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.