathy and condolence, as the creative community does constantly for all those who have trouble in their lives. This community, given the chance, creates moving, urgent narratives of change and love and empathy. We work hard to engage the very hardest truths of living and with any luck, perhaps change them to metaphors of beauty, courage and deeper reflection.
Why should this community be penalised for it’s doggedness and devotion; it’s service to making things of beauty and connection? Why should it be faced with a constant battle to justify its very existence as a sector time and time again? For a community that gives so much for relatively little, the arts are constantly pressed to conform to new standards, to new initiatives that invariably means doing more for less.
  
Our determination, our collective will, to perform, entertain, reveal, educate, engage, imagine, create, breath life into blank, often dark, spaces, is both a strength and a weakness. And as we watch another process with seemingly arbitrary determinations and thresholds shift our professional terrain yet again, this time by a major local supporter of the arts, Belfast City Council, we have to justify ourselves anew.
80% of Arts Council NI funding goes to Belfast-based organisations and both ACNI and BCC  preside over the majority of public arts funding available in NI.

For those of you not located in Belfast and shocked by that, bear in mind that even though that concentration of funds goes to Belfast-based organisations, the majority of them work right across the region. But, by a totally new process, determining who should be retained in the arts infrastructure of the arts in our biggest city, Belfast City Council is perhaps about re-shape the infrastructure of the arts across the region. 

In their 2016 study ‘Culture, Cities and Identity in Europe' the European Economic and Social Committee through the Culture Agenda 21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_21_for_culture asked various questions, not least

What role can culture and cities play in strengthening social and territorial cohesion, in engaging in dialogue and building trust in our complex societies?

And to be fair to Belfast City Council's tourism culture and arts unit, it has risen to the challenge posed by that question and many others and tried to model, through extensive consultation with the sector, a new path for the civic support of the arts. Most if not all sections of the arts community welcomed that consultation - we spent hours in focus groups, or attending large events where thoughts and ideas were aired and indeed noted. This was greatly appreciated by a sector that has seen itself so marginalised in all the great civic debate that is on-going all around us at present, as we see our funding base slowly chipped away and the already precarious nature of our organisations and our livelihoods become more worrying.

So having offered so much qualitative feedback, we waited for the next stage of this city's cultural journey. The development of an Investment Model is the essential motor of this whole participative exercise. “This investment approach takes the long view required to deliver transformation for the city. It recognises that the first priority must be to invest in a healthy cultural ecosystem.” Furthermore the BCC website states “Belfast’s new investment model for culture proposes a new partnership approach to funding with the aim of sustaining and developing accessible cultural activity and infrastructure across Belfast.” The financial outworking that will underpin all our collective creative and strategic input, the investment model and indeed the 4 quadrants of this new grant application process, has now been completed without any further direct consultation at all.  Instead it has been offered as a fait accompli, passed through political approval and sees its first funding application process underway.

Arts and heritage organisations (Anchor- 4yrs (threshold >£300k turnover over last 2 years) & Enable – 2yrs (threshold >£100k turnover over last 2 years))

Festivals and events (Imagine – 4yrs (threshold >£300k turnover over next 4 years) & Activate – threshold £50k over next 2yrs)

The resulting model rigidly pegs investment at historic percentages of organisational turnover for arts and heritage organisations but allows for projected turnover to be the main threshold criteria for festival and events organisations. These thresholds alone will see a major re-shaping of the arts “ecosystem” and it may not be for the better. Indeed, the council knows well that they will lose many arts organisations completely and see another swathe have cuts ranging from 10% to 30% or more. Indeed, some of the largest funded organisations, like the Ulster Orchestra say, will see their funding pegged at the level that it has been for the past 4 years, continue for another 4 years at that maximum £150k. So, even to the most funded, this will represent a real terms cut once 8 years of inflation is factored in. For others, it will see them unable to meet the most basic threshold and will therefore see themselves drop from multi-annual funding altogether. This may not sustain the cultural ecosystem as it currently stands but may well establish a new eco-system instead. 

This “new investment model for culture proposes a new partnership approach to funding with the aim of sustaining and developing accessible cultural activity and infrastructure across Belfast”, so says the “A City Imagining” document.

Does the retrospective turnover requirement for arts and cultural organisations (compared with festivals and events programmes that are allowed to base their budgets and turnovers prospectively ie on projections) negate notions of cultural democracy in that it presents an unequal opportunity to arts organisations based solely on their mode of operation? Is it that those organisations that are working in cultural tourism rather than more citizen focused have been prioritised in this funding process, because they can anticipate growth, where the others cannot?

Whilst so many arts administrators are consumed with the minutiae of the grant applications, and the next large scale application to Arts Council of Northern Ireland is waiting on the rank, we all must not lose sight of the challenge that our arts infrastructure faces. And of course we must always seek to show how our work contributes to the core of our society and the quality of life here. We understand far better than many sectors, that entitlement is not a sentiment the arts relies upon. When a city says forthrightly that arts and culture are of unique and crucial importance to its plans, but then excludes arts and cultural organisations and their audiences and participants because they simply haven't made enough money in the last couple of years,  how do we judge strategies that seek to sustain and develop? 
And of those organisations who will be excluded from multi-annual funding, where will their participants and audiences turn? Other organisations that may themselves be cut because of these new thresholds, will they have additional capacity?
When I approached Belfast City Council's Chief Executive Suzanne Wiley and Director of Finance John Greer last summer, it was to explore how greater investment in the arts could sustain and contribute to our beleaguered and precarious sector. As convenor of artsmatterni I offered a range of potential interventions and nuances that could be explored and urged a more segmented, convenient process that would see greater levels of security afforded to all arts organisations in the city. We asked for decreased administrative burdens commensurate with funding levels and urged more support.  We talked about additional monies being secured and levies on hotels (the alternative bedroom tax) being explored. We agreed that 56 organisations sharing one pot of money was not the best way to achieve this. However now, we are looking at increased levels of applications from areas such as sport and heritage, and arts organisations barred from making any application at all. Will this improve the sustainability of our sector and energise the flagging resilience of our community of practitioners? Will this the audiences and participants of smaller, perhaps more niche operations, maintained or will they too be deemed no longer "investment ready"? 
If one advocates a culturally democratic model and then excludes because an organisation is simply not big enough, can it really be democratic? Can equality of opportunity be afforded to those who arbitrarily become automatically excluded? Does this model ensure the basic human right to participate in the cultural life of our society as declared by Article 27 of UN Declaration of Human Rights is protected... “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts..."

The tension between ‘Culture as a vehicle for economic growth’ and ‘Culture as a tool for integration and inclusiveness’ (as explored in the Culture Agenda 21 upon which "A City Imaginging" has drawn some of its orientation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_21_for_culture) has moved beyond expensive signature buildings in many cities’ centres, often now, decentralising cultural facilities to neighbourhoods and to the aesthetic and symbolic importance of public space, as well as its potential for cultural participation. Furthermore, to paraphrase further this one EESC report, it is understood that the transformation of our metropolitan cultural space in particular requires not only investment in hard infrastructure, but also in soft skills and competences generated by education, lifelong learning and creative practices.
The soft skills of artists, directors, facilitators, actors, writers, poets, painters, dancers, singers, sculptors, film makers... the soft hearts of people who always strive to see the best and assist the world to explore what it is to be alive, to have dreams and ambitions and concerns. The community of resilience and courage that gets knock-back after knock-back but still comes together when people need help and support. Like on Saturday, when a multitude, across the whole arts spectrum, congregated to say farewell to a trusted friend who was taken far too soon and to support colleagues and express that camaraderie in the face of tragedy.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The arts make a world of difference

The developed world has a range of competing aspirations for society and economy- -but are we here in Northern Ireland starting to drift away from that mainstream determination and recognition that the arts are good in and of themselves and that as such they should be supported. Are we in danger here, of being too driven by what some call hyper-instrumentalisation, which presupposes that the arts will have a set of predetermined impacts and should be funded on its ability to deliver just that? Or can we maintain an appropriate space to allow artistic skills, sensibilities and vision to flourish AND be able to harness that power to also achieve social benefit? These are the questions that really strike a chord - not just to me, here, at this time, but right across the globe!

Whilst often debated, the hard reality for the 5000 + arts workers in NI and the many hundreds of organisations, big but more commonly very small, who all strive to offer the arts to as wide an audience and a participating population as possible, that their reality is that might take incredible skill and technique to make art, but actually securing that platform through finding the necessary resources is an art form in itself and one that is increasingly competitive and less rewarding due to funding cuts and another wave of local austerity and shifting priorities.

In this regard, whilst many organisations have been gearing up for a range of new seasons of work and events, the quiet development of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland 5 Year plan has been under-way. This plan, to be further developed over the coming 6 months, will offer all of us the chance to offer opinion and shape the argument for how we develop the arts and indeed maintain the meagre provision that we have.

By way of contrast, take a wider look around today. In Scotland, simultaneously developing its own Strategy and England, also reviewing its strategic outlook for the years ahead, the conversation seems still to hinge on how to support “new” and maintain “old”. Not so much protecting any sense of vested interests but having the flexibility to support opportunity. But of course, the reality is that without serious injections of public subsidy – there will be a nasty trade-off between one and the other. We have seem this time and after and indeed in the last local funding rounds here, we have witnessed something of the same where a zero sum game, with ever fewer resource options means a constant competition creating winners and losers.

Look at Australia. With 26 years of unbroken economic growth and prosperity now suggesting that Australia is in fact the second wealthiest nation on the planet after Switzerland (of course). And yet, arts grant in aid has not kept pace, with the most significant form of federal support increasing to around 177 million Australian dollars (£100 million) in the last fiscal year, up only 8 percent from 2011.  But Australia actually spends about 6Billion AUSD on arts and cultural budgets across local, federal and national government,  so it’s clear that the flexibility and the support to smaller agencies via grant-in-aid processes, outside the “majors” (as the largest arts organisations are referred to in Australia) is increasingly under pressure too. Although spending has stabilised after 2015 and a bonfire of organisations, there are massive challenges for the art organisations and the communities of practice and audiences that they support out there. Starting to catch my drift? You can read more here https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/02/arts/australia-performing-arts-funding.html

Elsewhere in Australia, Economist David Throsby argues that governments should remain committed to strong cultural policies in his Platfrom Paper Art Politics and Money, published by Currency House http://www.currencyhouse.org.au/node/264. Throsby is a distinguished Professor of Economics at Macquarie University, in Sydney. Over recent years he has traced what he calls the “economisation” of cultural policy across the globe. Expenditure on cultural activities by governments is, he observes, now primarily justified in terms of expected economic outputs. While recognising the significant economic benefits of cultural activity can of course help bolster the case for government spending, Throsby argues it should not act as the ultimate reason for that support. Instead, the “core creative arts” of literature, music, performing arts and visual arts, should be valued, first and foremost, as public goods in themselves.

And, just next door, albeit a few thousand miles south east, a re-dedication to the arts is also under way in Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud – New Zealand.

We live in a country abundant in creativity. As the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, and as Prime Minister, I want to make sure the arts are accessible to all, that the arts are seen as a viable career for our young people and that everyone, especially our decision makers, appreciate how the arts - and all that sits alongside them - truly enrich our lives.

So writes Jacinda Ardern today in a press release. She is New Zealand's Prime Minister and Minister for the Arts, Culture and Heritage. Imagine, a dual role, First Minister and Minister for Culture - in NI of course, we have neither!! . She goes on to say that:

I want to see a country where the creativity and joy that comes from the arts is available to the many, not reserved for a privileged few. I want to see a country where the arts flourish and breathe life into, well, everyday life.  I want to see a country where the arts are available to us all and help us express ourselves as unique individuals, brought together in diverse communities.

I believe the arts and creativity are integral and inseparable parts of what it is to be human.
It concerns me that a mind-set still persists in which only those things that can be counted matter, and things not easily quantified are too quickly discarded.
We’ve instructed Treasury to include cultural well-being as a core component of the new Living Standards Framework. From Budget 2019: The Wellbeing Budget, we’ll be using this framework in all our decision making.  It will be the world’s first wellbeing budget. And we’ve got a Bill in the House that will see the four well-beings reinserted into to the Local Government Act, ensuring councils deliver social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes to their communities.


Closer to home, former Watershed Chief Executive Dick Penny stressed he is “more excited than ever” about working in Bristol as he leaves his role of 20 years and heads a new Watershed venture aimed at creating growth in the city.

Mr Penny says culture in Bristol is booming. He is of course right, but some of the major cultural infrastructure has been pummelled, losing in some organisations’ cases 65% of funding in just one decision. Having run Watershed for 20 years, he’s starting a subsidiary company called Ventures, a project to help address challenges inherent in current funding arrangements.

In his conversation with Arts Professional and looking at public funding in general, Penny stressed that the pre-occupation with “constantly redrawing the rules of engagement” is a constant issue.

“There’s a push from the politicians to constantly fund something new. And what we really need is sustainable, long-term development. That’s how you build inclusion – because people who are excluded need to understand how they can get involved,” he said.

“If you keep changing the rules it’s bloody difficult for the people who are on the inside, and it becomes impossible for anyone on the outside.”

Using the Creative Industries Sector Deal as an example, Penny welcomed the contents but also expressed concern “We all know in the cultural and creative sector it’s a lot of freelancers and micro-work – so the historic industrial metrics don’t fit the new creative knowledge industry,” he said. “There’s a mismatch between the way funding is allocated and what you want to apply the funding to – and the funding agencies get caught in the middle of that.” Adding that “if you slavishly follow those and don’t look at the world you’re operating in then you can end up being less engaged and valuable than you could be”.
https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/arts-organisations-must-look-beyond-funders-goals

So, just scanning the horizon in the arts from Belfast to Edinburgh, Bristol, Sydney and Auckland, the challenges are constant, steep and ever present – funding, measuring the wrong thing, not supporting new initiatives and risks, being too instrumental and shifting the goal posts for populations and arts providers alike.

These are challenges.

We are part of that global conversation but we need more local voices to affect and strengthen the direction that the arts take over the coming years. So, if you haven’t already, offer your opinions to the Arts Council 5 year plan process and watch this space for further opportunities to affect future policy. 

The arts matter, here, there and everywhere.