Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Everybody Knows

Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows
                               Leonard Cohen b.1934, d. 2016 RIP

So, it been some time since I have updated my blog. That’s because we have been flat out at work trying, successfully, to secure and redevelop new premises into our new home – the ARC. The Arts Resource Centre, will not only be home to us, but will host workshops, performances, poetry slams, recording and rehearsal spaces for community groups, bands, organisations and individuals right across Northern Ireland. What is all the more remarkable is that we have managed to achieve this new space with absolutely no additional help from either private or public sponsorship, relying solely on squirreled away reserves and the support of individual donors via the crowd funding site localgiving.com.

We moved because we responded to the need for greater sustainability for the arts and in so doing, we wanted to secure our future and of course, those we support. Ironically, we asked for support on two occasions from the Sustainability Fund, but got zilch both times. It seems it might be easier to get funds for an idea than a reality. It was puzzling, but isn’t the world?

But as a backdrop to the struggle of one small but ambitious community arts organisation, we see civic, local, national and international society all in a real state of flux. Since June 23rd, the political class of both the UK and Ireland has been staring over the edge of a precipice saying either “it’s a tremendous opportunity” or “It’s a terrible catastrophe”. The US Presidential Election similarly described the smallest comfort to be found between a rock and hard place.

And that sense of unknowing, uncertainty, insecurity…

Here, we await the beginning of a Fresh Start, the initial indications of Outcomes Based Accountability TM and indeed, the activation of an Action Plan from the Programme For Government that might offer navigation through these troubled waters. Meanwhile, we see the precarious nature of all publicly-funded activity inflict further casualties – Gingerbread NI, a charity with a long history of supporting single parents – gone – and NICEM, another charitable institution dedicated to supporting ethnic minorities, summarily swept away – gone – at the stroke of a pen.

So building sustainability, amid all this inertia, this flux, this precarity, is a tall order. There will be more causalities. Everybody knows.  Do you get the sense that that’s the way they want it – then powers that be, too ham-strung to take any bold decisions, relying instead on atrophy and withering of people's agency and social capital? Does this laissez-faire management of civic infrastructure bode well for any of us? Is it as Leonard sings, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded...That's how it goes"?  

Everybody does know that the Arts have never been particularly strongly supported here. We're bottom of the spending leagues of all EU and UK nations and regions. As a cultural mirror and barometer of the civic health of a place, the outlook currently for the arts is grim. The arts are on life support. Winter is indeed coming. We need to redouble all our efforts to make the case that the arts cannot merely survive – they must thrive if we are to have any alternative creative future here. The shibboleth of the creative industries, must instead open up, connect and resonate as part of a wider arts ecology. Those on the margins must be supported by public funds to enjoy the most basic of civil rights and Northern Ireland must embrace a new positive, creative outlook that can be a beacon and attract people, business and investment, drive up educational attainment and social and personal well-being. The arts can do that. That's what everybody knows in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, etc etc all appreciate. But they have to be invested in and supported. It is an issue of basic welfare that the arts, especially those practices that support the most vulnerable, must be protected.

And everybody knows some people don’t get it. Winning the argument about how the arts can transform lives and see the worth that they bring to the most marginalised of people, still seems to be incomprehensibly difficult for some. Even on the day of our launch, only a few weeks ago, when we told people of the struggle we had getting the space sorted out, buying second-hand bits of kit, in order that we could offer community groups, with no access to the arts, a real opportunity and as we urged people to recognise and support the good work we do on behalf of so many others, somebody actually saw fit to steal two mini-ipads on us!!  I-pads that support young people in marginalised groups across the country to do stop-frame animation, or assist older people’s groups with dementia new opportunities to engage with the arts. Someone actually came to the launch of our new arts space and left with our hard-won equipment, cheating others of an opportunity.

Everybody knows the deal is rotten. In a world where the consequences of our actions become less understood and the relationship between what people say and what people do is blurred in political “post-factual” rhetoric, there are no easy dishonesties. They all have an exponential cost. The arts can of course propagate lies and much of their work is “made up”, but it is in the making that we learn how to understand and create something from nothing. We understand that ideas have power. We consider how that power can become manifest. This is the power to transform stuff into things of beauty, into stories that excite, enthral, into words and music that transport our imaginations and lift our spirits, into images that illuminate our otherwise murky view. Lies only diminish – they steal the moral agency to affect change and leave us squalid, brutish and denied our human accomplishment – our civilisation itself. We are social beings and the greatest social connector is the arts, because it strengthens through deepening cultural engagement and development, the understanding of who we are, where we are and reflects it back to ourselves and others.

So, honestly, the arts need your help. And the arts and particularly community arts represent a space that enables, that helps and turns our creative efforts into a shared, collective celebration of our own truth about who we are and what we want to achieve. Our dreams never lie. It is our inalienable right to dream and participate in the artistic and cultural life of our place. It make us human.

Everybody knows that it’s now or never

Make it now, please
You can help by sponsoring us at https://localgiving.org/communityartspartnership

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Dramas, crises, tragedy - and cuts

There used to be a phrase that transferred from a rather mundane tv ad into everyday parlance. The smooth, comforting speech of the voice-over artist insisted that this company wouldn't "make a drama out of a crisis".  But of course, dramatists have been doing just that for centuries. Taking the components of a crisis and connecting them in a way that amplifies their impact. The drama plays out and the input from the viewer, the audience, is crucial to any meaning making. The injection of pathos and bathos, redemption, tension, the balance between aesthetic and reality, message and representation are only a few of the formalities of artistic process at play in the dramatists portrayal of events.

For example Arthur Miller, the celebrated American playwright, described his artistic ambition as "the pursuit of truth". His work connected real events in his life and the lives of others, with historical events and pivotal shared histories, that together, connected through Miller's deeply affecting work, that could translate a deeper message for audiences, then and indeed now. Offering a deeper, more understood and "felt" truth.

Connecting to deeper truth is an essential and wonderfully powerful ability of the arts. That is why it has been so crucial in our understanding of hugely significant events, like wars, natural disasters, or social injustices. From Shakespeare to Stringberg to Stoppard, the relating of deeper understanding, or the divining of greater meaning or import, has been core to their craft.
But when one finds oneself in the middle of circumstances, as the "drama" is unfolding on tv, through reports and press statements, it is almost impossible to glean deeper insight. Our intellects struggle with possibility and implication, what is truth and what was palpably dishonest, false and treacherous? What motivated x,y or z to act as they did?

Creating that essential distance so that new understanding can be learnt is the key to defamiliarisation. This essentially reflective process allows for the new formation of perception, a deeper knowing, to emerge from the apparently familiar. In this phenomenological space, the potential for a deeper connection is to be found. But, the very act of reflecting, the artistic and intellectual space of framing images, often provides us with not only the core of meaning, but the shades and nuance as well.

As everyday there seems to be more and more dramatic revelations and tragic news stories, it is so hard to make sense. Not moral sense, nor perhaps logical sense, but just a recognition of circumstances. At the minute, as we continually read and hear of the dehumanising effects of labelling whole races, ethnicities and people as one thing or another, we begin to lose the human story, and the connection to a personal narrative, filled with meaning and emotion, can get immediately lost.

This is when we need the arts most - to channel our subjective emotions, to reflect our ideas about ourselves and the world and to disrupt our perhaps knee-jerk, superficial reactions with a more considered inner-worldliness. Ugly truths can be depicted in the art of dramatists, painters, satirists, cartoonists, poets, novelists, sculptors, muralists, songwriters - so that  humanity might be rediscovered... or its loss commemorated.

Perhaps at this moment of global political, social and conflict-driven tumult, we need our arts the most - not least to offer some respite.

That's why it is so deeply worrying that we see the arts infrastructure further undermined by significant cuts in funding. Northern Ireland doesn't have to look to far for its tragedies, its crises and the outworking of a dehumanising conflict. The reverberation is still felt, in our streets, on our walls, in our communities and across our news reports. We are a world leader in prescription drug use, have higher use of anti-depressants than most western countries, we have UK’s highest claimant rates of incapacity benefits and Disability Living Allowance, and therefore economic inactivity. As people, we bear the brunt and the scars of the dis-ease of life here. We have communities desperate for support, reaching out to community arts programmes to assist them speak positively about their lives and offer alternative opportunities to local people. The great enabling and confidence raising ability that the arts promote, has been further undermined. For communities here, who face greater hardships than any other part of these islands, there will be less opportunity to access that supportive space of the arts. Indeed, N Ireland, falls further in the international league of arts funding, dropping like a stone towards the bottom of a barrel. Half a million pounds might not seem like much, but in 4 years we have been reduced to just two thirds of the funds we once enjoyed. And 4 years ago, we still struggled to support the demand from community.

Anyway...It may be that reducing arts funding is seen as a kick against elitism, but for any actual community arts organisation or disability arts organisation ( http://comartspartner.org/ fits both roles very easily) that may now be facing into yet anther year of having to make cuts to programmes, it serves only to reduce the access that the most vulnerable and marginal have to the arts. The elites still exist - and still retain the lion's share of funding - but cuts impact in a disproportionate way on those who need the arts the most - our young, our elderly, our physically and intellectually challenged, our vulnerable and our poor.

And it may not seem that dramatic, but surely after all the drama and upheaval that we lived through here, that we deserve that breathing space and that opportunity to reflect.

And, if the people who live here don't deserve the arts, well who does?

The arts matter

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The big question?

I work for an organisation that has assisted community groups across Belfast and Northern Ireland, understand some of their creative potential and along the way we have assisted hundreds of thousands of people access a better understanding of community arts and directly supported the participation of over 50,000. We have garnered over 1.2M people as an audiences and reached over 70M hits in terms of our website. We have facilitated thousands of workshops in 250 schools, 1,500 community groups, in shopping centres, city parks, in pubs and clubs, church halls, special schools, hospitals, residential homes, day-care facilities, in Lord Mayors’ parades, markets, in church fêtes, street carnivals, in back alleys, in arts centres, theatres and symphony halls. We have trained and inducted well over 2,000 artists in that time too, growing the knowledge and skills based of community arts.

We have dealt with issues such as adolescent suicide, intercultural and inter-ethnic tension, racism, sexism, homophobia, sectarianism across a range of needs around disability, homelessness, dementia, poverty, social isolation, illiteracy, autism, ADHD, depression, addiction and hopelessness. We have supported each and every community of place and interest as best we could, along the way helping to offer a creative foothold to Belfast Pride, retired PSNI officers, ex-combatant groups and various new community associations rising from the ashes of conflict. In the mid 2000s we did the first ever demonstration of Social Return on Investment (SROI) alongside the NOW Project, who run the Gauge programme now. In that SROI report, at government levels of optimism bias discounting, we returned £14 for every £1 invested in our programme. 

Money from the first round of European Peace Funds, Peace I as it was styled, was midwife to this programme. Peace I established and resourced a clear pathway for many on the margins to find a way into the nurturing centre of this society and see if we could not challenge the status quo and explore real transformation for all citizens here.

By 2003, we were ready for Peace II and indeed, we successfully (although it took us 6 months to research and write the application itself - it stretch to 165 pages!!) gained the single largest award to community arts on the island at that time of £225,000 for a 2 year programme. We established 5 major project strands that continue to operate today and have in themselves seen real lasting development and growth, Poetry In Motion which hosts the Seamus Heaney Awards, Trash Fashion, Landmarks (Belfast Wheel as it was first known), This Is Me and Masque. Like many of our peer organisations, we relied on the generous support and visionary programme establishment of the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund. We were successfully awarded three more grants to enable a range of outcomes, from employment and accredited skills development, to peace-building and active citizenship development.

That support has translated into real, lasting jobs too – our contribution to the local economy, net, without any social return factored in,  has been in order of £3.7 M. Factoring in SROI, even at a 50% discount means £26M of social return to Northern Irish society from one small, community arts programme.  
Through Culture Europe funding we have worked alongside individuals and organisations from across Ireland and in Lithuania, Holland, Belgium, and Sweden. Through Erasmus, we have worked with artists, advocates and academics from France, Spain, Holland, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Italy, Germany, Syria, Israel, Portugal and the Czech Republic.  

Whilst we sit on a currently sun-drenched island at the normally rain-soaked western edge of the European Continental Shelf, we have participated in the richly diverse, outward-looking, progressive and positive social agenda across a continent of commonality.  We have reached across differences and distances real and perceived that have stretched back hundreds of years, millennia even and recognised in ourselves the very everyday challenges that face us all in this part of the world, reflected in the shared experience across a whole continent. This is the visioning, the outpouring of positivism that true, dynamic, fundamental change requires. Inward looking, closed and isolated introspection cannot even begin to offer such a platform for real social development – never mind the resource to actively engage hundreds of thousands of people. Creative Europe has a budget of over €1.4 billion until 2020, with the Culture sub programme commanding almost one third of that amount. That is all additional funding that does not replace any local budgets.
As the lowest spending region on the arts anywhere in Europe, struggling to offer 0.025% of GDP in funding support, or less than 80p for every £1,000 spent, why, as a progressive, creative arts community would we choose to disqualify ourselves from this financial assistance or for the opportunity to be a part of a bigger conversation about who we are and where we are going, together? It’s a good question and one which I know I’ll be answering soon.

I urge everyone to answer as well.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Programme for Government and the Arts

The development of any work of art seldom happens overnight and the skillset that is required to support and facilitate its production in all likelihood was developed over years of training, with trials and tribulations along the way.  Creating something that synthesises purposeful design, elegance in execution and depth in messages and meaning remains the challenge that faces all artists and arts facilitators, from whatever discipline.  Even the stand-up comedian, seemingly “winging it” conversationally may well have honed her apparently throw away patter through years of blood, sweat and gigs.  Seldom do we attach value to things that we attain easily. And in a world where more and more becomes less and less valued, and increasingly disposable, cherishing our arts and the skills, talents and processes sustaining them for the benefit of current and future generations becomes more crucial. The arts, that have created the “soundtracks of our lives” across every medium, not just music, have been our constant companion, reflecting and indeed amplifying who we are as individuals and communities and reminding us time and again of what it is to be human – the joy, the grief, the ecstasy, the tragedy, the beauty and the sheer endurance.

Nothing else in our world has this function – nothing else channels all this lived experience into forms that layer meanings over meanings and allow for us to appreciate more keenly even the most everyday. And this function of art making is as old as our civilisation, older still, it is as enduring as our species itself. The arts are the engine of culture, the flywheel of dreams.

We have sung, danced, painted and narrated forever.  Whether we were pursuing our eternal exploration of meaning or keeping our spirits up entertaining ourselves, we have consistently turned to the arts, millennium after millennium.  We are makers, crafters and creators.

Our dreaming through creativity has offered us visions of futures where we get it right and where we abysmally fail. It continues to offer us the chance to look beyond the edges of our selves, appreciating the lives of neighbours and others and reaching further, contemplating universes of eternities unknown. Fictions of truth. Every generation has heard these critical creative voices sing out about what it is to be alive, or dead, free or captive, angry or righteous.

So, this is important stuff. Even if we think the arts are just about entertainment, we have a right to enjoy those forms of entertainment in theatre, film, song, dance, books, verse, whatever. In a world so incredibly diverse, the more we understand the expression of ourselves and others, the more we accept how alike our lives are and the easier it becomes to share this increasingly contested, shrinking world.  This is the power the arts carry.

For this place, Northern Ireland, the North, we have seen our government and politicians over the last successive years, actively limit the potential of the arts locally – undermining all that transformative power and replacing it with a deepening sense of insecurity about the future and the cultural values that matter to a society.  Whilst at the same time assuring all of us that the arts really do matter. They matter so much here, that they have now created a new government department where the term art has all but disappeared.  And this tomorrow or maybe in the days after, we will see the emergence of a new local Assembly, with public representatives taking up leadership roles to promote and safeguard a range of responsibilities, like health, the economy, education, justice etc etc
The arts community and more pointedly for me, community artists, implore not only our new assembly of politicians but our re-shuffled civil service as well, to take heed of what 1,700 respondents to the outgoing minister for culture’s strategy paper were saying and recognise the role that arts must play in civilised societies and the value they bring to all our lives, especially for those who struggle most and have least.  To undermine a sector, that is run so efficiently (almost 6,000 arts jobs are leveraged from a core Assembly investment of just less that £10m, offering ten times that in social and economic return) makes no political or economic sense. For this investment, less than the cost of 1,000 yards of motorway or 30 Routemaster buses, the arts support our society, making us healthier, happier, more connected to each other, more adaptable, more attractive to visitors and investors, more expressive, confident and inventive. These are all the attributes that any Programme for Government seeks to enhance.  So, as we witness the political to-ing and fro-ing of the coming days and the inevitable sharing out of responsibilities to govern, let’s recognise that at the heart of any community is the need to celebrate and value who we are, understand we have come from and support our collective ambition from the cradle to the grave. In our local economy of almost £40 billion, the investment in our schools and communities, our villages, towns and cities in accessible, excellent and vital arts programmes, events, activities and opportunities is crucial to delivering a social vision that strengthens rather than diminishes us.  

Only the arts can deliver that vision in such an all-encompassing way.

This society cannot afford to let the arts and creativity wither any further. If the programme for government wants to support outcomes that offer progress here, the arts can catalyse more potential and transform it into valuable demonstrable social and economic development better than any other sector.

The arts want to support the Programme for Government. Give us the means to do so.

The arts are relevant
The arts are extraordinary

The arts

Offering alchemy that make lives golden.

Northern Ireland needs the arts.