Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The minister's strategy

So the minister for culture, arts and leisure has finally launched her consultation document for arts and culture in the ‘north of Ireland’. I’d love to share the minister’s delight in finally seeing this long awaited strategy presented. After what has been a couple of years of real torment for the arts community, many of us relished the opportunity to assist in the development of a 10 year strategy that would place the arts right at the centre of the conversation within our civic society. It was also a timely opportunity because we know that next year the department for culture, arts and leisure (DCAL) will be rolled into the super government department for communities (DC). So it was doubly significant to see a strategy that could determine the arts support structures at the heart of government that would then translate to the resourcing and platforming of the arts within wider society. Indeed it was triply significant, because in this year 2015, the first national cultural policy (Culture 2025) is being developed in the Republic of Ireland. These parallel processes, defining how the respective ministries nurture and steward of the arts for the next 10 years on the island, must chart new territory for creativity and navigate hugely significant commemorations for this island and all who live on it and who visit us.

 Here, the opportunity for an overarching cross departmental strategy for culture and arts has been a long time in the making. If you've been around as long as I have you will remember a long list of reports stretching back to the mid-90s including The Arts And Northern Ireland Economy, John Myerscough Northern Ireland Economic Research 1996, Multimedia Ireland Call Realising The Potential By Forbairt 1998, Opening Up The Arts The Strategic Review Of The Arts Council By Anthony Everett In 2000 , and of course Unlocking Creativity From The Department For Culture Arts And Leisure in the year 2000 or maybe it was 2001.

If I may return to Unlocking Creativity, that strategy paper guided us along various ideas back in 2000 emphasising how new technologies are providing unprecedented access to information and the generation of ideas was a core challenge for the cultural sector, as was explaining how creative and cultural understanding could impact on our young people through education or to understand how the arts could assist the business community. It talked about the existing infrastructure for creative and cultural education in Northern Ireland and sought to maximise the benefits of creating a new positive image for a Northern Ireland that understood cultural diversity and respected the part played by the arts.

Back then they employed 8 lenses to look at how we might recognise the value of culture, arts and leisure in our economy and also in our own individual creativity and our community-based arts activities. The eight lenses were creative industries, support for the individual artist, universal accessibility, infrastructure, cultural diversity, the DCAL strategy, international dimension, creativity in education.

I can remember at the time struggling with some of the conceptual analysis that was contained in Unlocking Creativity but it was the only show in town and it was as comprehensive an understanding of how the arts might operate in post Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland as there was. That Unlocking Creativity Strategy brought together a lot of different departments and areas of activity: The Department for culture arts and leisure, the Department for education, the Department of enterprise, trade and investment, the Department of higher and further education, training and employment. Back then it was recognised that it was vital that the importance of creative and cultural education be seen as integral and central to the curriculum but also to the longer term impact on the Northern Irish economy. It was further recognised that creativity is a function of human intelligence and becomes evident only in the active process of doing something. It is not a separate faculty of the mind that some people have and others don't.

On Monday we saw the consultation paper for the minister’s new strategy for arts and culture for the first time. She comments that it will be the first overarching and cross departmental strategy for culture and arts in the north of Ireland but on the evidence provided, I actually think that Unlocking Creativity probably still went further and embraced more. The minister offers all sorts of reassurances around her sincerity in the belief in the value of culture and arts and all that they can bring to society and that she is proud of the impact that artistic and cultural heritage can have on maximising benefits to the social and economic well-being of citizens.
And the minister also wants to make it a priority to promote equality, tackle poverty and social inclusion and in her foreword informs us that after this consultation she wants to bring forward a strategy that will support individuals and communities who feel marginalised, vulnerable or disconnected. To me that sounds like a wholly different strategy, more akin to a strategy supporting community arts. If only there was a strategy that could have cemented those principles around inclusion, promoting equality and tackling poverty; giving our community arts organisations real policy support in having meaningful resources to promote engagement with so many client groups looking to get creative.
If after the consultation the minister means that a strategy for culture and arts will exclusively determine a strategy to support individuals and communities who feel marginalised but not include all our efforts to equalise opportunity across all class and social divides, we will miss an opportunity. For our arts community, our tourists and visitors, our international standing, our cultural product, our economy, our well being AND our communities of interest, ethnicity, disability and limited life choices, on the margins.

The minister believes that there is a balance to be struck between access and quality and [that] fundamentally equality should underscore these principles. Her next sentence says: “I also believe that the Irish language forms a part of a rich heritage and that it deserves special recognition”.

But the minister does recognise that within our community, or schools and our colleges are to be found the artists and creators of tomorrow. It is for them that this strategy will matter most. Between 2016 and 2026 the world will change incredibly once again.

I happened to be a member of the ministerial arts advisory forum that the minister called together to support this strategy. In our dialogues and discussions since December last year we developed a conversation of ambition, of depth, of vision for the future for Northern Ireland. I wrote at the time, a section called today and tomorrow. I started by offering a sense of where we are now:
We sit at the western edge of Europe but from these shores has flowed centuries of culture artistry and artists across oceans and continents, across the world. Over 1.8 million people live here and our increasingly diverse lives and communities are reflected in a vibrant, varied and vital creative sector, employing some 40,000 people, 5,500 of those within the arts sector alone and generating huge impacts across our economy and our society.
But what does our creative future look like in 2026?
The years to 2026 will witness exponential technological growth for a truly global conversation engaging all facets of life, digitally. It is thought by January 2026 that the European population will still be much the same but there will be 1 billion more people who inhabit the earth. Here the promise of peace and prosperity will see our population rise.

For Northern Ireland to become a haven for creativity and offer support for opportunities locally, nationally and internationally we need the resources to do so. We require a comprehensive policy platform that we can look to, reflecting our ambition not only for the arts themselves but for our communities and our society so that together our economy and our creative futures can be strengthened. In so doing, the future well-being of society in terms of social cohesion, promoting equality, tackling exclusion and social deprivation will be supported alongside a flourishing creative industry sector with a sustainable arts infrastructure that can inspire our educators, our business leaders, visitors, investors, artists, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, the worried-well and those challenged by serious illness. This is the vision for a creative Northern Ireland that I want to see for my children and for my contemporaries. A place that understands the power of the arts in and of themselves and that also has figured out how to translate that power into having meaningful, deep, resonating impact across our whole community.

Have a look at the consultation document from the minister and see if my vision or yours resonates with what you find there. I think you'll see that there is a great way to go in terms of determining that vital, vibrant and ambitious future for the arts in Northern Ireland. But the minister is right about something else though, when she says that this is our opportunity to affect this future policy. She wants to see "the sustainability of our heritage and cultural and artistic resources ensuring a lasting legacy for future generations" and she encourages us to respond to this consultation and make our views known. If you're reading this you are concerned about the arts and the support for creativity in the future: make your thoughts known and share your vibrant, heartfelt demand for more resources for the arts.

The arts do matter. This document may not have yet captured just how much they mean. That makes it all the more necessary for all of us to ensure that the demands for arts support are given a fair hearing.  Make your voices heard. Take the time to consider your response to the consultation and watch this space.

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