Tuesday, 27 January 2015

An Open Letter to the Minister for Finance and Personnel

27th January, 2015

Dear Minister Hamilton, Minister for Finance and Personnel

I wish to represent to you as a matter of urgency, a reflection on the recent budget allocation to the Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) in relation to arts funding. Despite a huge effort on behalf of the arts by ordinary members of the public and arts practitioners, organisations and community groups, to mobilise an historically unprecedented level of response to a draft budgetary process, it seems our humble petition has fallen on deaf ears. Such a mobilisation of support reflects the centrality of the arts in Northern Irish society and the recognition that we cannot afford not to invest in the current and future provision of creativity if we are to become an innovation-led knowledge-based economy. In reality, education and health budgets have been prioritised, and yet there is no other area of civic engagement better equipped to support the complex needs of both health and education than the arts. If, as a sector, we have failed to represent adequately the beneficial impacts of the arts, perhaps an impartial, economy-focused organisation might assist. A report from OECD just two years ago stresses:  
We argue that the main justification for arts education is clearly the acquisition of artistic skills …By artistic skills, we mean not only the technical skills developed in different arts forms (playing an instrument, composing a piece, dancing, choreographing, painting and drawing, acting, etc.) but also the habits of mind and behaviour that are developed in the arts. Arts education matters because people trained in the arts play a significant role in the innovation process in OECD countries: the arts should undoubtedly be one dimension of a country’s innovation strategy.
© OECD 2013 Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education (Winner, Goldstein and Vincent-Lancrin, 2013).

The same report spells out in its introduction:
In knowledge-based societies, innovation is a key engine of economic growth, and arts education is increasingly considered as a means to foster the skills and attitudes that innovation requires, beyond and above artistic skills and cultural sensitivity.
© OECD 2013 Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education (Winner, Goldstein and Vincent-Lancrin, 2013).

In N Ireland currently, through the variety of expert formal and informal creative arts and engagement programmes, we support physical and mental well-being and develop the creative and intellectual skills of participants, beneficiaries and students. We have a creative infrastructure that produces success, across formal and informal education, communities and socio-economic circumstance.  But this already financially hard-pressed sector is now under threat of imminent decline and potential collapse.

As Minister charged with the economic well-being of our society, the assertions of an organisation like the OECD must surely carry some weight. If, as a member of the OECD, we are looking to develop an innovation-based economy, capable of attracting the leading creative organisations, not just in the arts per se, but across all areas of human endeavour, we would do well to follow OECD advice: OECD (2010), The OECD Innovation Strategy. Getting a Head Start on Tomorrow and OECD (2012), Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives: A Strategic Approach to Skills Policies, both of which point to the arts having a role in developing a necessary creative faculty within innovation-based societies.

As you are no doubt aware, despite this single largest representation of responses from any one sector to the recent Draft Budget, the arts budget is facing a cut in excess of 10%.  The reality that the budget to arts practice and participation will be cut more significantly than the overall DCAL departmental budget is not lost on either core clients of the Arts Council, whose budgets have already been cut by 5% in year. Nor indeed, will this government allocation be lost on the tens of thousands who represented their position though response and petition, that there should be no further cuts to the arts.

Whilst there may be some that are bewildered  that having received such a mandate, that some accommodation couldn’t be afforded, others like myself are seeking guidance as to how to support government decision-making  regarding the veracity of arts and the invaluable support that community arts in particular and arts practice in general gives to our local population. Once again, I call on the OECD documentation. Where they struggled to find a profundity of evidence of a causal link, the For Art’s Sake authors offered this point to policymakers:
Ultimately, however, the arts are an essential part of human heritage and of what makes us human…ART FOR ART’S SAKE? OVERVIEW 15 © OECD 2013

Given the extraordinary level of response from ordinary people, practitioners and organisations, I feel mandated to ask that the budget for the arts be re-instated, as per the wishes of 23,000 responses, (as acknowledged by DCAL Minister Ní Chuilín) and indeed that the arts, and their educative and social benefits, be acknowledged as a key element to the development of the N Irish economy and society and that the terms "Arts" be retained in any new departmental title.

Yours sincerely

Conor Shields


  1. Aren't you worried that the only argument for government funding of the arts you feel 'exercised' to use are arguments funded by government for government? Doesn't that seem odd to you? Aren't artists at liberty not to share the economic models or visions of current 'state' incumbents?

  2. I used that argument because, probably like yourself, we responded to the draft budget with a detailed document on the range of impacts. The areas I chose to highlight here were more to chime with a minister's speech which would undoubtedly talk about all these things (of which he did indeed). I used the OECD arguments also because the Minister seems to be a fan, cheerleading on corp tax etc.
    As to your other comment/question, I'm not quite picking up on your meaning but there are some interesting points to make perhaps.
    The duality, some might hold dialectical position of supporting a range of outcomes from any instrumentalised practice, is at base, fundamental to the inherent tensions in working dialogically. The restriction of freedom of artist's practice might be perceived as a corollary to this mode of working but if managed and indeed, conceptualised adequately before any action, there should not be an impact on artistic freedom. Indeed, any subsequent analysis should be couched in modes of reflective practice, that can mediate between these interpolated demands on process and outcome.
    If however, if you merely infer that any artist can in fact exercise their liberty not to agree with economic policy - well of course.