Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Celebrating the best of ourselves , celebrating with the arts

I’ve just come back from four days training in Corrymeela and have to say that I feel just dandy – ready to take on whatever is thrown and imbued with a real sense of purpose and an itch to get projects, old and new, really rolling forward. I'll talk about that training at some other point. But I was at Corrymeela last weekend as well, to take part in a panel discussion about why the arts matter as part of the Aperture Festival, marking 50 years since it was established. It’s no coincidence that a place like Corrymeela, so steeped in the culture of peace-making and reconciliation, should turn to the arts for celebrating such a significant birthday. It’s why many of us do the same when we want to note something significant that’s happening in our lives – we celebrate in a way that will excite others to join us and for a moment or two, be transported by the power of the arts out of our normal rhythm of living and into another plane of thought and experience.

That is a fundamental role of the arts and one that we have employed since the dawn of our civilisations and even before that. The arts have an intrinsic power to enable all of us to share a moment in a wholly deeper way, to at once recognise that there are layers to all our lives and our experiences that connect with each of us in a myriad of different yet complementary ways.

It had been 36 years since I had attended Corrymeela before. Then, as a schoolboy, I had made tentative steps at supporting cross community processes in a Northern Ireland still utterly riven by sectarianism and violence. On returning last week, I found Corrymeela to be an oasis of centredness, having core values that support a way of engaging, but being accessible to new, disparate and diverse voices. The eclecticism of the Aperture Festival alone, paid tribute to the breadth of culture's role in celebrating the applied nature of Corrymeela’s continuing vision.

This nature of the arts with its ability to embrace the amazingly varied breadth of all of us and our communities is further reason to see the arts flourish . Then, applying artistic practice to another layer of situations, with potential actions, processes and outcomes, and all the socially-engaged potential that represents  – should not be threatened with cuts and reduction.  

I’ve said it so often, in this blog and on platforms representing CAP and #ArtsmatterNI, that the arts' infrastructure is barely sustainable at current levels of support. For further cuts to ensue might well have deeply felt and long-lasting impacts that this society cannot afford. Bearing in mind where we have come from as a people and a place, surely we need to seize every opportunity to celebrate the positive and nourish a more thoughtful, positive future for our wee corner of the globe and purposefully renew our vision of ourselves and our collective future. In discovering the dreams held by our collective imaginations and learning how to be fundamentally creative, we can immediately understand again, just how powerful the joy of “making” is. To create something from nothing, that creative alchemy that all community arts programmes and all arts exhibitions, performances and events demonstrate, is to return to more deeply connected places in all of us. They herald the Olympic Games, not by having runners run, or jumpers jump, but by having film-makers and creative producers celebrate the narrative of our lives and the dreams we hold in powerfully dramatic and evocative displays.  We can demonstrate our values, our fears and the deeply meaningful, long-held beliefs attached to our cultural positions, whatever they may be.

To under-fund the arts is to shackle our ability to express – it is a gag on our cultural voice, to express not only who we are now, but who we may have been and who we wish to be in the future.
For Northern Ireland, not quite one generation into living in Peace, to see such opportunity through the arts squandered, undermined and reduced is to not value the tremendous opportunity that peace affords us and instead to lose sight of the dream. If anything, the public representatives should be finding ways to pour more investment into the celebration of our vision of ourselves and our place in the future. Investing in our tremendous centres of artistic excellence and in our opportunity to support everyone to explore their creative power.  Quibbling about 0.01% of the block grant going to the arts doesn’t make sense. It is so little has but holds the power to be so much. As a society, we should be insisting that the arts flourish and give us the platform to celebrate the very best of ourselves, just like Corrymeela did the other weekend. 


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

32 minus 10?

More bad news I’m afraid this week for the arts. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland have indicated to a range of revenue-funded organisations that they must plan for in-year cuts. For most, it will mean considering cuts once again. For many, it may mean upping ticket prices or cutting programmes. For some; redundancies, with no hope of attractive packages to cushion the blow. And perhaps for others; considerations of more drastic measures, like closure.

But for all the arts, it illustrates just how difficult the outlook is.

Cutting one grant by 10% in month 5 of the financial year, is a very difficult proposition. It effectively means taking almost 20% out of 6 months contribution from that one funding award. That creates uncertainty and can have immediate knock-on effects to an organisation's ability to operate.
But the knock-on effect continues, affecting artists, crew, shows, participation, audiences, revenue for the organisations and for the town/city/country. For potential participants in community programmes, it could well signal projects being pulled or greatly reduced.  But planning to cut by 10% is not the same as making cuts so there may be some small consolation that whatever cuts eventuate may amount to less, albeit by only a percentage point or three.

I was at Corrymeela at the weekend, at the excellent 50th anniversary celebrations Aperture Festival, talking about how the arts matter and are central to all our lives. I encouraged and exhorted the audience there to become advocates for the arts, now, because very soon, the arts infrastructure in Northern Ireland will be further weakened. And, contrary to what the unctuous self-appointed, neo-liberal poster-boys that crow on radio shows might believe, it is right that the arts are publicly funded and it’s not the Arts Council’s fault when the money they receive for that purpose is cut. 

While these market-driven, neo-liberal ideologues carp about public money and quangos and pensions and entitlement, what they are actually proposing is a rolling back of the state and the diminishing of all things that support the public good. Instead these marketeers only focus on the private good, personal gain and profiting from others and after all that, well, the devil take the hindmost.

But this cruel, callous, utterly political project called Austerity, only reduces us as a society; it makes us all clients in a political economy that sees no value beyond private wealth. It damns the poor to remain in absolute poverty, it undermines education and participation, it immediately reduces any opportunity for those whose circumstances and ability to pay and take part might already be difficult. 

Austerity makes less of us all. Commonwealth, social capital, society, community, call it what you will - the notion of that shared sense of place and common purpose, is under attack. And the arts, due to the relatively tiny budget that they command, are in a very precarious position.

But it has gone beyond any sustainable bottom line for the arts here in little Northern Ireland. If this downward trajectory is allowed to continue by our Assembly, then the prospects for cultural excellence, access, participation and any pretence at competing as an attractive, welcoming, vibrant place, capable of competing globally will be gone. And by 2026, 10 years' time, when the borders of the world will further dissolved by new digital frontiers as well, we will only slip further and further behind; creatively, educationally and socially.

As I have said before, if it’s a race to the bottom that we are after, then we’re winning! Even now, N Ireland languishes at the very bottom of the European league table of voted-for arts funding (ie money from government), along with Moldova, with no disrespect to that nation at all. The arts represent the smallest budget line here, but the reason that it is so crucial and makes news is because that funding connects into our lives in such a tangible way. It’s what we read, the design of where we live, what we listen to, what we watch, we wear, we imagine, we celebrate, we create. It is who we are and more crucially, it is the ambition we hold for our children and their futures.  

A colleague of mine pointed out to me earlier, if you equate the budget for the whole of N Ireland to the average household budget, the cuts are quite shocking. You're right Adam T, they are and its a handy comparison. In 2013, net household income in N Ireland was £404 per week, just over £21,000 pa. So, of all that income which now represents all government spend, then just £21 is set aside for the arts, for the whole year. And that has just been reduced to less than £19.What do you spend just £19 on in a year - think, what? Even toilet paper costs a fiver for a dozen rolls!!

Bear in mind too, according to the same recent Poverty Report on Northern Ireland, published in June of this year; the findings are stubbornly stark, and getting worse:

  • In general, poverty levels have increased between 2012/13 and 2013/14.    This was more marked for some population groups than for others.
  •  21% of individuals were   in   poverty in 2013/14, approximately 376,000 individuals.  This is an increase from 19% the previous year
  • 23% of children were in poverty in 2013/14, 101,000 children.  This is an increase from 20% the previous year.
  • 20% of working-age adults were in poverty in 2013/14, approximately 213,000 working-age adults.  This is an increase from 18% the previous year
  • 21% of pensioners were in poverty in 2013/14,   approximately 63,000 pensioners.  This is an increase from 20% the previous year

So, 32 minus 10 equates to so much less, not just for the arts, but for all of us.
#ArtsMatterNI .