Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The arts make a world of difference

The developed world has a range of competing aspirations for society and economy- -but are we here in Northern Ireland starting to drift away from that mainstream determination and recognition that the arts are good in and of themselves and that as such they should be supported. Are we in danger here, of being too driven by what some call hyper-instrumentalisation, which presupposes that the arts will have a set of predetermined impacts and should be funded on its ability to deliver just that? Or can we maintain an appropriate space to allow artistic skills, sensibilities and vision to flourish AND be able to harness that power to also achieve social benefit? These are the questions that really strike a chord - not just to me, here, at this time, but right across the globe!

Whilst often debated, the hard reality for the 5000 + arts workers in NI and the many hundreds of organisations, big but more commonly very small, who all strive to offer the arts to as wide an audience and a participating population as possible, that their reality is that might take incredible skill and technique to make art, but actually securing that platform through finding the necessary resources is an art form in itself and one that is increasingly competitive and less rewarding due to funding cuts and another wave of local austerity and shifting priorities.

In this regard, whilst many organisations have been gearing up for a range of new seasons of work and events, the quiet development of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland 5 Year plan has been under-way. This plan, to be further developed over the coming 6 months, will offer all of us the chance to offer opinion and shape the argument for how we develop the arts and indeed maintain the meagre provision that we have.

By way of contrast, take a wider look around today. In Scotland, simultaneously developing its own Strategy and England, also reviewing its strategic outlook for the years ahead, the conversation seems still to hinge on how to support “new” and maintain “old”. Not so much protecting any sense of vested interests but having the flexibility to support opportunity. But of course, the reality is that without serious injections of public subsidy – there will be a nasty trade-off between one and the other. We have seem this time and after and indeed in the last local funding rounds here, we have witnessed something of the same where a zero sum game, with ever fewer resource options means a constant competition creating winners and losers.

Look at Australia. With 26 years of unbroken economic growth and prosperity now suggesting that Australia is in fact the second wealthiest nation on the planet after Switzerland (of course). And yet, arts grant in aid has not kept pace, with the most significant form of federal support increasing to around 177 million Australian dollars (£100 million) in the last fiscal year, up only 8 percent from 2011.  But Australia actually spends about 6Billion AUSD on arts and cultural budgets across local, federal and national government,  so it’s clear that the flexibility and the support to smaller agencies via grant-in-aid processes, outside the “majors” (as the largest arts organisations are referred to in Australia) is increasingly under pressure too. Although spending has stabilised after 2015 and a bonfire of organisations, there are massive challenges for the art organisations and the communities of practice and audiences that they support out there. Starting to catch my drift? You can read more here https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/02/arts/australia-performing-arts-funding.html

Elsewhere in Australia, Economist David Throsby argues that governments should remain committed to strong cultural policies in his Platfrom Paper Art Politics and Money, published by Currency House http://www.currencyhouse.org.au/node/264. Throsby is a distinguished Professor of Economics at Macquarie University, in Sydney. Over recent years he has traced what he calls the “economisation” of cultural policy across the globe. Expenditure on cultural activities by governments is, he observes, now primarily justified in terms of expected economic outputs. While recognising the significant economic benefits of cultural activity can of course help bolster the case for government spending, Throsby argues it should not act as the ultimate reason for that support. Instead, the “core creative arts” of literature, music, performing arts and visual arts, should be valued, first and foremost, as public goods in themselves.

And, just next door, albeit a few thousand miles south east, a re-dedication to the arts is also under way in Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud – New Zealand.

We live in a country abundant in creativity. As the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, and as Prime Minister, I want to make sure the arts are accessible to all, that the arts are seen as a viable career for our young people and that everyone, especially our decision makers, appreciate how the arts - and all that sits alongside them - truly enrich our lives.

So writes Jacinda Ardern today in a press release. She is New Zealand's Prime Minister and Minister for the Arts, Culture and Heritage. Imagine, a dual role, First Minister and Minister for Culture - in NI of course, we have neither!! . She goes on to say that:

I want to see a country where the creativity and joy that comes from the arts is available to the many, not reserved for a privileged few. I want to see a country where the arts flourish and breathe life into, well, everyday life.  I want to see a country where the arts are available to us all and help us express ourselves as unique individuals, brought together in diverse communities.

I believe the arts and creativity are integral and inseparable parts of what it is to be human.
It concerns me that a mind-set still persists in which only those things that can be counted matter, and things not easily quantified are too quickly discarded.
We’ve instructed Treasury to include cultural well-being as a core component of the new Living Standards Framework. From Budget 2019: The Wellbeing Budget, we’ll be using this framework in all our decision making.  It will be the world’s first wellbeing budget. And we’ve got a Bill in the House that will see the four well-beings reinserted into to the Local Government Act, ensuring councils deliver social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes to their communities.

Closer to home, former Watershed Chief Executive Dick Penny stressed he is “more excited than ever” about working in Bristol as he leaves his role of 20 years and heads a new Watershed venture aimed at creating growth in the city.

Mr Penny says culture in Bristol is booming. He is of course right, but some of the major cultural infrastructure has been pummelled, losing in some organisations’ cases 65% of funding in just one decision. Having run Watershed for 20 years, he’s starting a subsidiary company called Ventures, a project to help address challenges inherent in current funding arrangements.

In his conversation with Arts Professional and looking at public funding in general, Penny stressed that the pre-occupation with “constantly redrawing the rules of engagement” is a constant issue.

“There’s a push from the politicians to constantly fund something new. And what we really need is sustainable, long-term development. That’s how you build inclusion – because people who are excluded need to understand how they can get involved,” he said.

“If you keep changing the rules it’s bloody difficult for the people who are on the inside, and it becomes impossible for anyone on the outside.”

Using the Creative Industries Sector Deal as an example, Penny welcomed the contents but also expressed concern “We all know in the cultural and creative sector it’s a lot of freelancers and micro-work – so the historic industrial metrics don’t fit the new creative knowledge industry,” he said. “There’s a mismatch between the way funding is allocated and what you want to apply the funding to – and the funding agencies get caught in the middle of that.” Adding that “if you slavishly follow those and don’t look at the world you’re operating in then you can end up being less engaged and valuable than you could be”.

So, just scanning the horizon in the arts from Belfast to Edinburgh, Bristol, Sydney and Auckland, the challenges are constant, steep and ever present – funding, measuring the wrong thing, not supporting new initiatives and risks, being too instrumental and shifting the goal posts for populations and arts providers alike.

These are challenges.

We are part of that global conversation but we need more local voices to affect and strengthen the direction that the arts take over the coming years. So, if you haven’t already, offer your opinions to the Arts Council 5 year plan process and watch this space for further opportunities to affect future policy. 

The arts matter, here, there and everywhere.

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