Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Nolan - and the Arts Council in year cuts

I listened to the Steven Nolan Show on my way into work this Monday. Nolan talks of the cuts to 37 arts organisations by the Arts Council and then talks to a couple of folk. I heard the measured, supportive advocacy of Brendan Mulgrew (nice one Brendan) and his adversary called Jeffrey. I winced as this fully-paid-up free-marketeer, all shrill and sneer, chastised the arts and the public subvention of culture. His mocking tone ran something like this:  if the arts are so good, why can't they raise enough money for themselves without tax payers support???

Poor old, culturally-impoverished Jeffrey perhaps doesn't know what it is to enjoy the arts? If he has an interest in economics, perhaps he might be a supporter? Maybe, he doesn't understand that over 3,500 people work in this industry, making it one of the largest indigenous industries in Northern Ireland? Or that in the big, bad world, the relationship between economics and the arts, pitches nation against nation, tax break against tax break, and subvention against you guessed it....all trying to land the next Game of Thrones? Or to entice a top-class theatre to open up (like the ones we already have here!!), so that people attached to large corporations enjoy living in the place that they bring inward investment into!

This Jeffrey, it seems, doesn't know of the very necessary work the arts does for populations that cannot afford the fur coat (the allusion with which he even mocks middle-class concert-attenders). Many people in fact cannot afford anything much at all. Throughout boom or bust, welfare reform fines or austerity, property-boom or bust, some 1 in 5 of our local population remain some of the most disadvantaged people in Europe. These are the people most likely supported by community arts projects and by CAP in particular.

People in the highest 20% of disadvantage in NI have reduced life expectancies, chronic health issues, poor educational attainment, endemic unemployment and a range of ensuing social problems. Jeffrey would deny them the arts as well. Unless they pay, from their new universal benefit perhaps, which is to be reduced of course as well.

And what of the arts and cultural work that supports children and young people, who might just flourish into the novelist, poet, musician or actor of tomorrow. Jeffrey doesn't seem to value the arts anyway, so doesn't really care. Presumably, he could live in a world where we have no creative ambition. A world without Heaney, Hewitt, McGuckian or Morissey, no Branagh, Hinds or Neeson, Tometly or Brennan, no Galway, Douglas, no Blackshaw, Luke. No Sally Young!

This Jeffrey, advocates no public subvention, for arts, culture (even the BBC) instead his idea is that profit-making commercial organisations should pay and trusts and foundations. Why private shareholders of organisations bent on profit should be asked to pay for the public's access to the arts doesn't seem to fit in Jeffreys world view - he doesn't think the work arts organisations do has any value anyway. I don't see a long queue of commercial organisations at my door waiting to support arts facilitators developing programmes for people with dementia, or for those struggling with paying bills. They're not exactly queueing up to help the orchestra either mind you!!

Bear in mind folks the UK tax-payer stumped up £850,000,000,000 for the banking sector. That's £850 billion Jeffrey. You may have forgotten that piece of public subvention! They're getting that money back...at some stage...perhaps...

But, what I think Jeffrey means is that someone else should pay, but definitely not him, nor indeed in his name!!! And of course, for the so-called "biggest show in the country", any exasperated commentary is good commentary. It doesn't matter if they know anything about the subject so long as they can shriek or be shrill!!

In Jeffrey's world, there would be no colour, no flair, no variety, no nuance. No festivals or events, save for those that reflect the corporate largesse of We Own Everything PLC. Civility itself would be reduced to the financial exchange between someone who has not and someone who has and who is exploiting that position, unencumbered by any notions like "societal good" or "benefiting long-term."

But Jeffrey is wrong -  the arts and culture go right to the heart of a society. They are the reflections of who we are as individuals, as a collective, as a people and as a place. They also give leadership to a vision of what life might mean, both good and bad. In any case, the health of culture and the arts is a tremendous barometer of how well a place is doing. Happy citizens, by utilising new measures of well-being, invariably live in countries that also have flourishing arts sectors. Those places are bursting with ideas and creative energy, with an array of creative and intellectual pursuits that can engage and challenge and sustain. Jeffrey doesn't want that for Northern Ireland. He's happy that we score the lowest per capita expenditure on the arts in the UK and Ireland. In fact, in Europe, only a handful compete to be worse at funding the arts.

Oh, I just looked Jeffrey up - he's a business consultant, commenting on the arts. Perhaps I shouldn't chastise him because he's being asked to comment on something that he isn't at all qualified to do.

In any case...

A Jeffrey's world seems a drab place - where only what you can buy dictates how you must live. And god help you if you can't buy - because Jeffrey won't.




  1. Game, set and match to Conor!

    Murdo Murray, HLF Catalyst Programme Coordinator - "Investing in Northern Ireland's Heritage", Northern Ireland Environment Link

  2. ... so I guess Jeffrey isn't a big GoT fan then, Conor!

    Seriously though, the film and tv production industry might still be a fledgling one here, but didn't Game of Thrones arrive in Belfast courtesy of government funding via Northern Ireland Screen? I'm no economist, but watching from the side lines the potential (and by now no doubt expected) growth of this particular industry, combined with its current and future value to the tourism sector must be significant. The opportunities for local businesses should demonstrate that this and other aspects of the arts need to be nourished, not slowly starved. I didn't hear the interview, but it sounds as though Jeffrey is trying to totally separate art and business and hint that the former drains the economy while the latter grows it. But if an industry is arts-based, surely this doesn't make good business sense anyway?

    As you say, without access to arts funding many people here of all ages, races and religions will be cheated of the opportunity to express themselves and experience the richness of creating something with their hands, head or voice - be it a piece of craft, a poem or a song. This is a sad state of affairs, of which we have had our fair share in NI.

    Wouldn't it also be sad if we were all turned into Jeffreys.