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.

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