Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Cuts or No Cuts, the Arts will always Matter

Over the years that I have been writing this blog and trying to muster some thoughts around how we might defend ourselves against the swingeing ongoing cuts that threaten livelihoods, professions, practice, creativity, educational attainment, health and wellbeing, civic participation, community development, international profiles, tourist offerings, economic growth – it seems that mostly I’m talking to the sector without really penetrating the halls of government and in any case, there are other factors to consider as well. 

Last time out, we had a rally, we urged a minister in face to face and rather frank discussion (we did – I was there!) and we saw the development of the first all-party group on the arts established at Stormont. Of course now, we live in a place that has not has a government since December effectively. And the countdown is on to an early October Assembly election.

So here and now, I really wonder what we should do as a sector because both what we have said and what we have done clearly has not worked – brutally evidenced by newest wave of in-year cuts announced last week by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. 

ACNI introduces these cuts to the sector by stating: "Further to our letters of offer dated 1 April 2017 covering your core and programming costs, the Council has now received further information on its 2017/18 budget allocation from the Department for Communities. At this point the Arts Council is receiving a 4% cut to its overall budget and unfortunately, for the first time, we have to pass this on to all AFP clients.

The value of the cut to the Council means that we will have to impose a 5% cut on our exchequer allocation to your core costs. We will, however, be able to continue to offer you the full amount of our Lottery award towards your programming costs."
Here is the effect of the cuts across the sector. You’ll notice that I have added in last year’s figures as well.

The press release on the Arts Council website reported “The good news is that the Arts Council was able to mitigate the effect of this cut to core organisational costs for the overwhelming number of Arts organisations. The Council has ensured that their programming funding is supported by the Arts Council’s National Lottery funds and therefore remains secure."

Extracting good news from The Arts Council’s announcement has the air of “things could be worse”.  For 2017/18 exchequer grants for core costs of arts organisations total £8,369,796, while national lottery funding of £4,701,891 supports programming. For the eagle eyed and hyper-mathematical, the figures supplied on the ACNI website press release didn’t quite add up, but we get the general drift, even if the awarding of an additional 50 quid to the Lyric may not feel like much of an uplift to them, considering that others received relatively much more.  

The Arts Council does have its reasons for these three instances (actually, its just two, following a correction regarding funding that was announced last year but not subsequently updated, apologies for that) that appear to go against the otherwise universal trend of cuts and I am not for one moment going to single out colleagues or question those decisions - but instead I wanted to draw attention to the “mitigation” as the Arts Council puts it, and the effect on organisations and indeed others wishing to prevail on arts funding, like artists, community groups, bands etc.
The press release on the Arts Council website reported Roisin McDonough commenting that “In the context of an uncertain funding environment, this announcement of £13 million will support the valuable work our artists and arts organisations deliver for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. The ACNI messaging is rather interesting in that they are putting forward a very positive face on this –investing a headline figure of £13M, but of course, this is also a reduced figure and in trying to shore it up, “the mitigation” that ACNI speak about, they are having to reduce other allocations of Lottery funding. This is not a zero sum game.

Annual funding against all available grant funding

The public funding of the arts is a somewhat closed system, with 2 main channels of resource – one from government voted for funds called Exchequer and the other flowing from our slice of Lottery funding. Most of the time, you will see details of Treasury funding, the allocation made by ministers and their departments and ultimately paid for by tax receipts. It is this funding source that hitherto has been the most contested because it is ultimately under political control. (But we have no local Assembly, I hear you say. True, but we do have government departments that are still making decisions precisely because they have no Assembly with no budget to tell them otherwise. N Ireland is running out of money because we only get, as I’ve mentioned before, maximum percentages (75% and 90%) of our bloc grant offered when there is no budget in place.) National Lottery Fund money is dependent on how many people play the growing variety of games on the various nights of the week and how may scratch cards are purchased etc etc. Its an aggregate of a great many investments as well. Unfortunately however, the income trend for both is declining, but Lottery funding to the arts is currently dropping far faster than Exchequer. 

Last year, 15-16 ACNI had a reported £10.77 M in available grant aid, this year (2016/17) it may be more like £8.5M and the trend into 2017-18 looks even more dispiriting. 


So, how do we lobby for change when we have no Assembly and further uncertainty around lottery funds. To whom do we turn when we see the funding that the Arts Council is provided slashed year for year and that trend is utterly unsustainable for a sector that should and must be central to this or any society. 

I think one thing that we could do right away is to promote the Lottery and the funding we desperately receive far more than we are doing. There are 107 arts organisations whose programming is almost wholly dependent on people playing the Lottery. For an organisation like Community Arts Partnership, it means that funding flows back to those areas where people are most likely to be playing. It means that almost 5,000 people across all age groups, and areas have the chance to participate, create and author their won art work. For every organisation, there is a debt of gratitude to each and every Lottery player that perhaps we should be more willing to publicise.

For a sector, that is rightfully publicly funded and as such principally dependent on government and public investment, where do we turn. Is it pointless asking that to a sector that continues to find other money and competes in every possible instance for funds and philanthropy? Bearing in mind the characteristics of arts funding across the UK  and the low level of philanthropic giving, the struggle to analyse and identify solutions is as complex and urgent as the areas of activity as John Holden puts it Culture is often discussed as an economy, but it is better to see it as an ecology, because this viewpoint offers a richer and more complete understanding of the subject. Seeing culture as an ecology is congruent with cultural value approaches that take into account a wide range of non-monetary values.

Non-monetary some values may be, but their translations into real economic value and intrinsic cultural value is evident. But of course, not everything that counts can be counted as an apocryphal Einstein would have it. 

There is an indisputable and fundamental right to participate in the cultural life of our society, enshrined in statute and chartered declarations, conventions and protocols. Therefore that relationship between the arts and polity necessitates citizens’ access and public investment.  The same attaches to investing in health. We do so because it saves lives, it protects workforces, it offers a safety net to the most vulnerable, and it promotes the ideal and outworking of equality. The arts do the same. Recently, we saw a restatement of what public investment in the arts and in health might ideally look like for a neighbouring state like GB. Perhaps they might yet achieve that in the not so distant future.

The NHS is the second largest employer in NI. Investing in health pours money into our economies as well as our health and well-being. The arts do the same, employing over 5,000 full time equivalents and promoting a creative economy, supporting the civic and personal health and well-being of this place and its people.

At the recent “Assessing the Challenge” meeting on May 17th here in CAP, what was clear was that the arts sector very soberly understood the challenges around changes that could be made about how we operate together but also how we should lobby for the continuation and furtherance of our role. At this rate of in-year cuts, in a very short space of time we will see the arts shudder to a halt.

As for local Exchequer funds, we need a new strategy, a new conversation. ArtsMatterNI is meeting again on Wed 21st June in CAP, to take forward the conversation that we re-began in May. Do join us, or participate on-line and offer your wisdom and support.

The arts need support.

The arts matter.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017


On the afternoon of Wednesday, 17 May we will be hosting an event at CAP called Assessing the Challenge. Co facilitated by the Interactive Institute in the person of our good friend Stevie Johnston we will be looking at a variety of issues that impact upon the arts sector within the overarching Third Sector of the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise remit. This seminar is part of a wider conversation which Building Change Trust is initiating about the future of the VCSE sector.

For any organisational representatives that engaged in the #artsmatterNIcampaign, this seminar aims to reflect the challenges that were there some years ago, which have actually become greater today.
Carving out a space for the arts so that it doesn't get lost between the cracks in the armature of government has always been a difficult challenge. Today amidst the clamour and contestation of an election campaign; our own unresolved local election; a review of all arm's-length bodies and a White Paper coming from DCMS detailing a more rigid economic focus for the arts, there is unquestionably further challenge to be anticipated. Added to this the fact that most arts organisations operating professionally in Northern Ireland have only had half a year’s funding guaranteed and with the introductory speech from a new chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland ringing in our ears, it is clear that a new reality is dawning on the arts and that previous wider horizons are perhaps dimming from view.

Working in the arts, for all its creative and spiritual reward, is a difficult lifelong role. It demands dedication to your art; long, often antisocial hours; continuing professional practice development and a rallying, rousing ability to offer optimism, where little is evident and a crushing sense of insecurity for any future often blots out our blue sky. Today the level of short-termism within the funding and support structures for the arts represents a new low for a commitment to this sector. This is perhaps not the fault of local politicians, not civil servants, NDPBs, nor local government but, that being the case, it is definitely not the fault of the arts and organisations themselves, who have managed to increase levels of participation in our cultural activity year on year for the last 15. This at a time over the last seven years (at least) where funding has been in decline if not for some in absolute free-fall.

The shock that many locally felt around the level of cuts in 2008 to budgets in England say, at both departmental level and local government level, we have now felt that level of impact locally. And the future looks even worse.

Our principal funder, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland seems to be setting a new tack against the prevailing winds. The new chair said that his focus will be on sustainability and understanding the financial environment but he also cautioned that he is unsure of what the function of the Arts Council is, whilst also reminding us that the reason he didn't go to work in the arts was because "there was no money in it". Well John, there might still be no money in it by some estimations or perhaps there is even less in fact, but there are over 5,500 employed. And we want to find ways to remain. (pun?...perhaps) employed in this diversely rich and rewarding area of work and public benefit.

The Department for Communities, which presides over the arts, is conducting an arm's-length review not just of the functions of the Arts Council but indeed a whole raft of arm's-length bodies. Conversations and consultations have heard indications that there may be shared services or amalgamations but whatever is decided, it is clear that there is an appetite for change. Another challenge undoubtedly.

But in this prevailing turmoil of uncertainty, where no clear strategy or ambition for the arts community has been offered, the one fixture that gives philosophical comfort and supports artistic autonomy is the Arm's Length Principle. Francis Maude ,then Minister for the Cabinet Office, in 2010 offered four tests in his extensive review of public bodies -  

  1. the first was existential and asked does the body need to exist and do its functions need to be carried out at all 
  2. then they sought to establish whether those functions should be properly carried out at arms length to government 
  3. if the body carries out a highly technical activity is required to be politically impartial or 
  4. needs to act independently to establish facts then that is right for it to remain outside direct ministerial accountability. 

In areas like the arts and science the public expects funding on merit not favouritism so the need for political impartiality to distribute taxpayers money is well established.
When that reform bill went to the Lords they added two sub-clauses that the powers given to them must regard: 

  • achieving increased efficiency effectiveness and economy in the exercise of public functions and 
  • securing appropriate accountability to ministers and the exercise of such functions.

Section 23 of that Hansard noted that the "present incoherence and inconsistencies cannot have helped the conduct of the review or the drafting of the bill" and that there "should be a single set of tests that covers whether a function needs to be performed, whether it is appropriate for it to be performed independently or can it be delivered most cost-effectively. 

Essentially it boils down to three things 

  • whether a function needs to be performed i.e. it's existential 
  • whether it is appropriate for it to be performed independently by a public body ie impartiality and 
  • can be delivered most cost-effective way ie value for money. 

In any of the current arm's-length review process that I have been a part of with the Department for Communities so far, I have yet to hear these tests be dealt with.

So, if you do value the arts and you KNOW that they matter and you lead an arts organisation, now would be the time for all of us to re-engage with the #artsmatterni campaign and offer a deeper understanding of our role and our need for support.

Please join us in Assessing the Challenge as you see it and beginning to articulate our responses.