Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Swings and round the bend

We are constantly reminded in life that our journey can be a mixture of uphill challenges and downhill gambols, swings and roundabouts. And it seems that life mimics art or at least arts funding currently. For 43 organisations it’s definitely become even more difficult not only to access resources but to sustain the journey. For seven of those organisations, it seems that the road ahead is very unclear and some may find the final destination sooner than thought. For the rest, the holding pattern that has been locked in for the last five years means that any ambition has to be assessed so accurately that no risk can be contemplated and every creative action constrained with abject anxiety.Tough!

Where to? 

There is no clear direction for the arts. With this funding decision the only discernible trend that I can plot is a line moving down a graph, pointing to less and less and rapidly approaching an axis labelled £0.
Of course for many who don’t believe in public subsidy let alone notions of society or public benefit, the fact that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland have implemented these cuts, handed down from the Department for Communities, will be applauded. For these free marketeers, acolytes of some skewed Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest, the communities that find themselves furthest from the honey pot of the elite and the patricians, will forever get the least. In N Ireland, where 1 in 4 children live in absolute poverty, and one in four pensioners do likewise, their chances to enjoy their universal right to participate in the cultural life of this place have just been hammered again. 

And, if anything has been further underlined in all these mixed messages, particularly those emanating from the chair of ACNI despite his bluff and bluster about commerciality and business acumen, it’s that the arts can only survive with public subsidy – just look at the list of high profile organisations and the proportion of all funding that they require. Just 3 of them command close to one third of all annual funding. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t get that money, far from it they should probably get more and would if they were located elsewhere. I’m insisting that another 97 organisations need more than 66% of whatever is left! In other words, we need far greater levels of investment in the arts.

As of now, after these cuts, every person living in Northern Ireland, citizen or subject, receives just one penny per day from voted-for funds, ie those monies coming from government. That is not only the smallest amount per head in these islands but it is less than half that enjoyed by people in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England. Against this mammoth disparity, how can the arts really hope to survive in Northern Ireland?

I, as an advocate for the arts, have often been chided and advised not to talk about well-being or to compare the plight of arts cuts with those of cuts to education or health. But we can rest assured that if our health budget in Northern Ireland was less than half the average of anywhere else in these islands, that at least our politicians would bang the drum, fight, lobby, meet representatives and officials and insist that such a situation could not be allowed to continue and that it was in our own collective interest to fight agitate for fair funding. Northern Ireland thankfully does enjoy higher per capita spend on health than anywhere else in these islands. Many would argue that had we made tough decisions around reports like Bengoa, progressing new systematic changes, then we would see even greater impact from the level of funding that we receive. Similarly there are arguments made around the structure of our education system and the provision of local schools with differing class sizes and levels of achievement. In this instance many have argued over the years that a more concerted arrangement of provision to respond to need would enable those struggling at the bottom of league tables and in more marginalised areas to be better supported and see the inequality between achievers and others reduced. All this is normally the function of publicly funded interventions.
For the arts community generally, all but a handful of organisations have been pared back year after year making themselves incredibly lean and efficient in their management of the scarce resource of funding. We have argued time and again that without increased investment the only way was down. For some now, that has almost immediate consequences; for others a stay of execution perhaps or for the very few some additional funds that undoubtedly will not even match the aspirations and ambitions to which those organisations dedicate themselves.


But without an overarching statement of ambition, a strategy for the Arts here, produced and supported by our administration or at least what passes for it in terms of our technocrats in the Department for Communities and the silent legislature on the Hill, we are left, or rather ACNI is left, shuffling the pieces of a jigsaw around in a zero sum funding game. And the image that we are left with is a cubist nightmare where nothing quite fits together and the overall appearance is haphazard and lacking all form and function. This is a mess.
It is deeply regrettable but the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has had to make these cuts. It’s regrettable indeed that they had to make any but their hand has been forced in that regard. If ACNI had passed on a “salami slice” cut of 5.2%, everybody would’ve quite understood that they had little option but to do so, and got on with less.
But instead, the Arts Council have elected to make “strategic” cuts where the logic and design is difficult to understand and not discernible in any strategic document to which any arts organisation can make reference. Therefore the rationale behind these decisions becomes difficult to know and the direction of travel for discrete policy areas within the management of arts resources becomes even more oblique.

And the impact of all of this, despite the “delight” that the chairman of the Arts Council expresses in this AFP funding settlement, is that each and every citizen of Northern Ireland is today worse off, culturally, with no hope of matching the access that is enjoyed anywhere else in these islands.
These are dark days for political institutions in Northern Ireland in any case but now a longer shadow has fallen on those institutions that have created so much optimism, dynamism and collective ambition for our collective notions of shared and better futures here. 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, to the day, whilst we may continue to wrangle about the direction of political settlement, the Arts and Cultural sector has become a casualty of our inability to govern ourselves and propel us to a better place. 

Per Capita

Per Year
Per Week
Per Day
AFP Exchequer
AFP Lottery


While inquiries probe the billions risked in heating schemes, other costs are being counted, in pennies. And our ambitions for our wee corner of the world? The fact that 6,000 jobs were maintained in this sector, underpinning our evening economy, our tourist offering, never mind what it contributes to our schools, our community spaces, even nursing homes and hospitals, can we really not spare more than 1p per day from exchequer funding?

Are we really not worth more than tuppence ha’penny?


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