Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Defining the cuts and remodelling the arts

We are in a very difficult moment, not just as an arts sector but as a society. Our services and quality of life, across all areas of society, seem to be ransomed in this bitter battle of brinkmanship between so called power-sharers. Every facet of how we live and defend our society against the daily challenges of life, is under threat. If the Executive has ring-fenced some areas, capping them at last year’s levels, they are effectively being reduced in real terms anyway. That means always having to make do, with less, for all of us.

Northern Ireland is more dependent than any other part of these islands on state subvention. By many accounts, we are 70% dependent on it. Indeed, many within our private sector, are dependent on it. Just look at the seed funding required for a range of different private enterprises that comes from Invest NI for example.

But the Realpolitik presents a very challenging set of circumstances. As a few nations emerge from the global economic downturn, N Ireland now turns the corner into… a continuing downward spiral, from austerity budgets into year on year financial penalties. And look what is round the next corner? RPA (or LGR), another general election, another Comprehensive Spending Review, another Assembly election.  

Our Assembly is also due to report on Northern Ireland’s ability to vary local tax raising powers after the Scottish referendum in September too. Are they, our policy-makers, as some proponents insist they should (including the public subsidiser of private enterprise, Invest NI) still going to call for less Corporation Tax locally, with the resulting cut to the block-grant of perhaps £400m or more? Bear in mind this year, we have a fine of £87m currently and you can see how our local public-subsidy dependent economy is buckling under the strain. How could we cope with cuts four or five times that magnitude, with no trade-off in tax yield for years to come? They’re warning of turning off the street lamps now. In that scenario, a local population is entitled to ask, “What should be prioritised”? How many might answer, “The Arts”?

Whilst our local trade union movement is disputing some of the figures surrounding the cuts and seem to be attributing cuts to a continuing austerity cutting exercise, politicians from our leading parties insist that there is no way to avoid the cuts or no way to engage in the cuts. It’s increasingly difficult to know what is actually happening with this area of expenditure and penalty.

But we have seen some areas ring-fenced – Health and Education, from whatever the reduction might be named. 

One of the smallest budgets of all, the arts, could be ring-fenced too. The arts do a lot more than many think. It’s not all about, high flown theatre. Or international festivals where only an elite few might get what’s going on. Not at all. For the arts community, the artistic challenge is trying to relate to local populations, creating interesting but accessible work, reflecting difficult notions and ambitious art works in less closed, less privileged ways. Of course, there may still be a distance to go. Community arts has been at the forefront of this process for decades of course.

If the government can ring-fence the health and education budgets which are vitally important and also a mammoth chunk of our budget anyway, perhaps they could also ring-fence the thing that makes us tick as a people and a place. Our creativity, our celebration of craft and form and beauty and invention. Our ability to express. The stuff of dreams. The pageant, the sights and sounds, sensations and images that make us stop, laugh, cry, smile, think, question, love. The stuff that entertains, challenges and educates, all at the same time. Our arts. And not just for the tax-payer or rate payer. But for our young people, our next generation. Should we not make every effort to enhance their lives and their horizons? For our older generations that have been through incredible struggles? For so many more.

For less than half of 1% of the currently ring-fenced budget areas, we could actually grow arts funding and see our arts community enabled to offer all of us more opportunities to remark on life in a whole new way and to maybe think about this place as having a really creative future, for all of us.

The cuts having to be implemented by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will have an impact. Many arts organisations will have to cut provision and outreach offers. Others, like Community Arts Partnership, will instead strive to mitigate the impact of these cuts on the most marginalised communities and youth arts development. CAP will maintain the strongest participant-focus that it can as an organisation and will support all the groups and organisations that successfully made application earlier in the year. But further cuts, say in next year’s budget, will make such efforts unsustainable.

And among the argument and brickbats, we are faced with a moment that may re-shape all arts provision. 

Bear in mind too how sore even the smallest cut can be and how long they can take to heal.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Nolan - and the Arts Council in year cuts

I listened to the Steven Nolan Show on my way into work this Monday. Nolan talks of the cuts to 37 arts organisations by the Arts Council and then talks to a couple of folk. I heard the measured, supportive advocacy of Brendan Mulgrew (nice one Brendan) and his adversary called Jeffrey. I winced as this fully-paid-up free-marketeer, all shrill and sneer, chastised the arts and the public subvention of culture. His mocking tone ran something like this:  if the arts are so good, why can't they raise enough money for themselves without tax payers support???

Poor old, culturally-impoverished Jeffrey perhaps doesn't know what it is to enjoy the arts? If he has an interest in economics, perhaps he might be a supporter? Maybe, he doesn't understand that over 3,500 people work in this industry, making it one of the largest indigenous industries in Northern Ireland? Or that in the big, bad world, the relationship between economics and the arts, pitches nation against nation, tax break against tax break, and subvention against you guessed it....all trying to land the next Game of Thrones? Or to entice a top-class theatre to open up (like the ones we already have here!!), so that people attached to large corporations enjoy living in the place that they bring inward investment into!

This Jeffrey, it seems, doesn't know of the very necessary work the arts does for populations that cannot afford the fur coat (the allusion with which he even mocks middle-class concert-attenders). Many people in fact cannot afford anything much at all. Throughout boom or bust, welfare reform fines or austerity, property-boom or bust, some 1 in 5 of our local population remain some of the most disadvantaged people in Europe. These are the people most likely supported by community arts projects and by CAP in particular.

People in the highest 20% of disadvantage in NI have reduced life expectancies, chronic health issues, poor educational attainment, endemic unemployment and a range of ensuing social problems. Jeffrey would deny them the arts as well. Unless they pay, from their new universal benefit perhaps, which is to be reduced of course as well.

And what of the arts and cultural work that supports children and young people, who might just flourish into the novelist, poet, musician or actor of tomorrow. Jeffrey doesn't seem to value the arts anyway, so doesn't really care. Presumably, he could live in a world where we have no creative ambition. A world without Heaney, Hewitt, McGuckian or Morissey, no Branagh, Hinds or Neeson, Tometly or Brennan, no Galway, Douglas, no Blackshaw, Luke. No Sally Young!

This Jeffrey, advocates no public subvention, for arts, culture (even the BBC) instead his idea is that profit-making commercial organisations should pay and trusts and foundations. Why private shareholders of organisations bent on profit should be asked to pay for the public's access to the arts doesn't seem to fit in Jeffreys world view - he doesn't think the work arts organisations do has any value anyway. I don't see a long queue of commercial organisations at my door waiting to support arts facilitators developing programmes for people with dementia, or for those struggling with paying bills. They're not exactly queueing up to help the orchestra either mind you!!

Bear in mind folks the UK tax-payer stumped up £850,000,000,000 for the banking sector. That's £850 billion Jeffrey. You may have forgotten that piece of public subvention! They're getting that money back...at some stage...perhaps...

But, what I think Jeffrey means is that someone else should pay, but definitely not him, nor indeed in his name!!! And of course, for the so-called "biggest show in the country", any exasperated commentary is good commentary. It doesn't matter if they know anything about the subject so long as they can shriek or be shrill!!

In Jeffrey's world, there would be no colour, no flair, no variety, no nuance. No festivals or events, save for those that reflect the corporate largesse of We Own Everything PLC. Civility itself would be reduced to the financial exchange between someone who has not and someone who has and who is exploiting that position, unencumbered by any notions like "societal good" or "benefiting long-term."

But Jeffrey is wrong -  the arts and culture go right to the heart of a society. They are the reflections of who we are as individuals, as a collective, as a people and as a place. They also give leadership to a vision of what life might mean, both good and bad. In any case, the health of culture and the arts is a tremendous barometer of how well a place is doing. Happy citizens, by utilising new measures of well-being, invariably live in countries that also have flourishing arts sectors. Those places are bursting with ideas and creative energy, with an array of creative and intellectual pursuits that can engage and challenge and sustain. Jeffrey doesn't want that for Northern Ireland. He's happy that we score the lowest per capita expenditure on the arts in the UK and Ireland. In fact, in Europe, only a handful compete to be worse at funding the arts.

Oh, I just looked Jeffrey up - he's a business consultant, commenting on the arts. Perhaps I shouldn't chastise him because he's being asked to comment on something that he isn't at all qualified to do.

In any case...

A Jeffrey's world seems a drab place - where only what you can buy dictates how you must live. And god help you if you can't buy - because Jeffrey won't.



Monday, 18 August 2014

A Thousand Cuts??

Community Arts Partnership has always delivered its projects and core support despite consistent pressures on budgets and available resources.

As a sector, community arts has always punched above its weight, achieving incredible participation figures, startling projects and programmes and tens of thousands of new creative recruits.

At a moment when public funding is being put under increasing pressure, and with the only ring-fenced budgets being the health and education portfolios, it seems that the time is fast approaching when the arts will see the teeth of this funding bite.

If budgets are to be cut, and it seems somewhat inevitable, it is all the more ironic that arts organisations supporting those most marginalised by economic, social, physical or intellectual circumstance, should see their budgets at risk, especially when that money is needed to pay a fine relating to Welfare Reform, a process that many user groups supported by community arts organisations oppose.

We hear daily, the upbeat economic assessment of UK government ministers and economists, yet locally we are met with cuts and the promise of less funding this year, next year, without any hope of this situation improving. The lights are going out. There’s a fine of £87,000,000, rising to £114,000,000 next year that our Finance Minister insists must be met. So, as we enter another period of uncertainty with public funding of services once again threatened with further cuts, what should we do, collectively?

For the arts community, which has seen the promise of stability and sustainability in long term funding, never quite materialise, it is worrying. In recent years, all exchequer funded organisations have shifted to support the twin ministerial initiatives of tackling poverty and social exclusion and promoting equality. At the forefront have been community arts organisations.

CAP has delivered the vast majority of its community programme either with groups from the most disadvantaged 20% of earners, or from those with physical or intellectual disability, or indeed with children and young people. Often, groups represent all of these circumstances. We support ethnic minority groups, and increasingly we are developing programmes for older people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

CAP will survive cuts, and struggle through next year with less again. But should the least disadvantaged be further penalised? Should priorities to protect such groups and initiatives not be looked at? Or should those who often receive the least, be forced to take less again?