Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Not tilting at windmills

Across the last weeks, everyone in the arts has been running around at a frantic pace.  At this time of year generally, with the on-coming jangle of sleigh-bells heralding a well-earned rest, the increasingly highly competitive process of making application to funders, not least the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, is well under-way. But this year, and indeed, at this very time, the situation has shifted. The pace is upped. The stakes are far higher. For some, it is a matter of survival, for others, perhaps extinction.

We are not titling at windmills here. 
The challenges are real and the outcomes decisive. "Its the economy stupid" might be better translated as "its our stupid economy". There is a very clear line from Westminster, through to the Assembly that then moves through local departments and then trickles through publicly funded organisations until it reaches the communities that require the support. This financial lifeblood is under threat from right at the source and there are many who would seek to dam and divert the flow of public funds to various areas at various points thereafter. Christmas might be the 25th, but the final day for receipt of Draft Budget Responses is the 29th of December. Handy eh?

Around the source of our public subvention, in No11, the Treasury, Whitehall, plans are already afoot to deny the mathematics that have underpinned the Barnett formula. The Conservative government, fresh on the heels of a narrow no vote in Scotland, seem to be on a path to penalise "all the regions" that have monies calculated via Barnett, that afford those areas more because they actually require more due to their socio-economic circumstance. Rolling back on the Barnett formula will have almost immediate impacts on how much less we receive. Added to that, our public representatives, at least those in the 5 executive parties of the Assembly,  have to factor in what effect Welfare Reform and penalties will have and how to pay for a massive tax cut to business via Corporation tax-raising legislation. We will know our fate in early December in this regard ie if the overall budget will amount to the same.
But we already know where the cuts may fall in the overall draft budget and we now know what the draft DCAL Budget is too.

Northern Ireland needs to hang on to the £10.5 billion that we receive at the very least. That is the same amount that we have received for that last 4 years and we all know that everything is getting dearer, slowly, but steadily. So in real terms we are receiving less and less. With additional spending in tax breaks and penalties, we are all facing big cuts, ring-fenced or not.

But with the new DCAL budget The principal funder of the arts, ACNI stands to lose 11.1% of exchequer funding by my calculations below. When you hear the term decimated that is what is happening to arts spend locally. 

Now, the Arts Council reckon that the distribution of exchequer funds to the arts works out at 13p per person per week. Whilst this is a shockingly low amount, capable of buying very little today, the comparisons are illuminating too. Say for a family of 4. Just 50p is the allocated ratio per week to support the arts but for health and social services, this is more like £200. Now we know that hospitals and doctors save lives, and all of us have benefitted from universal health care, free at the point of delivery but the arts sustain our health and well-being in so many ways.

The arts, which are highly effective promoters not only of creative excellence but employment, social cohesion, civic participation, economic growth and our sense of well-being, play a prominent role in many of our best-loved events. Northern Ireland already has, by some margin, the lowest per-capita spend on the arts across Great Britain, N Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at one hundredth of 1% (0.01%) of all exchequer subvention. The compounding effect of any further withdrawals of exchequer funding would impact increasingly negatively not only on local and national audiences and participation but our international tourism offer as well. The arts support a deep, local creative heritage whilst enabling a broad global appeal and in so doing, are fundamental in offering vibrant, authentic cultural experiences to citizen and visitor alike. 

I was speaking at a Rural Community Forum on Monday and indeed will be attending more of CAP's research forums in December and was struck with just how much the arts mean to people and how deeply the impact of the arts is felt in so many communities right across the region.  Community groups, arts development officers, artists and community leaders all recognising the impact that the arts make. Not just the intrinsic power to make and create but to harness that the solving problems and highlighting issues in rural areas like social isolation, suicide, low educational attainment, mental health services, supporting detached youth etc. Indeed, this 5 hour forum underlined just how diverse the arts were in both their variety of forms and practice but also their deep and lasting impact. The arts are changing lives, offering development and employment and are supporting people everyday.

Our community activists, resourceful and socially aware,  are all seeking change and all recognise the power that the arts hold. But again, we all shared a sense of despair that the little funding that makes its way to the arts at grass roots level is now even more at threat.  

But perhaps we should not despair whilst we still have a change to affect the funding allocation. 
The DCAL budget highlights the community impact of libraries and has accordingly sought to protect that budget by passing on higher cuts elsewhere. But we know that community arts has an even greater impact on our communities, working with people where they are located, supporting their choices in design and production and listening intently to the issues and ideas that come from our communities. CAP alone has worked with over 350 community organisations and 180 schools across Northern Ireland in the last 3 years. In fact, alongside this we have a dedicated Intercultural Support Programme (PICAS), a dedicated disability arts programme (Side by Side), a dedicated dementia research programme, a dedicated rural community arts research programme and an international community culture research initiative. We also have the most used e-news resource in Northern Ireland for the arts with a website that has over 7 million hits years on year. If that isn't community reach I don't know what is. So, why is that libraries are protected when community arts are not. I would urge you when you are making your consultation response to this budget to bear that in mind and maybe point that out to our officials in the Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The House of Cards

The TV show a House of Cards illustrated a political world of shady  manoeuvre, deals within deals, conversations beyond negotiations and a myriad of strategic gambits all at play at any time, where an arch cynic is always positioned in a more advantageous place than anyone naive enough to actually believe in something. Now, the very British Francis Urquhart of 1990 has given way to the all-American Frank Underwood, but the plot stubbornly underlines that little changes.

As we wait with baited breath for some positive outcome to talks and some sense of funding surety to be given to whole raft of areas, the Arts, all one tenth of 1% of it (ie 0.1% of total exchequer funding), are sitting blinking at spreadsheets showing cuts which may equate to 15% at the very least . So the Arts Council of Northern Ireland estimates, based on the funding uncertainty coming from Stormont. But at least ACNI are asking organisations still to register their ambition and bid for what they need. In today's environment, that is brave and to be welcomed.

And in this funding and political inertia, many voices can be heard offering advice and encouragement, like the profound positivism of the Make it Work campaign, urging our political class to respond to a public that desperately wants them to sort this out, for all our sakes.

And the arts community is looking for opportunities to state its case and support positivism.

But then there are those who offer the "I told you so" analysis of arts funding. Like the sausage salesman last weekend shouting at me at the UUP Party conference, thanks to Stratagem's #coffeetalk fringe lobby, crowing that the arts had to develop new ways to sustain themselves and couldn't just
ask for funding. But it transpires that his employer had announced earlier this year news of receiving almost £250k of public funding (almost half of the money that the arts have to return this year!). That's a highly profitable and award-winning sausage company, receiving public subsidy, lecturing an arts advocate about funding. It may illustrate a double standard.

"You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment"

And then there are those who know better, insisting that funding should give way to experimental forms of "repayable finance". Keen to assert that the arts become "investment ready" these voices go on to blame the arts for not "honestly" reflecting on their plight and finding ways to do it differently and better.
Really? Honestly??
Now there may be many who might fail to see the virtue in kicking someone when they're down but it is clear that when seeking to assist someone in a vulnerable situation, one might start by making things better and perhaps offering encouragement.

"You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment"

To the positive voices, who recognise that in this political dog's dinner, we have the right to assert the primacy of democratic values and the rational, rights-based  protection of quality of life and access to services that should flow from our social contract we say, "Hear Hear!" If there is grant-aid using public funds, why should it not go to charities that are involved in creating arts for public benefit ? Should the arts, receiving just a 1,000th of the block grant in exchequer funding not be allowed to hold onto that meagre 0.1% of funding?? In fact, should a sector that that creates 4% of GDP from 0.1% of public investment, not be supported further.

And in particular, community arts organisations that support communities marginalised by socio-economic situation, physical or intellectual challenges or a range of life challenges, by promoting interculturalism, inter-community relations and socially inclusive programmes, should they not be further supported again to promote this crucial area of work?

Arts funding is an investment in optimism. It is an investment in a society, in a project that is as various as it is creative, as colourful as it is melodic, as hopeful as it is realistic. It is an investment in the future, valuing creativity as the primary human instinct that sets us apart and supports every aspect of our lives. Think of how central creativity is to all of us and the connection it makes - think of the first time you heard your child sing, or her first painting, or the first time you read your favourite book, or that moment when you finally understood why we dance! Or the elegy that still reminds you of a moment or a someone, or the how you're transported to that inside of a moment when you hear THAT song, even the first bars of it!

Now understand what it feels like to have your first poem published. Or create your first piece of pottery, or print, or song or painting. Should we all not know how that feels? 

And many would say the enterprise of art making is more expressive and more honest than much of our modern life. And for those who think creativity is a luxury, ask the top CEOs of large scale industries what they consider to be the top attribute of their workforces - creativity. Americans for the Arts shows that low-income students who are highly engaged in the arts are more than twice as likely to graduate from college as their peers with no arts education and the Conference Board's joint "Ready to Innovate" report shows that 72 percent of business leaders say that creativity is the number one skill they look for when hiring. These new approaches to problem solving, to innovation, to development across a whole range of areas are extensions of artistic exploration and imagining. The behaviours we learn from artists are some of the most beneficial and applicable life-skills we can have.

But here and now, as these cards are positioned to stand, side by side, then one on top of the other, we are reminded of the shared ecology of the local arts sector. Fragile and interdependent, most arts organisations are in contact with each other, searching for ways to protect hard-won gains and being collegiate and co-ordinated in their approach.
And for years, the logic ran that if this House of Cards were to lose one particular card, then the pyramid might fall. But, perhaps now one card is so impossibly weighed down as to threaten that fundamental logic. Perhaps...

"You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment"

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A thousand cuts - seconds out, round 2

Over the weekend, any sense of the unreality of funding cuts was absolutely and utterly dispelled with the shock news from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board - that only those events deemed to have an international profile, would receive funding (with no new applications) and the smaller Tourism Innovation Fund wouldn't operate at all. Wallop!!

Cue shock, anger, disbelief, panic and media hysteria.

The NITB announcement

Whilst some may have momentarily over-indulged in "sabre-rattling" by playing dead, (immediately announcing the cancellation of events almost a year away) - all organisations that count on that funding support now have to look long and hard at their ability to programme events - events that underpin the development of this society for all of us and indeed, form our public and international face for any visitor to these shores.

Once again, it is so clear to see that the amount of money that is provided to the arts, compared to other areas of public funding, is relatively tiny but has incredible impact. Take this NITB Tourism Innovation Fund as an example; it supports a whole range of events, not just artistic, but sporting and more tourist-related as well for around £1.1M. With the big International Fund, that rises to about £2.5M. That money is returned to the local economy many times over.

Look at Culture Night (Belfast) as an example. CNB reckons that £2M is generated in local expenditure on that one night, a 66:1 ratio of return that NITB.

The Tourist Board used to reckon that tourism accounted for 5% of GDP, and was looking to grow that to something like the 13% earned in Wales. That would mean taking the earnings from £1.2 Billion to £3.3 billion (pro rated). £2.5 million doesn't seem so much now does it?

But if we do not have the events, we cannot have the multiplier.

So, look at it the other way round. If the £30,000 given to Culture Night, supports £2,000,000 in spend then, pro rata, for the overall cancellation of investment of £1.1 million, we lose £66 million to the local economy. And those figures are based on a one-night only event, aimed at families, that insists on all activities being free of charge! The multiplying factor could be much greater across other events, delivering hotel stays, additional travel etc etc. So, minister Foster may have just cost the local economy, conservatively (don't excuse the pun), over £66,000,000 at the stroke of a pen!

And it's the arbitrariness, it's the easy manner with which all this is done that also is so shocking. The blind-side, the sucker punch! A minister may dab  crocodile tears from an eye, whilst further undermining the arts infrastructure that has been so hard-won. That 30 odd thousand pounds may not be much to a minister of state, but to Culture Night or Festival of Fools or to the Carnivale of Colours, it could be the difference between an event being viable or not. To others, smaller again, losing even half that may mean just throwing in the towel.

And then some will ask, where is the private sector, could they not put their hands in their pockets since they're making so much money out of it all? But to re-iterate, you need an event in the first place for anyone to benefit; socially, culturally or economically!! And what's more, the private sector also make applications to this funding and anticipate getting support for developing new tourist and cultural celebrations. So, if the private sector need to be publicly funded in this area, there is little hope of seeing a sustainable level of philanthropy coming from private pockets.

And now, coupled with the cuts that were announced to the core arts organisation some weeks ago, the additional body-punch of losing the events funds last week, where will the next head-shot come from? Much like a Frampton blitzkrieg, you don't have to wait too long for the next blow. At this time of year all arts organisations are about to put together their Arts Council annual application. We know there will be less. Judging from all the weather veins, a lot less. Bam! Thwak! A sector already reeling is on the ropes, pummelled from left and right. How many more hits can we take? How can we rally and come out fighting?

We will re-group. We will recognise that as a sector, the arts need to re-assert their power and their collective voice in this hard to win debate about funding. And we will assist everyone else to realise the relevance of the arts to all our lives.

The arts are not competing against Health or Education or Policing; artists are not fighting nurses, or police men for pay, or taking away life-saving resources from hospital wards: Most artists in Northern Ireland wouldn't even earn minimum wage across a year in any case. And arts organisations are not taking sides in any political tug of war. We are just ammunition in this bitter daily battle over public subsidy. .

Nobody is winning. Everyone in Northern Ireland is on the ropes The lives and opportunities of all 1.8 million of us are treated as the mere details in this political stalemate as "they" slog it out. And in the meantime, while the South East of England is appreciating a revival of fortunes, Northern Ireland's main source of assistance is pinned back at the same level of block grant for 5 years by the UK government.

We must stand together and develop a range of strategies to defend arts provision for everyone and use our creativity to highlight the plight of this society. Or we may lose a lot more than just money.

And rather depressingly, this is just round 2.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Days after Culture Night

So, the fizzing sparkle that is Culture Night is over for another year and the majestic immensity of that event is just being realised. On Friday night I tweeted that

Some 50,000 people voted with their feet, their hearts and their heads and came down to what people are calling the best Culture Night so far!  It grows every year. I have the great privilege of being able to count myself as one of the four people who formed the committee and brought the concept to life in Belfast, back in 2009.

Now, it's so wedded to us as a city, so much the weave and weft of what we regard as the life of this place but never taken for granted, because it is a thing of wonder. So, well done to all, committee, staffers, volunteers, artists and participants...and of course, the good folk who walk the streets and cheer and sing and create and support.

But it is that part of the fabric of things that Culture Night represents for the arts. Perhaps we don't have the fanfare of huge crowds, taking over the streets en masse but the arts are going on day and daily in every part of N Ireland. Communities of talents and wannabe geniuses, of art lovers and art makers, new and old, stars and newbies, working, attending, anticipating, enjoying. Totally captivated by the experience of creating and the joy of being entertained and educated in equal measure. The arts that permeate all walks of life. The creativity whose only boundary is imagination and energy, opportunity and ideas.

Belfast on Culture Night felt like any European city - a place at ease with itself, where the arts could be appreciated and crowds, huge crowds, could roam, happily intermingling, without a thought of why this was novel - it felt right, normal, comfortable -  and all those terms make it awesome for this place.

As cuts loom and threaten to diminish our creative horizons, it's brilliant to recognise that more and more people value the arts and the necessity that they represent to just feeling normal, to just living like any other place.

Everyone that I spoke to gladly signed the postcard and ticked the box YES - to the question "Do you support public funding for the arts?" . Without hesitation. Young and old. People tweeted, #lovetheartsni, people smiled and recognised the unique joy that the arts and participating in them brings.

But people also recognised that the threat to funding and the diminishing support of the fragile ecology of the arts was real.  And perhaps they are starting to recognise that we deserve to have access to thoughtful, inspiring, enriching opportunities. In fact, we deserve more. The future of this place needs more creativity at its very core.

So, Roll on the 18th September, 2015 - Culture Night 7. Hopefully all the organisations and individuals that supported the previous six will still be around to inspire.

Support your local artist. #lovetHEARTSni

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Culture costs

I received a beautiful piece of art the other day from an artist I know very well. The work, a visual arts piece, showed an arrangement of crayons forming a full colour spectrum with those tones converging and blending as they flow down the canvas to come together in one word at the bottom: DAD.

The artist of course, is my eleven-year old daughter and as a depiction of an artful connection with her father, it is just beautiful.
But such a direct, unambiguous statement about the relevance of creativity to how we relate to each other could be a metaphor for the potential centrality of art and its connection to all our lives.

In the doom-laden, Push Me-Pull You shrieking over recent weeks, it’s sometimes hard to recognise the arts as the existential motivator and reflector that they can be. The arguments about who gets what and who deserves most of our dwindling public purse tends to overlook just what a creative sector brings to this place. 

Take for example Culture Night, a celebration of every facet of ourselves from opera through to mask-making, fine arts and circus, punk rock and jazz dance and indeed the conviviality and essential, creative life-skill of cookery. And a load more in between. What Culture Night does, free of charge for all who participate, is show how truly accessible the arts are and how eminently enabled we are as a people, a place, a society to participate in that celebration.

But a lot of what Culture Night represents is hidden, as so much of the necessary logistics of arts organisation tends to be. Supporting over 200 events, through permissions, venues, equipment, marshalling, insurance, traffic management, artist selection, procurement, staging, lighting etc etc etc takes resources, real, actual money.

One night of free participation costs -  not so much in the grand scheme of things, but it requires investment.

So be it for the public subvention of the arts. To have a participative, accessible, inspiring, creative sector requires investment - real, actual money. Not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things – say £19 million out of a £10 billion budget- one fifth of one percent ...but significant in all that. If that quantum is at risk, then that access to the arts may be too.

If you have walk around Cathedral Quarter in Belfast during Culture Night you can see why 40,000 people last year revelled in the experience and celebrated the creativity of this place. Here - at every turn, something different, unique, entertaining and wonderful was on offer. At that precise moment, across so many towns and cities, that incredible culture offer was appreciated by hundreds of thousands of people, many of them experiencing the arts first hand, for first time. 

And so it goes for our beleaguered arts sector. There is so much on offer from a huge array of organisations, each specialising and supporting an area of creative participation and all dependant on public support and funding. Each of these organisations shares a passionate determination to engage us, the public, in the arts. We, as a society, deserve to be inspired, supported, challenged and assisted in deepening our understanding of the arts and the creative connection we can share with thousands of others. 

My eleven year old understands this. She knows that creativity is important. She knows it adds the colour to our lives. She loves the fact that she can share that joy with others. We all deserve it. And as a place, in difficult times, perhaps we need it more than ever.

Support your arts. Support your public services. Support Culture Night and all who make it what it is.
And, we’ll see you smiling and cheering on 19th September.