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.