Monday, 23 March 2015

winners and losers

There has been celebration for Community Arts Partnership this week.  On Sunday and Monday we saw the impact our work in communities of interest and place both young and old, right across Northern Ireland.  In offering of the Seamus Heaney Awards for New Writing and Achievement, Community Arts Partnership was given a tremendous opportunity to recognize not only the inspiration our late and much lamented Nobel laureate offers us but also the tremendous interest in making poetry that exists here. On Sunday and Monday we heard the impact of the work as we listened to the performances of poets from right across Northern Ireland. CAP gives an opportunity, for many, perhaps for the very first time, to see their work published and celebrated. Stephanie Conn’s poem Lavender Fields, was selected for the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.  Then on Monday in a packed Ulster Hall 30 schools from every corner of Northern Ireland from primary, post primary, secondary and grammar, not only applauded the performances of their peers but came together with the sole purpose of celebrating poetry, celebrating creativity, celebrating the making of something new.  Almost 1,000 young people joined together to support each other in recognizing the achievement creating something from thin air, something that resonates with their identity, their speech, their ambitions, perhaps even their fears. The award was given to Grange Primary School from Kilkeel in County Down.  They wrote with incredible insight, creating haikus and verse, offering an insight into the sheer exuberance of creativity that our young people have and their ability to make simple yet powerfully evocative statements about what they value in their lives, in their homes and in their imaginations.
What we saw at the Duncairn Cultural Centre on Sunday and in the Ulster Hall on Monday was how powerfully the arts connect with people. These two events signify how deeply the arts matter to the public in Northern Ireland.
It is so difficult to look at the cuts that have had to be meted out across the sector.  There have been winners, there have been losers; among them my friend and colleague Martin Lynch, a member of Community Arts Partnership board, and celebrated trail-blazer for the development of community arts locally. He has seen his own organisation cut by 100 percent.  There are other organizations that have not been offered any further revenue funding too. There are some that have seen some rises and indeed, some receiving funding for the very first time.

Many recognise that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s role in this has been a difficult one, hamstrung by swingeing cuts that has seen the revenue budget for the arts shrink to levels not seen for decades. There will be funding alternatives available to some I'm sure. But for others, it will mean very hard decisions.

But as I have said repeatedly in this blog, we need to have the cause for the arts understood by our politicians. They must start to recognise that the arts affect so many aspects of our lives, of the lives of normal people.

For those 1,000 children in the Ulster Hall who performed and cheered and had their poetry published on Monday in the “Way With Words” anthology, the transforming effect of the arts was clear to see. For the winners of the Seamus Heaney Awards, to feel such recognition will undoubtedly be a springboard to greater things. For so many of us, the smallest act of alchemy, making something new that didn’t exist before, is a moment that lives long in our consciousness. It changes our understanding and gives us the confidence to make our mark.

Those opportunities become more scarce with every percentage cut from the arts budget and that reduces the potential of this place for each and every one of us.
When the historian searches for clues about a place, a society, a time, they look for cultural artefacts. The poems, books, plays and paintings that reflect so much of who we are and how we live. To reduce this resource now, is to reduce the futures understanding of us all as well. We all lose, in this generation and for generations to come.
Ask the folks that canvass your doorstep in the coming weeks what the arts mean to them. And tell them what they mean to you

The arts matter.

Monday, 2 March 2015

What's in a name?

In 1999, a series of new government departments was created under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement (The Belfast Agreement). On 2nd December 1999, a new minister was appointed to a department called DCAL, Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure, Michael McGimpsey, and thus began a new arrangement to support the arts in Northern Ireland. Of course, we had various suspensions along the way and direct rule ministers and short-term policies and longer term strategies but always there was a department that stood, full-square, in support of the arts.

It was no coincidence that on 22nd of that December, New Belfast Community Arts Initiative (CAP's parent organisation) was constituted by a group of visionary community arts folk who knew implicitly, that encouraging more communities to engage in creative dialogue could only strengthen the potential for a truly shared future in Belfast. 

After this Easter however, the process to see the Department of Cultural Arts and Leisure subsumed into the Department for Communities will begin.

But should that matter?

Should we not take the First Minister's word into account when he says that no functions were being done away with, and "no policies terminated" as a result of the changes. Might the arts, as the smallest budget area by far, instead of being reduced to a mere detail in a longer list of budgetary and policy areas, be rightfully recognised as giving reflection and expression to the contested cultural momentum that is Northern Ireland??

Or does it feel like a diminution of the role of the arts not to have a dedicated minister?

Is it a lessening of the role of the arts in society not to have a department dedicated to their encouragement?

Should we be concerned that only Northern Ireland has government departments where arts or creativity are not mentioned in the title? The Republic, England, Scotland...well, come to your own decision.

As a recent appointee to the Ministerial Arts Advisory Forum, I will continue to petition that the arts need to be recognised and supported. Even if there was always going to be financial challenge, the retention of the word 'art' in the title of the department has at least some connotation of its importance. Don't get me wrong, I am happy that 'Community' as a word has been embraced and perhaps it would be far too progressive a move for all involved to have announced a Department for Community Arts and Social Development? The semantics of naming and the reality of championing the arts are very different things. But at the moment, while budgets dwindle and words disappear from titles, are we all correct to assume that the arts have never been under such threat?

Yet Mr Robinson seems to have considered, momentarily, naming it, the Department for Community Arts but then unfortunately, he reconsiders: let's refer to what he said on Tuesday morning in response to a question in the Assembly:

However, if one were to look at the Department for Communities and add "arts" to the title, is the Member saying that that is more important than housing; urban regeneration; the Social Security Agency; child maintenance services; the voluntary and community sector; museums; libraries; creativity and architecture; language; cultural diversity; sport; the Public Record Office; employment services; local government; the social investment fund; and racial equality? I could go on and on. If the argument is that arts is more important than all those issues, the Member can ask the question, but I do not believe that it is more important than many of those issues. That is why a generic title serves the Department much better.
I think perhaps that this statement sums up what the First Minister and by implication, others, think about the arts: that they [the arts] are not so important; certainly no more important than a whole raft of the specific functions of a government or a civil service. Perhaps this is the very point. The Arts (and perhaos sport for that matter) are not functions of government - they are not part of a social contract for services anticipated to be delivered by the state. Rather, the arts are the oldest forms of human expression, so integral to being alive as to be a completely vital aspect of living. To be so reduced as to become a mere transaction, is to fail to have any understanding of the value of the arts and the role that the arts play in society. 

While locally, our policy makers may view the arts as lacking significance, in our neighbouring states, cultural champions are challenging policy-makers and those who would reduce funding, to think more connectedly about the arts, examining the value that the arts can bring, harnessing the power that the arts hold, and realising the impact that creativity offers an economy.

In GB, the Warwick Commission's final report, Enriching Britain:Culture, Creativity and Growth, was launched last month.  As Vikki Heywood CBE, Chairman of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value put it:
The key message …is that the government and the cultural and creative industries need to take a united and coherent approach that guarantees equal access for everyone to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life. There are barriers and inequalities in Britain today that prevent this from being a universal human right. This is bad for business and bad for society

The Arts Matter in Northern Ireland, just as they matter across the developed and developing world. They are our  human right, under Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights As a guide to the 'health' of any place, the arts act as a pulse.

Our pulse is weakening...