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


Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Cinderella story of Arts Funding – the tragedy of more cuts

It’s been such a turbulent time over the past months and colleagues have been asking when the next Captain’s blog would appear.  It’s been flat out hectic not just for the organisation I run but right across this sector and indeed every publicly-funded sector. But there is some response that this sector needs to make in light of the news of a further imposition of austerity cuts by our proxy government (the NI Civil Service) and their masters, the Conservative Government in Westminster, whose position is maintained by a confidence and supply arrangement offered by our local largest political party, the DUP.

But you know all this stuff, all the political scaffolding, you know what’s been said in the media and you’re already utterly demoralised by the ebb and flow of posturing and misrepresentation of the whole Brexit shambles, no matter what your choice was in the EU Referendum. Some think that we won’t be bearing the cost of that Brexit decision for a few years yet, but one only has to look at the most recent Chancellor’s budget to recognise that taking £3bn out of the economy for a reserve doesn’t bode well.

But today all sectors are jockeying for media positions around budget allocations – the areas of domiciliary care and social work have been highlighting their case with its desperate state of historic under-funding and incredibly low pay for people who care for our most long-lived and long-loved – our parents and elderly. The Power to the People https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/health/power-to-people-executive-summary.PDF report makes a range of recommendations.

In all the commentary they make 16 proposals for restructuring the whole domiciliary care provision, support and indeed market. If their sector was funded adequately, then a more organic and perhaps non market-driven alternative might be found, but that’s for others to discuss. They say they are in crisis and they have made a response. And we believe them.  Short of a massive injection of public spending across this sector by a new policy coming from Westminster (we live in electoral hope) the reality is that increasingly, market-driven reform and further neo-liberalisation of our prized public services will be seen as a credible alternative and allowed to continue.
Oh No it isn’t – Oh Yes it is
Even though I’ve been constantly told “don’t draw any similarities between health care and the arts”, I think we need to say that whilst the outcomes that care for the elderly deliver are different to those of the arts, it remains the aim of any civilised society to support and enhance quality of life and ensure an adequate standard of living. And therefore we all face the same threat to our social roles and how they are supported– emanating from the same place and requiring the same urgent remedy.

The arts strive to support every pocket of our population and our place. The arts complement the support to the elderly for example, for example the Arts Council of Northern Ireland supporting 20 community-based arts projects for older people awarded grants worth over £160,000 to organisations across the region announced just a month ago.

The Arts and Creative Sector do incredible things for our emerging sense of ourselves and the exploration of what it is to be alive. The arts reflect who we are, celebrate the histories and cultures that made us, challenge us with new ideas of who we could be and entertain us with visions and dreams to keep our spirits up and our humanity in sight. The advantages of having a vibrant arts infrastructure is seen in every aspect of our society:
·      economy
·      equality
·      cultural expression
·      creativity, education and skills
·      community cohesion
·      health and wellbeing and
·      tourism

The Arts and Creative Sector does this each and every day too by:
·      promoting equality of opportunity,
·      tackling poverty & social exclusion,
·      promoting excellence,
·      rewarding innovation and
·      connecting communities

If creativity and intellectual property are to fuel the global economy of 21st century, then the prospectors of our future wealth are those within our creative sector – artists, creative producers and the myriad of creative jobs not yet dreamed of in an imminently diaphanous digital future.

So, whilst the Creative Economy is booming in UK as a whole, a recent report suggests it is actually stagnating and receding here in NI – we have seen 11% of creative industries jobs go in 2015-16 whilst there has been a surge in GB (London) of 18%, seeing the Creative Economy now estimated to be worth almost 14% of the UK economy, at over £90bn. Heady stuff. But here, the comparative modesty of our position is striking.  

A Christmas Carol
I wrote to Leo O’Reilly, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities (the budget holder and primary government department overseeing the arts in Northern Ireland) in my capacity as convener of the ArtsMatterNI campaign group some weeks ago to point out the egregious funding situation in which the arts sector finds itself:

…our grouping is particularly concerned, as we understand that that your department, similarly to others, has sought business cases that explore further reductions in revenue funding for the Arts. We would wish to point out that the subsequent impact would disproportionately affect the resourcing of the arts, already a very small budget within such a major department. Our concerns are magnified in light of the dramatic downturn in National Lottery incomes that has meant further pressures on available monies to resource the sector.
We are very anxious to point out to you that funding for the arts has seen a major decline in revenue funds available, meaning in-years cuts for our larger 104 arts organisations and a perilous position for the sector. With the concurrent year on year decline in Lottery receipts, we fear a further adverse impact undermining the sector’s viability and the tremendous strides made by Northern Ireland’s festivals, venues, community arts organisations, theatre, dance, visual arts, music and literary companies representing a host of further art forms, particularly in light of our current bid to become European Capital of Culture hosts in 2023.
Since the changes to UK regulation and the subsequent opening up of the lottery market to greater competition, the overall National Lottery income for good causes has reduced by 14% between 2015/16 and 2016/17 and has reduced by a further 5% in the first half of 2017 /18. The forecasts point to significant continuing reductions in the remainder of 2017/18 and 2018/19.
National Lottery income makes up the majority of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s budgetary resource for the arts community, alongside Grant in Aid from the Northern Ireland Government. Given the particular circumstances in which our Assembly and Executive find themselves at this present time, we are all the more concerned about the sustainability of the arts, in the immediate to medium term. Unless other funding can be found, further reductions to resources will have a significant and lasting negative impact on our arts infrastructure. We believe the impact of further cuts and simultaneous funding reductions will see organisations close, losing jobs for the creative sector and having a detrimental impact on our capacity to support professional and community participation in the arts, not to mention the potential impact on the Creative Industries and our Tourism offering as well

Furthermore, I offered the Permanent Secretary an opportunity to meet representatives of the sector, and waited for a response. 

So, last Thursday I received this from Joanna McConway, the Director Culture. It makes for sobering reading:

Significantly, the always very personable Ms McConway, confirms our fears and offers little succour. Nor did she want to meet.

She says a few things from which we can draw some inferences: 
A.   “Current forecasts suggest we will face very significant financial pressures arising from the need to sustain and support priority public services.”

So, there will be deep cuts

B.   “Therefore, the overall disposition of the arts bodies supported by the Arts Council and of voluntary and community organisations more generally, must be one of planning to live with a reducing public sector subvention in the coming years.”

You should expect these cuts this year and for years to come!

C.   “Arts Organisations must consider seriously how they can become more sustainable in the face of budget reductions which are likely to be unavoidable…it should not be assumed that any additional funding will be available”

The inevitability of these cuts means that organisations should plan how to survive right away
D.   The Arts sector is by its nature innovative and resilient and …is equipped to produce creative solutions moving forward”

The old chestnut, that the sector is resilient and of course creative – well, most organisations that I speak to are funded to deficit and are perilously close to the edge financially. 2018-19 will be the 10th year that the arts budget has contracted – and it will be the 3rd that sees core operational budgets cut.

Bear this in mind: Arts organisations, apart from a few, are charities and as such rely on the personal liability of their trustees to underwrite operational capacity. If there is fraud or negligence, that personal liability can be claimed by creditors. And it would be negligent not to analyse any further cuts without trying to understand how they would impact. If an organisation believes that it does not have the trading capacity for the year ahead, it cannot view itself as a going concern. If it trades without that capacity, it does so illegally. Boom- game over!!  Corporate liability becomes the personal liability of Trustees in this event. 

But would it not be equally negligent for a government department to announce cuts without any assessment, quantitative or qualitative, of their impact?And if they have made those assessments, should we not have access to them, or at least their findings?

Oh yes we are!
Now, how many organisations do you think, out of the 107 that have been regularly funded organisations of the Arts Council over the past few years say, how many are confident in their trading capacity for next year? How many carry significant deficits, how many have seen deficits accumulate year on year?

Conversely, how many have spare capacity (ie unrestricted) through sales or revenues that they can take out a loan or approach social financing (as the neo-liberalising safety net of choice)?  Bear in mind, you take out a loan, it goes on your balance sheet as a further liability.

I understand that a significant proportion of arts organisations find themselves in the former ie the deficit situation and not the latter, having spare cash. And I further understand that some of those deficits are impossible to mitigate if funding levels fall any further and the upshot will be ruinous.

So, what does this mean for us as a creative community? If domiciliary health care is recognised to be in a state of collapse – then surely we must say that the arts are too. Where the cry is for a joined up integrated government approach? We in the arts have been calling and authoring such approaches for years. Whilst we read that finally the DFC is moving ahead with  an Arts and Cultural Strategy, it may be one that instead of championing ambition, signals significant change and deflection.

The sector is tired, demoralised, under-funded, under paid and still offering itself time and again, to create spectacle, entertainment and real humanising creative contact in towns and villages, schools, hospitals, community centres, theatres and venues across Northern Ireland. But every chief executive, director, manager will tell you – it’s never been harder.

They’re behind you!
We are stubbornly at the bottom of the arts funding ladder across these islands and indeed, the EU. No one gets less than the citizens of Northern Ireland for their arts and creative support. No children get less opportunity to exercise their right to participate in the cultural life of their community than our children here. No working age adult receives less return on their taxation in terms of the resourcing of culture and creativity. And if you happen to be poor (and of course, we are neck and neck with the poorest regions of Scotland and Wales) you and your children and their grandparents have less chance again.

And we do have by far, the highest level of elderly people in need in the UK– a statistic that is rising. Nearly 10% of elderly people in Northern Ireland are living in absolute poverty, another 10 % in relative poverty. By 2030 more than a quarter of the population will be aged over 60. But 1 in 4 children are living in absolute poverty right now.

Does this place that has endured so much for so long not deserve better?
Potentially the most enduring consequence of the Troubles is the impact on young people throughout 30 years of the Conflict, allied to its perceived legacy on the lives of children and young people growing up in Northern Ireland today - (Commission for Victims and Survivors Northern Ireland 2010, 125).

Of course we do!  We deserve at least parity of funding compared with our neighbouring nations. I estimated at election time (remember we had one, what a monumental waste of resources that was, we didn’t even get a government!) that to reach average per capita spend across these islands, that we would need an additional £40m annually spent here. In 2008, I recall the Arts Council asked government for a modest £26m...next year it looks like they will have less than £9m to support the core of the sector, with much the same in reducing National Lottery funds. In total, (Revenue plus Lottery) that is 0.05% of GDP and  0.02% of all public expenditure here, ie for very pound spent in the arts, our civil service spends £5000 elsewhere. I was recently reminded that just one opera house in Dortmund, Germany received €20m annually...just one, of Germany boasts 83 publicly-funded opera houses, as well as 130 orchestras and 70 music festivals.

So, we know there is a crisis in education, in domiciliary care, and in our hospitals – there is also and most definitely a crisis in the smallest budget area, the arts and it has reached ‘critical’.

Soon, organisations will close, big and small. And there may not be an outcry because well, its always been a struggle and without a minister, who do you cry out to? As a sector we’re this diverse collection of things; spheres of interaction and expression identified by the name of their most representative institution like museums, or libraries, or festivals or theatre, or circus, or cinema or community arts; whole realms of culture denoted by expressions like heritage, performing arts or visual arts, dance,  sculpture, or literature or by titles like art education, cultural relations, creative participation. That diversity has been our strength. It is also our weakness. Whatever we call this sector, for a great many of us, we have seen the high watermark of our collective endeavours already reached – we are now about to witness a dramatic and inevitable decline.

At least Cinderella’s story has a happy ending – for the arts in Northern Ireland our funding narrative offers none and the tragedy is that for relatively very little, it could have been a very different story.  

What a pantomime!

Merry Xmas!