Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The arts can build back better

Like anyone involved in the arts in the North / N Ireland, I am anxious that not only do the arts survive this pandemic, but that all associated with the arts manage to be in a position to support our community as we take two steps forward and one back around re-opening after lockdown and re-establishing ourselves and our role. Because the arts can be a formidable force for good, an incredible means of supporting a population that has been traumatised by inter-community violence for decades and was starting to come to terms with itself, this wave of Covid 19 and its horrific impact on our community will reverberate for years to come, compounding our trauma, exposing the vulnerability of our elderly and those with underlying conditions (approaching 90,000 households here) and increasing disorders like depression and anxiety in our teenagers and new mothers, etc . And this is only the first wave of this global pandemic. So, as a lot of us have done during the lockdown, we have turned to the arts for respite, release and escape. The next challenge for the arts will be to offer consolation, express fears, manage bereavement and cope with loss. If as a creative community we manage to rise to that challenge, then we will assist this society move another step toward resilience.

But among the outcry from a small group (including the actor Sean Kearns who was a brilliant advocate) representing theatre, venues and audiences last week that presented to a committee at Stormont, came the warning that the sector faced "cultural Armageddon" (although another has a survey entitled "After the Interval" which doesn't communicate much in the way of the obliterating of a sector, on the one hand, never mind offering scant sympathy or regard towards the thousands of lives lost and millions affected by the global pandemic, equating it to a theatre intermission, on the other). The catastrophist pronouncement along with the alarming insistence that all organisations in the sector "face obliteration" might make for good press coverage, but the truth is that all arts organisations have been faced with economic uncertainty as an ever-present for years and each is working hard to make sure that this is not the last battle, but unfortunately yet another challenge in a litany of setbacks, cuts, historic under-investment and lack of adequate financial protection and security. The acute emergency of having no audiences for theatre is of course a massive immediate challenge to an already weakened position.

If the last 12 years were characterised by cuts and further neo-liberal pressure to become more economically self-sustaining, the next 12 will be even harder, as we stare into the biggest recession the world has ever seen. The challenge is for our whole society to #buildbackbetter , finding ways to amplify the fantastically creative possibility that a greener, more people-centred economy might be advanced by the humanity and compassion of the arts, rather than fighting to save our place in a failing economic model, that has never embraced the arts adequately.

To all those who claim that the arts sector is part of the Creative Industries, it is time to recognise our place within this and perhaps to see ourselves somewhat apart.  TV, Gaming, Films are extremely expensive to invest in and are hugely profitable businesses - you need only look at the all-too-often mentioned TV show about swords and sandals and snow (I watched one episode and that was that!) . But the figures around the creative industries are massive because they embrace a huge swathe of economic activity that is not connected to what we do in our small arts sector - Advertising and Marketing and Architecture are part of the creative industries - and do not relate directly to anything most of the organisations in the local cultural sector are engaged in. IT, Software and Games account for over 40% of this Creative Industries catch all - accounting for £45bn in 2018 in the UK.

Music, culture and arts by comparison accounted for 8% of the GVA of the Creative Industries.  What I'm trying to get across is that by constantly associating our arts sector with one of the most profitable areas of the economy projects us in the wrong light; it says that we generate massive profits. We don't - if arts organisations break even, they are doing well. That has always been the case. Now, venues in particular are faced with losing 90% of their box office, which will be devastating. But others are quickly finding new ways to develop and present product and change will be at breakneck speed over the coming years. The new normal must offer progress, otherwise its just another empty promise.

We are the culture and arts sector, the Cinderella of any Creative Industries - left to the funding vagaries of the public purse and dependent on between 30% and 70% subvention from government or  philanthropic funds. The organisations that keep craft traditions alive, that work tirelessly with older people in residential homes (how necessary is this now???) the organisations that reach into every community centre, school, disability group, supporting newcomers and native residents , in every corner across the country, facilitating projects in film, fashion, poetry, dance, drama, sculpture, visual arts, painting, drawing, designing and offering a platform to the arts of yesterday to be maintained and grow and support us all,  as we look forward to tomorrow.

Don't confuse us with the for-profit sectors of the Creative Industries! No, no, no... this is the for-people sector of arts and culture. There will be many more struggles ahead, this is not Armageddon, the final battle. The arts will fight on.

But we do need help, badly. That reality has been recognised and has meant that an extra €25m was allocated to the arts sector in the South just two weeks ago. If we in the North, were to receive the equivalent per capita, it would be approaching £9m of 'new' money.  This is crucial - the British government must offer additional funds to our devolved Assembly, a portion of which must help save the arts, especially those that have seen their income 'fall off a cliff' to quote the overused phrase. We need our political class, not to petition our Minister to find more cash locally out of already stretched budgets (albeit the £4m June monitoring funding announced by Finance Minister Murphy may be a boon, once we understand how it's to be deployed)| but we need to direct our plea to the British Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer to release additional emergency funding and recognise the unforeseen circumstances that this sector finds itself in.

So far, those additional monies have not materialised yet we read everyday of the quasi-Keynsian budgetary investment being made by the Tories - but not to the arts. Scotland has tried to shore up its sector. The Arts Council of N Ireland have done their utmost to assist individual artists and organisations, offering £1.5m in emergency funds. But here, we need a Barnett Formula applied to the emergency monies being allocated in Britain and we need it right now. We need it across those sectors that assist the public to manage to impact of it all - health services, social services and the arts and cultural services. We're not seeking billions. No. It's a tenth of the money spent on an abandoned track and trace app, or one percent of the RHI overspend or 0.05% of the annual budget here.

So, as the deadly waves of Covid-19 sweep across the world, let's recognise that we all want our life to return to some type of normality. One of the fastest ways to that returned sense of well-being is to tap into the expressive power of the arts and get ourselves out of our bunkers, mentally and physically and allow the arts an opportunity to help this society process the impact of coronavirus on our lives and give us a platform to move forward and build back better.

The new normal must be better than the old one - for all our sakes.

Baineann sé le tábhacht na nEalaíon sa Tuaisceart

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