It wasn't that long ago, when a BBC reporter told me when I was being interviewed, not to use the term "austerity", as I had just done, and to use another term. That was 5 years ago. Now, the reality of austerity is on everybody's lips and the compounding effects of cuts are being felt across all sectors.
For those of us in the arts looking not just to support the people, schools, organisations and client groups we serve but to enhance that offering and service, the options continue to be challenging. Indeed, for the whole arts sector, staring down very likely cuts over successive budgets, the outlook isn’t good.
I’ve been trying to offer an assessment and range of considerations that organisations, especially those working in community-based arts, might wish to look at. There is a PowerPoint presentation available on the CAP website that outlines these areas of consideration.
Here, I just wish to amplify some of these areas and using the opportunity that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Sustainability programme presents, look to the future for organisations at this time
Making significant and permanent change to any arts organisation should really be painstakingly thought through. But at this time, with the axe poised to fall on funding, we perhaps do not have that luxury. But at least, through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Sustainability Programme, we might have the resource to help us consider what might be the best option for the organisation.
I suppose, like anyone doing any fundamental business planning we need to consider the context that we are working in currently. I have looked at a few comparisons, but they don’t serve to inspire much confidence. We are pretty much bottom of the European League in Arts Subsidy.
• Northern Ireland now lags significantly behind our EU colleagues and near neighbours in Scotland and ROI. On a comparative basis, according to the Cultural Policies and Trends In Europe annual research, Northern Ireland treasury spending on the arts, at around € 8.5 for every person annually, compares very poorly with say
• Latvia (55) Germany (117) never mind the highest investors in culture Norway (534) Sweden (274) Austria (286). Holland (267).
• Spending in the Republic of Ireland was € 38 per capita with over € 23 in Scotland. Only Moldova spent a similar amount per person on the arts as Northern Ireland.
These figures do not necessarily represent the fullest reflection of funding available. For example, if we add in arts Lottery funding, it takes our per capita budget to c €17, but that still looks so slight compared to our European neighbours.
I have looked at a high level PESTLE analysis too. You can see that politically, we are facing a time of great uncertainty. Between austerity, new super councils, a new department for communities coming soon, general budget uncertainty locally and the lack of political support the arts have experienced in recent budget settlements, it doesn’t look like a particularly positive outlook.
Adding in the economic factors that flow from these political issues. Again, more challenges lie ahead. Ironically of course, for those of us who assist the most marginalised in Northern Ireland, the needs of those on low incomes or who face other daily challenges become greater. Welfare reform, if and when it eventuates, will hurt this group disproportionately more than others. Bear in mind that there has been an insistence by people like Grow NI, the business lobby, (not the excellent grassroots charity http://www.grow-ni.org/ that support community gardens) about a cash-back tax-cut to business that will represent the solution to all our woes…in 5…or maybe 10…or maybe more years. And in the meantime, those most vulnerable lose the protections and supports that many rely upon and see that services from a range of sectors are not able to respond to their needs either. The corp tax lobbyists haven’t addressed the key arguments mind you http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2015/01/09/northern-irelands-low-corporation-tax-rate-will-not-attract-new-business/ but that’s another issue, albeit related.
Of course there are further legal and environmental considerations too.
Enter ACNI’s Sustainability Programme, which offers support in a time of challenge and change. The areas that this funding looks to support is detailed in it guidance and I have looked at some of the top-line areas and issues that I would consider most important for the sector to consider before making application. This requires honest self-reflection for organisations and perhaps a re-assertion of their mission, vision and values that drive their work.
We should also bear in mind at this time that as charities, we have to make sure that our trustees’ personal liability is protected. Taking every step to minimise and mitigate risk is what every chief executive should be assisting a board to achieve. In times of reduced funding, when core costs and financial positions are under extreme stress, mitigating risks and instead finding solutions like looking for new partnerships, collaborations, trading arrangements, or diversifying revenue streams, alternative funding mechanisms etc, might not be the absolute priority because they all take time. And time can be the scarcest resource when situations are moving so quickly. So, taking the opportunity to consider and evaluate what may make things more sustainable is very worthwhile, even if there are opportunity costs.
We had a good turnout of community arts organisations and others as well at our look at sustainability and the opportunity that the new funding from ACNI might represent.
We ran this workshop seminar on Monday 22nd June and as an introduction to this area, representatives who attended recognised the sobering financial outlook but also heard of the potential and opportunity that this funding might afford organisations. For any organisation at this time, the chance to enhance operations that make them more sustainable must be looked at. For many beyond our sector, there may not have been even the chance to consider such questions, before the axe fell.
For arts organisations receiving public funding, their work is all about making change happen, for people, through the arts. Now, some of those organisations themselves may need to consider how they change to continue their mission.