Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The minister's strategy

So the minister for culture, arts and leisure has finally launched her consultation document for arts and culture in the ‘north of Ireland’. I’d love to share the minister’s delight in finally seeing this long awaited strategy presented. After what has been a couple of years of real torment for the arts community, many of us relished the opportunity to assist in the development of a 10 year strategy that would place the arts right at the centre of the conversation within our civic society. It was also a timely opportunity because we know that next year the department for culture, arts and leisure (DCAL) will be rolled into the super government department for communities (DC). So it was doubly significant to see a strategy that could determine the arts support structures at the heart of government that would then translate to the resourcing and platforming of the arts within wider society. Indeed it was triply significant, because in this year 2015, the first national cultural policy (Culture 2025) is being developed in the Republic of Ireland. These parallel processes, defining how the respective ministries nurture and steward of the arts for the next 10 years on the island, must chart new territory for creativity and navigate hugely significant commemorations for this island and all who live on it and who visit us.

 Here, the opportunity for an overarching cross departmental strategy for culture and arts has been a long time in the making. If you've been around as long as I have you will remember a long list of reports stretching back to the mid-90s including The Arts And Northern Ireland Economy, John Myerscough Northern Ireland Economic Research 1996, Multimedia Ireland Call Realising The Potential By Forbairt 1998, Opening Up The Arts The Strategic Review Of The Arts Council By Anthony Everett In 2000 , and of course Unlocking Creativity From The Department For Culture Arts And Leisure in the year 2000 or maybe it was 2001.

If I may return to Unlocking Creativity, that strategy paper guided us along various ideas back in 2000 emphasising how new technologies are providing unprecedented access to information and the generation of ideas was a core challenge for the cultural sector, as was explaining how creative and cultural understanding could impact on our young people through education or to understand how the arts could assist the business community. It talked about the existing infrastructure for creative and cultural education in Northern Ireland and sought to maximise the benefits of creating a new positive image for a Northern Ireland that understood cultural diversity and respected the part played by the arts.

Back then they employed 8 lenses to look at how we might recognise the value of culture, arts and leisure in our economy and also in our own individual creativity and our community-based arts activities. The eight lenses were creative industries, support for the individual artist, universal accessibility, infrastructure, cultural diversity, the DCAL strategy, international dimension, creativity in education.

I can remember at the time struggling with some of the conceptual analysis that was contained in Unlocking Creativity but it was the only show in town and it was as comprehensive an understanding of how the arts might operate in post Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland as there was. That Unlocking Creativity Strategy brought together a lot of different departments and areas of activity: The Department for culture arts and leisure, the Department for education, the Department of enterprise, trade and investment, the Department of higher and further education, training and employment. Back then it was recognised that it was vital that the importance of creative and cultural education be seen as integral and central to the curriculum but also to the longer term impact on the Northern Irish economy. It was further recognised that creativity is a function of human intelligence and becomes evident only in the active process of doing something. It is not a separate faculty of the mind that some people have and others don't.

On Monday we saw the consultation paper for the minister’s new strategy for arts and culture for the first time. She comments that it will be the first overarching and cross departmental strategy for culture and arts in the north of Ireland but on the evidence provided, I actually think that Unlocking Creativity probably still went further and embraced more. The minister offers all sorts of reassurances around her sincerity in the belief in the value of culture and arts and all that they can bring to society and that she is proud of the impact that artistic and cultural heritage can have on maximising benefits to the social and economic well-being of citizens.
And the minister also wants to make it a priority to promote equality, tackle poverty and social inclusion and in her foreword informs us that after this consultation she wants to bring forward a strategy that will support individuals and communities who feel marginalised, vulnerable or disconnected. To me that sounds like a wholly different strategy, more akin to a strategy supporting community arts. If only there was a strategy that could have cemented those principles around inclusion, promoting equality and tackling poverty; giving our community arts organisations real policy support in having meaningful resources to promote engagement with so many client groups looking to get creative.
If after the consultation the minister means that a strategy for culture and arts will exclusively determine a strategy to support individuals and communities who feel marginalised but not include all our efforts to equalise opportunity across all class and social divides, we will miss an opportunity. For our arts community, our tourists and visitors, our international standing, our cultural product, our economy, our well being AND our communities of interest, ethnicity, disability and limited life choices, on the margins.

The minister believes that there is a balance to be struck between access and quality and [that] fundamentally equality should underscore these principles. Her next sentence says: “I also believe that the Irish language forms a part of a rich heritage and that it deserves special recognition”.

But the minister does recognise that within our community, or schools and our colleges are to be found the artists and creators of tomorrow. It is for them that this strategy will matter most. Between 2016 and 2026 the world will change incredibly once again.

I happened to be a member of the ministerial arts advisory forum that the minister called together to support this strategy. In our dialogues and discussions since December last year we developed a conversation of ambition, of depth, of vision for the future for Northern Ireland. I wrote at the time, a section called today and tomorrow. I started by offering a sense of where we are now:
We sit at the western edge of Europe but from these shores has flowed centuries of culture artistry and artists across oceans and continents, across the world. Over 1.8 million people live here and our increasingly diverse lives and communities are reflected in a vibrant, varied and vital creative sector, employing some 40,000 people, 5,500 of those within the arts sector alone and generating huge impacts across our economy and our society.
But what does our creative future look like in 2026?
The years to 2026 will witness exponential technological growth for a truly global conversation engaging all facets of life, digitally. It is thought by January 2026 that the European population will still be much the same but there will be 1 billion more people who inhabit the earth. Here the promise of peace and prosperity will see our population rise.

For Northern Ireland to become a haven for creativity and offer support for opportunities locally, nationally and internationally we need the resources to do so. We require a comprehensive policy platform that we can look to, reflecting our ambition not only for the arts themselves but for our communities and our society so that together our economy and our creative futures can be strengthened. In so doing, the future well-being of society in terms of social cohesion, promoting equality, tackling exclusion and social deprivation will be supported alongside a flourishing creative industry sector with a sustainable arts infrastructure that can inspire our educators, our business leaders, visitors, investors, artists, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, the worried-well and those challenged by serious illness. This is the vision for a creative Northern Ireland that I want to see for my children and for my contemporaries. A place that understands the power of the arts in and of themselves and that also has figured out how to translate that power into having meaningful, deep, resonating impact across our whole community.

Have a look at the consultation document from the minister and see if my vision or yours resonates with what you find there. I think you'll see that there is a great way to go in terms of determining that vital, vibrant and ambitious future for the arts in Northern Ireland. But the minister is right about something else though, when she says that this is our opportunity to affect this future policy. She wants to see "the sustainability of our heritage and cultural and artistic resources ensuring a lasting legacy for future generations" and she encourages us to respond to this consultation and make our views known. If you're reading this you are concerned about the arts and the support for creativity in the future: make your thoughts known and share your vibrant, heartfelt demand for more resources for the arts.

The arts do matter. This document may not have yet captured just how much they mean. That makes it all the more necessary for all of us to ensure that the demands for arts support are given a fair hearing.  Make your voices heard. Take the time to consider your response to the consultation and watch this space.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Rally for the Arts - 3rd November 1pm

As this sector reels from more news about cuts now and potentially in the future, together with colleagues and friends in #ArtsMatterNI we're looking to get people onto the streets, well Prince of Wales Avenue up at Stormont at least, and register our insistence that government must invest in the arts in Northern Ireland.

Do we need to spell it out again why the arts matter here? Here, of all places that has such limited manufacturing, and has seen our erstwhile heavy engineering disappear generations ago. As a post-industrial place we cannot rest on a history of mass production and world beating feats of engineering awe. The Titanic is now a cultural story, a story not a ship - a narrative about how the labour and creativity brought this idea into being. We now see celebrated that achievement in a cultural space that offers tourists a glimpse of who we were. Interpreting our past has always been problematic between the contested histories of Northern Ireland. The power dynamics of this place create shibboleths and hegemonies that distort the past and reflexively impact on the present to. In a land where the cultural conveyance of an idea has layer upon layer of mediated, symbolic codes and references, it is all the more disappointing that we don't invest securely, deeply in the means to take part in that cultural space.

The minister talks of the arts being a right. She is correct. The UN Declaration of 1948 says so. By cutting the budget, year after year and indeed in-year, are our rights being actively undermined?

Some theorists may hold that culture is a way of organising our adaptive strategies, within our given parameters of place and technology. This somewhat anthropological interpretation might be seen as ultimately our power to transform ourselves that has given our species the evolutionary edge over the millennia. Looked at this way, culture, as an active, dynamic, emergent space where a multitude of determining factors correlate into an set of actions or relations, offering new ways of seeing or being, responds rapidly to the immediacy and interaction of people and places. Creating the emergence of that more harmonious and including cultural space is a fundamental human challenge, framed in Article 27 of the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights and which underpins social and civic activism and the work of community arts organisations the world over. (excerpt from Between Ourselves C Shields & S Tracey © CAP, 2015)

The arts, and culture, as the social organisers of our human project and its expressive interaction and engagement with ideas, and indeed ideologies, about who we are and why we do what we do, have a huge role to play in all societies, but particularly one so contested. Here the intersectionality of the marginalised voices can get compounded and their input in the debate, the project, becomes harder to hear. In this regard, I have some sympathy with our current minister for culture, not for her recent decisions but for the recognition that we need greater levels of investment in access and participation, so that we do hear from more voices. But, it is in the articulation, the curation, the transmission and the audition of those voices where we need the depth of skill and the cultural infrastructure to support us all on our journey, in our narrative.

Undermining the status of cultural professionals, students, participants and audiences in a place that wants to promote access and engagement in the arts strikes me as similar to sacking doctors and nurses AND insisting that we need to increase patient numbers because more people are ill. And lets put this old, tired and unhealthy simile to bed once and for all. The paltry £10 million that is invested in the arts, would keep our Health and Social Services Dept functioning for 18 hours, with another 8,742 hours of the year to go. Health spend equates to 80% of the total departmental spend. So, that's down to just over 14 hours. Divide that across our 15 (!!) acute hospitals and its less than an hour each. So, no more debate about whether its a choice of keeping hospitals open versus the arts. Please.

Despite our mammoth effort last year, by ordinary members of the public and arts practitioners, organisations and community groups, to mobilise an historically unprecedented level of response to a draft budgetary process (23,000 communications to the Executive), it fell on deaf ears. WE need to shout louder...LOUDER. We must mobilise support to reflect the centrality of the arts in Northern Irish society and the recognition that we cannot afford not to invest in the current and future provision of creativity if we are to value any quality of life. 

This time, while the minister has prioritised certain areas to be supported over others, wrongly in my opinion, we are rallying not just to see these in-year cuts reversed, but we are insisting that the arts are invested in for ALL OUR FUTURES. If, as a sector, we have failed to represent adequately the beneficial impacts of the arts, WE NEED TO SAY IT LOUDER. Can reports from impartial, economy-focused organisations like the OECD be brushed aside, even if the arts community can? Just two years ago the OECD stressed:

We argue that the main justification for arts education is clearly the acquisition of artistic skills …By artistic skills, we mean not only the technical skills developed in different arts forms (playing an instrument, composing a piece, dancing, choreographing, painting and drawing, acting, etc.) but also the habits of mind and behaviour that are developed in the arts. Arts education matters because people trained in the arts play a significant role in the innovation process in OECD countries: the arts should undoubtedly be one dimension of a country’s innovation strategy.

ART FOR ART’S SAKE?© OECD 2013 Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact ofArts Education (Winner, Goldstein and Vincent-Lancrin, 2013).

The arts make an incredible impact on who we are and how we live. If we undermine the core support of the arts, we are challenging the very social contract that our governments are there to maintain. If you want to make a structure capable of reaching across a greater distance and connect to distances that are hard to reach, the last thing any engineer would contemplate is undermining the foundations. Supporting issues like social isolation, suicide, low educational attainment, looked-after children in care, mental health services, detached youth etc, through the arts all require a solid infrastructure. This is highly sensitive, specialised work. Applying the arts is not just a question of throwing arts materials onto a table and shouting DRAW!
The arts and their application means something completely different. It is the life-long pursuit of craft, knowledge, skills, textures and techniques, honing the practical from within the imagination, making the impossible seem commonplace, inspiring and teaching others to create more and better. Artists are pathfinders, teachers and leaders. They are alchemists of the future. And who would dare kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

The arts change lives, offer development and employment and support to people everyday. They make this place attractive to resident and visitor. They offer satire and spectacle, entertainment and education. They place us on a global map.

In GB, the Warwick Commission's final report, Enriching Britain:Culture, Creativity and Growth, was launched last month. As Vikki Heywood CBE, Chairman of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value put it:

The key message …is that the government and the cultural and creative industries need to take a united and coherent approach that guarantees equal access for everyone to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life. There are barriers and inequalities in Britain today that prevent this from being a universal human right. This is bad for business and bad for society.

Reducing funding to the arts doesn't decrease the barriers and inequalities, it increases them.

Stand Up For The Arts Right Now #SUFTARN

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


Amid all the tumult and posturing and hand-wringing, the end is in sight. The Rugby World Cup Final is only a few weeks away. For sports fans, it must come as disappointment not to hear the chant of Come On You Boys In Green (COYBIG) gracing a semi-final or final. And the impact on Ulster Rugby will be deeply felt with players limping off the field, amid injuries that could see the team struggle to compete for the remainder of the year. I haven't been to Ravenhill (sorry Kingspan) for a while, but I know that magnificent stadium resounds on Friday evenings to the thunderous support of folk singing Stand Up for The Ulstermen  (SUFTUM)

But another member of the Culture Arts and Leisure team is experiencing injury of its own. The arts have just suffered two devastating blows that will have impact for the rest of the season. One cut in resources before the year kicked off and a further big hit taken just before half time. Over 20% of the resources expected have now gone.

How would any side fare in those situations? And how would a manager respond in those circumstances too? Imagine then , a team just before kick off being told by the authorities that one player wouldn't be allowed to take the field and two others would have to play with their left and right legs respectively tied together.

Then, as this team is struggling to mount any challenge pitted against them, they are further reduced by another player. How could they hope to support, how could they possibly offer any real effective chance to flourish and how demoralising must that be for the fans. But then it emerges that it wasn't the authorities that made the decision before half-time - it was the manager, the champion of the team. It was he (or she) that instead said that the team should be further reduced and offered the reason for it being that someone needed a some coaching advice right away and that it was an easy decision to make, because their need was greater than the team. By the way, the team does some fantastic work, coaching in youth clubs, hospitals, community centres, refuges all sorts of places where people wouldn't expect teams to turn up...

You can see where I am going with this. My thinly veiled allegory was to highlight just how hampered the arts are here at present. A cut before the year got under way, now a further cut half way through. This happens, with more cuts to come next year and a minister who says the arts have turned their back on communities, only 6 short months before the budget for all the arts and indeed sport falls under the aegis of a new department for communities!!! The depth of the irony would not be lost on all those Sophocles scholars out there. Nor indeed, is it lost on people like Finn Kennedy, who has spoken passionately about how the arts contribute (see the Belfast Telegraph's edited version) or the fuller version (parental guidance notice) and utterly rejects the minister's assertion otherwise.

The arts work in our old folks homes, our community centres, our schools and our special education centres, our hostels, refuges and drop-in centres. Or at least they struggle to do so now. If there are more cuts, all this will be under threat.

And if a minister chooses to take from 32 organisations to give to an area of work, that will probably rely upon professional creative organisations to implement any resulting programmes, then that decision has to analysed. At the minute (sorry for a further rugby allusion) the TMO is unsure about that action and the tv commentators are aghast at the potentially destructive impact of this decision.

Also, if in the management or otherwise of this strategic decision, it is intended only to have an impact on the Ulster Orchestra, because it seems to be constantly used as an example, then all are sorely misinformed. An attack on the arts, and its supporting budget, will be felt all the way through the arts community and will signal that the arts and those employed in this already insecure sector, are not valued. And indeed, will undermine the arts ability to support those most in need of publicly funded programmes.

Taking money from the largest will have immediate and long lasting impact on the other 87 funded organisations and the hundreds of artists that are supported through SIAP and the countless community organisations that are funded through the small grants programmes.

And the arts community are not as disunited as some may see it. In fact, in the face of an attack, the arts will rally (probably very visibly at Stormont, very soon, see #artsmatterni for details) and the arts will try to fight these cuts.

We may have missed out on the the semi-final in the Rugby, but the boys in green are heading for France: A different code, but the same passion for success, offering inspiration to so many others.

Just like the arts:




Stand Up For The Arts RIGHT NOW



Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Unknown Unknowns - Arts Funding and In Year Cuts

…because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. – D Rumsfeld (Feb 2002)

Amid the illuminations of the Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure in the TV interview last week with the ex-Chair of the Lyric, the presenter Mark Carruthers, about the cuts that the sector is about to experience, ironically it’s becoming increasingly confusing to know what is actually going on. 
£870,000 was cut, because of the Tories. 
But the minister’s press statement said it was because of unfunded departmental pressures. 
And in the interview, it seemed it wasn’t a cut at all, it was a re-prioritisation of funding to other demands.

Hot on the heels of that rather confusing exchange, comes the news that the Arts Council are not jettisoning their Sustainability Programme. That must surely be a relief to so many that toiled over making decisions to affect “permanent and significant change” for their organisations. But the problem is, the programme isn’t actually being rolled out either, instead the Arts Council is asking to run it parallel to the 2016/17 annual funding process. 

In the BBC NI The View interview, the Culture Minister couldn’t rule out seeing more cuts, while at the same time she advocated for the arts and stressed “wanting to be a champion for the arts”. And we are all the more reassured about how all of this will add up when the minister tells us that “up to 80% of people have enjoyed or participated in the arts, however there are many more that haven’t".

The minister added it was “an easy decision to make”; to cut the orchestra (as the example suggested) in order to fund other priorities, expressly "looked-after children in care". Undoubtedly those children deserve every additional support to increase limited life chances but there are organisations, indeed arts organisations that do indeed support this activity. Some of them may ironically be cut too.

The fact that 32 organisations will see a significant loss of revenue this year, will have a range of consequences. A great many of those organisations will have little choice it seems but to cut the very thing that the minister wants to promote, namely outreach into communities. Not to spite her, but because this work is largely offered free of charge and is supported by funding alone. Now, not all organisations will resort to this and I would urge all those affected not to make matters any worse for the most marginalised here and instead to redouble their collective efforts to support the widest engagement in the arts. Others will not be able to deliver any additional aspects to tours, or events. 

Options become more limited. 

Planning, when faced with uncertainty, more problematic. 

Risk grows, not participation.

In seeking to stabilise the bigger organisations, there will in all likelihood be less monies for the rest of the sector and less certainty. The ripples of this cut/re-prioritisation/whatever will be felt by more organisations than just those immediately affected.

And in seeking to represent an integrated policy to support the arts (like that in sport) whilst making these funding decisions where it is difficult to see the policy direction, it all feels counter-intuitive to supporting any integrated strategy.  

This scenario seems to be playing out across all areas, affecting the vulnerable most. The Third Sector, those working in all charitable institutions wishing to do good and provide significant civic benefit through public funding, are having an increasingly worrying time of it. All Third Sector organisations are governed by volunteers: It is their personal reputation and indeed, liability that is at stake. When any charitable organisation is plunged into such uncertainty, and policy and funding decisions are made in an increasingly ad hoc way, it makes the work and position of ordinary people very vulnerable. The personal liability of a great swathe of the sector is increasingly under threat. As are jobs, access and indeed participation, in all facets of life.

As some ministers operate their semi-detached postures, “the hokey-cokey arrangements” as some newspapers rather flippantly refer to it, or as other ministers are indeed at their desks making "good and bad decisions", it is very easy to get lost in the confusion of it all. 

The constant stream of mixed messages makes everything so garbled. There seems to be no respite. 

But really, what can we expect? We have been public funding dependent for decades because of the huge, almost intractable problems we had during our conflict and now as an aftermath of that tumult, when we require support to continue into prosperity and peace, we find we are being denied the resources. Our understandable yet undeniable dependency cannot be managed by simply turning off the money supply. If we do not constructively offer greater mitigating support to all agencies and services, things will not simply wither away – they will fall apart. 

There can be little confusion about that.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Celebrating the best of ourselves , celebrating with the arts

I’ve just come back from four days training in Corrymeela and have to say that I feel just dandy – ready to take on whatever is thrown and imbued with a real sense of purpose and an itch to get projects, old and new, really rolling forward. I'll talk about that training at some other point. But I was at Corrymeela last weekend as well, to take part in a panel discussion about why the arts matter as part of the Aperture Festival, marking 50 years since it was established. It’s no coincidence that a place like Corrymeela, so steeped in the culture of peace-making and reconciliation, should turn to the arts for celebrating such a significant birthday. It’s why many of us do the same when we want to note something significant that’s happening in our lives – we celebrate in a way that will excite others to join us and for a moment or two, be transported by the power of the arts out of our normal rhythm of living and into another plane of thought and experience.

That is a fundamental role of the arts and one that we have employed since the dawn of our civilisations and even before that. The arts have an intrinsic power to enable all of us to share a moment in a wholly deeper way, to at once recognise that there are layers to all our lives and our experiences that connect with each of us in a myriad of different yet complementary ways.

It had been 36 years since I had attended Corrymeela before. Then, as a schoolboy, I had made tentative steps at supporting cross community processes in a Northern Ireland still utterly riven by sectarianism and violence. On returning last week, I found Corrymeela to be an oasis of centredness, having core values that support a way of engaging, but being accessible to new, disparate and diverse voices. The eclecticism of the Aperture Festival alone, paid tribute to the breadth of culture's role in celebrating the applied nature of Corrymeela’s continuing vision.

This nature of the arts with its ability to embrace the amazingly varied breadth of all of us and our communities is further reason to see the arts flourish . Then, applying artistic practice to another layer of situations, with potential actions, processes and outcomes, and all the socially-engaged potential that represents  – should not be threatened with cuts and reduction.  

I’ve said it so often, in this blog and on platforms representing CAP and #ArtsmatterNI, that the arts' infrastructure is barely sustainable at current levels of support. For further cuts to ensue might well have deeply felt and long-lasting impacts that this society cannot afford. Bearing in mind where we have come from as a people and a place, surely we need to seize every opportunity to celebrate the positive and nourish a more thoughtful, positive future for our wee corner of the globe and purposefully renew our vision of ourselves and our collective future. In discovering the dreams held by our collective imaginations and learning how to be fundamentally creative, we can immediately understand again, just how powerful the joy of “making” is. To create something from nothing, that creative alchemy that all community arts programmes and all arts exhibitions, performances and events demonstrate, is to return to more deeply connected places in all of us. They herald the Olympic Games, not by having runners run, or jumpers jump, but by having film-makers and creative producers celebrate the narrative of our lives and the dreams we hold in powerfully dramatic and evocative displays.  We can demonstrate our values, our fears and the deeply meaningful, long-held beliefs attached to our cultural positions, whatever they may be.

To under-fund the arts is to shackle our ability to express – it is a gag on our cultural voice, to express not only who we are now, but who we may have been and who we wish to be in the future.
For Northern Ireland, not quite one generation into living in Peace, to see such opportunity through the arts squandered, undermined and reduced is to not value the tremendous opportunity that peace affords us and instead to lose sight of the dream. If anything, the public representatives should be finding ways to pour more investment into the celebration of our vision of ourselves and our place in the future. Investing in our tremendous centres of artistic excellence and in our opportunity to support everyone to explore their creative power.  Quibbling about 0.01% of the block grant going to the arts doesn’t make sense. It is so little has but holds the power to be so much. As a society, we should be insisting that the arts flourish and give us the platform to celebrate the very best of ourselves, just like Corrymeela did the other weekend. 


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

32 minus 10?

More bad news I’m afraid this week for the arts. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland have indicated to a range of revenue-funded organisations that they must plan for in-year cuts. For most, it will mean considering cuts once again. For many, it may mean upping ticket prices or cutting programmes. For some; redundancies, with no hope of attractive packages to cushion the blow. And perhaps for others; considerations of more drastic measures, like closure.

But for all the arts, it illustrates just how difficult the outlook is.

Cutting one grant by 10% in month 5 of the financial year, is a very difficult proposition. It effectively means taking almost 20% out of 6 months contribution from that one funding award. That creates uncertainty and can have immediate knock-on effects to an organisation's ability to operate.
But the knock-on effect continues, affecting artists, crew, shows, participation, audiences, revenue for the organisations and for the town/city/country. For potential participants in community programmes, it could well signal projects being pulled or greatly reduced.  But planning to cut by 10% is not the same as making cuts so there may be some small consolation that whatever cuts eventuate may amount to less, albeit by only a percentage point or three.

I was at Corrymeela at the weekend, at the excellent 50th anniversary celebrations Aperture Festival, talking about how the arts matter and are central to all our lives. I encouraged and exhorted the audience there to become advocates for the arts, now, because very soon, the arts infrastructure in Northern Ireland will be further weakened. And, contrary to what the unctuous self-appointed, neo-liberal poster-boys that crow on radio shows might believe, it is right that the arts are publicly funded and it’s not the Arts Council’s fault when the money they receive for that purpose is cut. 

While these market-driven, neo-liberal ideologues carp about public money and quangos and pensions and entitlement, what they are actually proposing is a rolling back of the state and the diminishing of all things that support the public good. Instead these marketeers only focus on the private good, personal gain and profiting from others and after all that, well, the devil take the hindmost.

But this cruel, callous, utterly political project called Austerity, only reduces us as a society; it makes us all clients in a political economy that sees no value beyond private wealth. It damns the poor to remain in absolute poverty, it undermines education and participation, it immediately reduces any opportunity for those whose circumstances and ability to pay and take part might already be difficult. 

Austerity makes less of us all. Commonwealth, social capital, society, community, call it what you will - the notion of that shared sense of place and common purpose, is under attack. And the arts, due to the relatively tiny budget that they command, are in a very precarious position.

But it has gone beyond any sustainable bottom line for the arts here in little Northern Ireland. If this downward trajectory is allowed to continue by our Assembly, then the prospects for cultural excellence, access, participation and any pretence at competing as an attractive, welcoming, vibrant place, capable of competing globally will be gone. And by 2026, 10 years' time, when the borders of the world will further dissolved by new digital frontiers as well, we will only slip further and further behind; creatively, educationally and socially.

As I have said before, if it’s a race to the bottom that we are after, then we’re winning! Even now, N Ireland languishes at the very bottom of the European league table of voted-for arts funding (ie money from government), along with Moldova, with no disrespect to that nation at all. The arts represent the smallest budget line here, but the reason that it is so crucial and makes news is because that funding connects into our lives in such a tangible way. It’s what we read, the design of where we live, what we listen to, what we watch, we wear, we imagine, we celebrate, we create. It is who we are and more crucially, it is the ambition we hold for our children and their futures.  

A colleague of mine pointed out to me earlier, if you equate the budget for the whole of N Ireland to the average household budget, the cuts are quite shocking. You're right Adam T, they are and its a handy comparison. In 2013, net household income in N Ireland was £404 per week, just over £21,000 pa. So, of all that income which now represents all government spend, then just £21 is set aside for the arts, for the whole year. And that has just been reduced to less than £19.What do you spend just £19 on in a year - think, what? Even toilet paper costs a fiver for a dozen rolls!!

Bear in mind too, according to the same recent Poverty Report on Northern Ireland, published in June of this year; the findings are stubbornly stark, and getting worse:

  • In general, poverty levels have increased between 2012/13 and 2013/14.    This was more marked for some population groups than for others.
  •  21% of individuals were   in   poverty in 2013/14, approximately 376,000 individuals.  This is an increase from 19% the previous year
  • 23% of children were in poverty in 2013/14, 101,000 children.  This is an increase from 20% the previous year.
  • 20% of working-age adults were in poverty in 2013/14, approximately 213,000 working-age adults.  This is an increase from 18% the previous year
  • 21% of pensioners were in poverty in 2013/14,   approximately 63,000 pensioners.  This is an increase from 20% the previous year

So, 32 minus 10 equates to so much less, not just for the arts, but for all of us.
#ArtsMatterNI .