Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Assurances amid uncertainty

It’s hard to comprehend just how changed the world has become in only a few weeks. I’m in my 7th week of total isolation or at least my household is as my wee one had symptoms almost 7 weeks ago. 
As many of us toil at home, trying to maintain our work as best we can , while watching everything and everyone around us is thrown into disarray and insecurity, some of us at least might still enjoy some assurances.  But there are precious few today and none to be taken for granted. Family, friends, food, going for walk, enjoying the arts. All of these are no longer what they once were. If we are lucky to have all of them, we are fortunate indeed because many people currently do not. 

The level of mortality is staggering. As the U.K. fatalities number 5 times the death toll in The Troubles here, we know that this is far from the end of this dreadful daily update. And it’s reported today that those numbers only count those who have passed away in hospitals and the actual total may be 15% higher. 
For many finding food has been a real struggle. Food banks are running short every day, physical distancing standing in queues is so fraught with anxiety ( albeit that I haven’t been able to visit a shop for 6 weeks). 

Accessing friends via Facebook or FaceTime is common if they live far away, now everyone lives at a digital remove, although we can still see them and talk to them. But what if those in care settings, hospitals, etc. And the times when we need to cling to each other at funerals or births! There is so much upheaval and separation of our lives at present. 
Even just going for something as everyday as going for a walk is fraught with anxiety - now 2 metres apart isn’t enough, especially if a person in front of you is puffing and blowing like an unfit jogger (and how many of those do you encounter on raids and paths these days?) 

But at least we still have the arts ... don’t we? 

Well, locally, thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland we have the organisational superstructure of 97 arts companies being offered funding to hopefully support them through this incredibly changed period. And across various city and district councils, monies are still being awarded to organisations. But what about our artists and the freelance creatives who are the “frontline workers” of the arts? Whether up a ladder adjusting lights, or sitting with school children developing poetry or art work, how will this section of our arts workforce survive this? 

We have seen some very worthy attempts to help from Finn Kennedy and Abie Spallen’s giving website (given an extra £10k from Minister Hargey and her Department for Communities). But as helpful as this may be, it’s only piecemeal for a limited number of folk. It’s a tough enough gig even at the best of times to be self employed, bouncing from one contract to the next, hopeful and resourceful. But, today, these gigs are in jeopardy. That’s why organisations like CAP and others are looking to see how best to support their core creative professionals and keep some level of income going for them. But, how long can this go on. This sector needs more than the emergency funding of an additional £1million I suspect, way more. 

While uplifts for the Theatre NI (gaining an astonishing 68%, is there a merger in the offing?) and Belfast Exposed (with a more modest 9%) are beyond the status quo of standstill funding received by the vast majority of organisations, the standout changes are 174 Trust - The Duncairn Arts Centre and Outburst both becoming AFP, core funded clients. But we do see some causalities, with the Ulster Youth Choir getting a small but significant cut and Dance Resource Base and Millenium Arts Centre both losing AFP awards. Hopefully these awards provide the platform for artists and freelancers to have relatively the same opportunity for public support, but of course, with houses dark and no contact work going on for the foreseeable future, this may not necessarily be the case.  This at least offers assurance for artists and professional staff - not to mention audiences and communities - that the creative enterprises that we have all grown to love and respect, have to platform to maintain their work. But huge challenges remain for all, in particular, those who operate or work in venues.

How can a professional who’s been used to earning in excess of £15 - £30 per hour now live on £93 per week on Universal Credit? And the sheer bureaucratic effort to apply for benefits makes a SIAP application look like a walk in the park ( er... perhaps not a the minute). Never mind calculating housing benefits. If a self employed contractor has adequate earnings over the last few years, perhaps they will qualify for the averaged earnings up to £2,500 per month.

I know many artists and creative freelance folk who are waiting with baited breath for an Emergency Fund for Artists to open up. Hopefully this can happen soon and then ACNI can actively support all  that have seen that earning opportunity completely vanish. 

But, there are caveats... the experience in the South has been very mixed around some of the additional state money that supported the Facebook/Creative Ireland partnership, where if artists apply for a Creative Ireland/Facebook performance bursary that may well have knocked them out of any other support packages, ie job keepers allowance (which is far more generous than the meagre Jobseekers in NI). That bursary payment becomes an expensive €1,000 otherwise. So be it for those thinking of applying here, you may well put yourself beyond any other state benefit. Tricky calls.

What to do then? Well, there’s the creatively and fiscally resourceful self-starters like Paul Currie, the master artistic-comic-muso polymath. He’s asking for donations for his comedy sessions, bedtime stories, morning comedy keep fit turns, etc. They are all definitely worth a bob or two. And for others, if there is a way to see some income, they are all looking for it. 

We have seen in the arts councils recently published research that almost £4 million in revenue has been lost in the three months up to the end of this May. So there is a massive deficit that organisations and individuals are experiencing and that of course undermines the security of all our livelihoods.  If this is the new normal, we must find not only funding, but other means to support our work in terms of reaching out to audiences and practitioners alike.This will be the constant challenge for the years ahead, with ever greater need for the arts in terms of wellbeing and mental health support as we emerge from the dreadful shadow of this pandemic.



Stay safe, be well, get creative if you can

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