Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Swings and round the bend

We are constantly reminded in life that our journey can be a mixture of uphill challenges and downhill gambols, swings and roundabouts. And it seems that life mimics art or at least arts funding currently. For 43 organisations it’s definitely become even more difficult not only to access resources but to sustain the journey. For seven of those organisations, it seems that the road ahead is very unclear and some may find the final destination sooner than thought. For the rest, the holding pattern that has been locked in for the last five years means that any ambition has to be assessed so accurately that no risk can be contemplated and every creative action constrained with abject anxiety.Tough!

Where to? 

There is no clear direction for the arts. With this funding decision the only discernible trend that I can plot is a line moving down a graph, pointing to less and less and rapidly approaching an axis labelled £0.
Of course for many who don’t believe in public subsidy let alone notions of society or public benefit, the fact that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland have implemented these cuts, handed down from the Department for Communities, will be applauded. For these free marketeers, acolytes of some skewed Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest, the communities that find themselves furthest from the honey pot of the elite and the patricians, will forever get the least. In N Ireland, where 1 in 4 children live in absolute poverty, and one in four pensioners do likewise, their chances to enjoy their universal right to participate in the cultural life of this place have just been hammered again. 

And, if anything has been further underlined in all these mixed messages, particularly those emanating from the chair of ACNI despite his bluff and bluster about commerciality and business acumen, it’s that the arts can only survive with public subsidy – just look at the list of high profile organisations and the proportion of all funding that they require. Just 3 of them command close to one third of all annual funding. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t get that money, far from it they should probably get more and would if they were located elsewhere. I’m insisting that another 97 organisations need more than 66% of whatever is left! In other words, we need far greater levels of investment in the arts.

As of now, after these cuts, every person living in Northern Ireland, citizen or subject, receives just one penny per day from voted-for funds, ie those monies coming from government. That is not only the smallest amount per head in these islands but it is less than half that enjoyed by people in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England. Against this mammoth disparity, how can the arts really hope to survive in Northern Ireland?

I, as an advocate for the arts, have often been chided and advised not to talk about well-being or to compare the plight of arts cuts with those of cuts to education or health. But we can rest assured that if our health budget in Northern Ireland was less than half the average of anywhere else in these islands, that at least our politicians would bang the drum, fight, lobby, meet representatives and officials and insist that such a situation could not be allowed to continue and that it was in our own collective interest to fight agitate for fair funding. Northern Ireland thankfully does enjoy higher per capita spend on health than anywhere else in these islands. Many would argue that had we made tough decisions around reports like Bengoa, progressing new systematic changes, then we would see even greater impact from the level of funding that we receive. Similarly there are arguments made around the structure of our education system and the provision of local schools with differing class sizes and levels of achievement. In this instance many have argued over the years that a more concerted arrangement of provision to respond to need would enable those struggling at the bottom of league tables and in more marginalised areas to be better supported and see the inequality between achievers and others reduced. All this is normally the function of publicly funded interventions.
For the arts community generally, all but a handful of organisations have been pared back year after year making themselves incredibly lean and efficient in their management of the scarce resource of funding. We have argued time and again that without increased investment the only way was down. For some now, that has almost immediate consequences; for others a stay of execution perhaps or for the very few some additional funds that undoubtedly will not even match the aspirations and ambitions to which those organisations dedicate themselves.


But without an overarching statement of ambition, a strategy for the Arts here, produced and supported by our administration or at least what passes for it in terms of our technocrats in the Department for Communities and the silent legislature on the Hill, we are left, or rather ACNI is left, shuffling the pieces of a jigsaw around in a zero sum funding game. And the image that we are left with is a cubist nightmare where nothing quite fits together and the overall appearance is haphazard and lacking all form and function. This is a mess.
It is deeply regrettable but the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has had to make these cuts. It’s regrettable indeed that they had to make any but their hand has been forced in that regard. If ACNI had passed on a “salami slice” cut of 5.2%, everybody would’ve quite understood that they had little option but to do so, and got on with less.
But instead, the Arts Council have elected to make “strategic” cuts where the logic and design is difficult to understand and not discernible in any strategic document to which any arts organisation can make reference. Therefore the rationale behind these decisions becomes difficult to know and the direction of travel for discrete policy areas within the management of arts resources becomes even more oblique.

And the impact of all of this, despite the “delight” that the chairman of the Arts Council expresses in this AFP funding settlement, is that each and every citizen of Northern Ireland is today worse off, culturally, with no hope of matching the access that is enjoyed anywhere else in these islands.
These are dark days for political institutions in Northern Ireland in any case but now a longer shadow has fallen on those institutions that have created so much optimism, dynamism and collective ambition for our collective notions of shared and better futures here. 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, to the day, whilst we may continue to wrangle about the direction of political settlement, the Arts and Cultural sector has become a casualty of our inability to govern ourselves and propel us to a better place. 

Per Capita

Per Year
Per Week
Per Day
AFP Exchequer
AFP Lottery


While inquiries probe the billions risked in heating schemes, other costs are being counted, in pennies. And our ambitions for our wee corner of the world? The fact that 6,000 jobs were maintained in this sector, underpinning our evening economy, our tourist offering, never mind what it contributes to our schools, our community spaces, even nursing homes and hospitals, can we really not spare more than 1p per day from exchequer funding?

Are we really not worth more than tuppence ha’penny?


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Arts Matter Here : its Fund-amental - just ask Sir Kenneth

When you live somewhere and your back is against the wall, money is tight and hard times are all round, there are things that we all turn to, rely upon and from which we draw hope and inspiration. 

For some, its piety, others, its politics, and most of us, it’s the arts – whether we all actually say that or not. The need to be ‘taken out of yourself’ as my maternal granny would have said, when things were tough, meant singing or dancing or going to a show. Taking some enchanting and well deserved respite from the tragedies of life and the hopelessness of some situations, we endured much here and were also offered sustenance for the soul by the arts.

The arts were a resolute fixture in life here – they were not cowed by threats, or bombs, or security gates – they soared, in their own way, and invited others to do the same. The lights stayed on in our theatres, our concert halls, our dance studios and our institutions of learning and culture. Our pubs and clubs resonated with new sounds and poets reflected the hard truths and the cracks of beauty in between, time and again.  

The arts – in all their glory, all their disciplines and their magic, stood for civilisation and hope and normality and life. Belfast, Legend-Derry and all points in between, resonated with a creative hum that could not be dimmed by the hardship of what our society experienced. We celebrated. For me, as a wee lad in Belfast, and avid rock fan, catching the cream of rock musicians, playing the Ulster Hall or Antrim Forum, Maysfield, or wherever, this was key to my sense of renewal and my identity. 

And when punk came along, the obligatory Saturday morning jaunt to Good Vibes or Caroline music and then a burger with my best mate Peter and the bus back home to marvel at the sounds and songs from lads and lasses just a few years older than me from my home town. I played in bands and pogoed with the best of them. It was powerful.

This evening, Sir Kenneth Branagh marks a journey that began in dark those days but has now elevated him to be recognised as one of the most celebrated in his profession. It is emblematic of the persistent talent that rises from our wee patch of earth and shines bright.

But today, we are beset with further challenges to who we are and what it means to live here. Whilst politically things are still contested and a no-show government underlines that, we know and have known relative peace. The peace that many people in other places around the globe would long to have. There is confidence that we will not return to the dark days, when only the intrepid lovers of the arts hit the street after 6pm and continued to keep their and our spirits up. And of course, people also hit the pub, played sports, prayed… whatever – but cities and towns would have been completely deserted were it not for champions and folk who wouldn’t give up on their passions and their creative energy.

Today though, we are under attack. The bedrock of public services is being eroded by systematic cuts – this is the 10th year that so-called austerity budgets have undermined all our collective endeavours – across every facet of life. We know that whether its education, or health, or roads or whatever, we are all bearing the brunt of the casino capitalism that shuddered to a halt in 2008. But that was 10 years ago. We need strong voices now to challenge that trajectory and narrative. The arts can provide that voice, of hope, inspiration and renewal.We need the lights to stay on!

“Curiouser and curiouser” this what my mate Adam Turkington said to me the other day as we scratched our heads at the so called advocacy messages emanating from the speech of the Chair of the Arts Council. We were so flabbergasted during the event in fact, I could have sworn I heard a thud, as jaws collectively hit the floor and we listened to the ‘damning with faint praise’ commentary about the sector’s sustainability. It was all the more remarkable because we had just been treated to an elegant and well-informed appeal for increased investment in the arts by the CEO of Allianz Ireland, Mr Sean McGrath. The two messages couldn’t have been in greater contrast.

We need champions, both in government and in advocacy. We have an ability, generation after generation, to produce award-winning talent and create ground-breaking arts activity, participation and production.

But we need financial support. 

I recalled on twitter the other day, as best I could, the words of former Secretary of State for Culture and a Clore Trustee Chris Smyth. He said something like ‘The arts – cultural activity, endeavour and engagement should require no justification other than their innate ability to move us, to reflect who we are and to enhance our lives.’ I’d go further to say that the transformative power of that intrinsic ability can be amplified in a myriad of ways for a thousand different needs.

This to me is fundamental and it is a simple proposition. The governmental support for culture should acknowledge that truth and build upon it.

For us here and now, without a government, we need real, passionate, determined champions, with integrity – and motivators and inspirational figures like Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Happy Branagh in Belfast Day Sir Ken!

Take a bow.

Respect the value you bring.

Be inspirational…


Arts Matter Here…
Empowering generations
Enabling community
Enriching lives