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 fĂȘtes, 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.

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