Tuesday, 5 November 2019

A resilient community of camaraderie

For a group of people whose principal drive is to entertain and relive, over and over, the redemptive, transformational power of making art, the arts community seem to get it fierce hard.

This group of believers, of change-makers, social alchemists, creative powerhouses of incredible pure and imagined experiences... we have a hard time of it. Audiences and participants are convinced time and again, evaluation form after focus group, all relate their joy and sense of well-being when enjoying the fruits of theirs and others’ creativity. So it makes it all the harder to bear why something so utterly devoted to expanding and supporting our humanity and ways to express it, why it is constantly bamboozling to understand why this sector of dreamers and visionaries, has it so tough.

I was just one of a thousand who arrived shell shocked to Matt Curry’s funeral in St Patrick's Cathedral Armagh last Saturday morning. As we gazed at each other and shook hands, and witnessed the grief visited on the faces of our friends and colleagues and their families, on Emma and Nicola, the camaraderie, the friendship and togetherness of the arts community, whilst often threatened, was so tangible in shared grief.

As a community, we offer Matt Curry’s family circle, every sympathy and condolence, as the creative community does constantly for all those who have trouble in their lives. This community, given the chance, creates moving, urgent narratives of change and love and empathy. We work hard to engage the very hardest truths of living and with any luck, perhaps change them to metaphors of beauty, courage and deeper reflection.
Why should this community be penalised for it’s doggedness and devotion; it’s service to making things of beauty and connection? Why should it be faced with a constant battle to justify its very existence as a sector time and time again? For a community that gives so much for relatively little, the arts are constantly pressed to conform to new standards, to new initiatives that invariably means doing more for less.
Our determination, our collective will, to perform, entertain, reveal, educate, engage, imagine, create, breath life into blank, often dark, spaces, is both a strength and a weakness. And as we watch another process with seemingly arbitrary determinations and thresholds shift our professional terrain yet again, this time by a major local supporter of the arts, Belfast City Council, we have to justify ourselves anew.
80% of Arts Council NI funding goes to Belfast-based organisations and both ACNI and BCC  preside over the majority of public arts funding available in NI.

For those of you not located in Belfast and shocked by that, bear in mind that even though that concentration of funds goes to Belfast-based organisations, the majority of them work right across the region. But, by a totally new process, determining who should be retained in the arts infrastructure of the arts in our biggest city, Belfast City Council is perhaps about re-shape the infrastructure of the arts across the region. 

In their 2016 study ‘Culture, Cities and Identity in Europe' the European Economic and Social Committee through the Culture Agenda 21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_21_for_culture asked various questions, not least

What role can culture and cities play in strengthening social and territorial cohesion, in engaging in dialogue and building trust in our complex societies?

And to be fair to Belfast City Council's tourism culture and arts unit, it has risen to the challenge posed by that question and many others and tried to model, through extensive consultation with the sector, a new path for the civic support of the arts. Most if not all sections of the arts community welcomed that consultation - we spent hours in focus groups, or attending large events where thoughts and ideas were aired and indeed noted. This was greatly appreciated by a sector that has seen itself so marginalised in all the great civic debate that is on-going all around us at present, as we see our funding base slowly chipped away and the already precarious nature of our organisations and our livelihoods become more worrying.

So having offered so much qualitative feedback, we waited for the next stage of this city's cultural journey. The development of an Investment Model is the essential motor of this whole participative exercise. “This investment approach takes the long view required to deliver transformation for the city. It recognises that the first priority must be to invest in a healthy cultural ecosystem.” Furthermore the BCC website states “Belfast’s new investment model for culture proposes a new partnership approach to funding with the aim of sustaining and developing accessible cultural activity and infrastructure across Belfast.” The financial outworking that will underpin all our collective creative and strategic input, the investment model and indeed the 4 quadrants of this new grant application process, has now been completed without any further direct consultation at all.  Instead it has been offered as a fait accompli, passed through political approval and sees its first funding application process underway.

Arts and heritage organisations (Anchor- 4yrs (threshold >£300k turnover over last 2 years) & Enable – 2yrs (threshold >£100k turnover over last 2 years))

Festivals and events (Imagine – 4yrs (threshold >£300k turnover over next 4 years) & Activate – threshold £50k over next 2yrs)

The resulting model rigidly pegs investment at historic percentages of organisational turnover for arts and heritage organisations but allows for projected turnover to be the main threshold criteria for festival and events organisations. These thresholds alone will see a major re-shaping of the arts “ecosystem” and it may not be for the better. Indeed, the council knows well that they will lose many arts organisations completely and see another swathe have cuts ranging from 10% to 30% or more. Indeed, some of the largest funded organisations, like the Ulster Orchestra say, will see their funding pegged at the level that it has been for the past 4 years, continue for another 4 years at that maximum £150k. So, even to the most funded, this will represent a real terms cut once 8 years of inflation is factored in. For others, it will see them unable to meet the most basic threshold and will therefore see themselves drop from multi-annual funding altogether. This may not sustain the cultural ecosystem as it currently stands but may well establish a new eco-system instead. 

This “new investment model for culture proposes a new partnership approach to funding with the aim of sustaining and developing accessible cultural activity and infrastructure across Belfast”, so says the “A City Imagining” document.

Does the retrospective turnover requirement for arts and cultural organisations (compared with festivals and events programmes that are allowed to base their budgets and turnovers prospectively ie on projections) negate notions of cultural democracy in that it presents an unequal opportunity to arts organisations based solely on their mode of operation? Is it that those organisations that are working in cultural tourism rather than more citizen focused have been prioritised in this funding process, because they can anticipate growth, where the others cannot?

Whilst so many arts administrators are consumed with the minutiae of the grant applications, and the next large scale application to Arts Council of Northern Ireland is waiting on the rank, we all must not lose sight of the challenge that our arts infrastructure faces. And of course we must always seek to show how our work contributes to the core of our society and the quality of life here. We understand far better than many sectors, that entitlement is not a sentiment the arts relies upon. When a city says forthrightly that arts and culture are of unique and crucial importance to its plans, but then excludes arts and cultural organisations and their audiences and participants because they simply haven't made enough money in the last couple of years,  how do we judge strategies that seek to sustain and develop? 
And of those organisations who will be excluded from multi-annual funding, where will their participants and audiences turn? Other organisations that may themselves be cut because of these new thresholds, will they have additional capacity?
When I approached Belfast City Council's Chief Executive Suzanne Wiley and Director of Finance John Greer last summer, it was to explore how greater investment in the arts could sustain and contribute to our beleaguered and precarious sector. As convenor of artsmatterni I offered a range of potential interventions and nuances that could be explored and urged a more segmented, convenient process that would see greater levels of security afforded to all arts organisations in the city. We asked for decreased administrative burdens commensurate with funding levels and urged more support.  We talked about additional monies being secured and levies on hotels (the alternative bedroom tax) being explored. We agreed that 56 organisations sharing one pot of money was not the best way to achieve this. However now, we are looking at increased levels of applications from areas such as sport and heritage, and arts organisations barred from making any application at all. Will this improve the sustainability of our sector and energise the flagging resilience of our community of practitioners? Will this the audiences and participants of smaller, perhaps more niche operations, maintained or will they too be deemed no longer "investment ready"? 
If one advocates a culturally democratic model and then excludes because an organisation is simply not big enough, can it really be democratic? Can equality of opportunity be afforded to those who arbitrarily become automatically excluded? Does this model ensure the basic human right to participate in the cultural life of our society as declared by Article 27 of UN Declaration of Human Rights is protected... “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts..."

The tension between ‘Culture as a vehicle for economic growth’ and ‘Culture as a tool for integration and inclusiveness’ (as explored in the Culture Agenda 21 upon which "A City Imaginging" has drawn some of its orientation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_21_for_culture) has moved beyond expensive signature buildings in many cities’ centres, often now, decentralising cultural facilities to neighbourhoods and to the aesthetic and symbolic importance of public space, as well as its potential for cultural participation. Furthermore, to paraphrase further this one EESC report, it is understood that the transformation of our metropolitan cultural space in particular requires not only investment in hard infrastructure, but also in soft skills and competences generated by education, lifelong learning and creative practices.
The soft skills of artists, directors, facilitators, actors, writers, poets, painters, dancers, singers, sculptors, film makers... the soft hearts of people who always strive to see the best and assist the world to explore what it is to be alive, to have dreams and ambitions and concerns. The community of resilience and courage that gets knock-back after knock-back but still comes together when people need help and support. Like on Saturday, when a multitude, across the whole arts spectrum, congregated to say farewell to a trusted friend who was taken far too soon and to support colleagues and express that camaraderie in the face of tragedy.

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