Tuesday, 27 January 2015

An Open Letter to the Minister for Finance and Personnel

27th January, 2015

Dear Minister Hamilton, Minister for Finance and Personnel

I wish to represent to you as a matter of urgency, a reflection on the recent budget allocation to the Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) in relation to arts funding. Despite a huge effort on behalf of the arts 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, it seems our humble petition has fallen on deaf ears. Such a mobilisation of support reflects 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 become an innovation-led knowledge-based economy. In reality, education and health budgets have been prioritised, and yet there is no other area of civic engagement better equipped to support the complex needs of both health and education than the arts. If, as a sector, we have failed to represent adequately the beneficial impacts of the arts, perhaps an impartial, economy-focused organisation might assist. A report from OECD just two years ago stresses:  
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.
© OECD 2013 Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education (Winner, Goldstein and Vincent-Lancrin, 2013).

The same report spells out in its introduction:
In knowledge-based societies, innovation is a key engine of economic growth, and arts education is increasingly considered as a means to foster the skills and attitudes that innovation requires, beyond and above artistic skills and cultural sensitivity.
© OECD 2013 Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education (Winner, Goldstein and Vincent-Lancrin, 2013).

In N Ireland currently, through the variety of expert formal and informal creative arts and engagement programmes, we support physical and mental well-being and develop the creative and intellectual skills of participants, beneficiaries and students. We have a creative infrastructure that produces success, across formal and informal education, communities and socio-economic circumstance.  But this already financially hard-pressed sector is now under threat of imminent decline and potential collapse.

As Minister charged with the economic well-being of our society, the assertions of an organisation like the OECD must surely carry some weight. If, as a member of the OECD, we are looking to develop an innovation-based economy, capable of attracting the leading creative organisations, not just in the arts per se, but across all areas of human endeavour, we would do well to follow OECD advice: OECD (2010), The OECD Innovation Strategy. Getting a Head Start on Tomorrow and OECD (2012), Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives: A Strategic Approach to Skills Policies, both of which point to the arts having a role in developing a necessary creative faculty within innovation-based societies.

As you are no doubt aware, despite this single largest representation of responses from any one sector to the recent Draft Budget, the arts budget is facing a cut in excess of 10%.  The reality that the budget to arts practice and participation will be cut more significantly than the overall DCAL departmental budget is not lost on either core clients of the Arts Council, whose budgets have already been cut by 5% in year. Nor indeed, will this government allocation be lost on the tens of thousands who represented their position though response and petition, that there should be no further cuts to the arts.

Whilst there may be some that are bewildered  that having received such a mandate, that some accommodation couldn’t be afforded, others like myself are seeking guidance as to how to support government decision-making  regarding the veracity of arts and the invaluable support that community arts in particular and arts practice in general gives to our local population. Once again, I call on the OECD documentation. Where they struggled to find a profundity of evidence of a causal link, the For Art’s Sake authors offered this point to policymakers:
Ultimately, however, the arts are an essential part of human heritage and of what makes us human…ART FOR ART’S SAKE? OVERVIEW 15 © OECD 2013

Given the extraordinary level of response from ordinary people, practitioners and organisations, I feel mandated to ask that the budget for the arts be re-instated, as per the wishes of 23,000 responses, (as acknowledged by DCAL Minister Ní Chuilín) and indeed that the arts, and their educative and social benefits, be acknowledged as a key element to the development of the N Irish economy and society and that the terms "Arts" be retained in any new departmental title.

Yours sincerely

Conor Shields

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Budget: the misery and the mystery

So, now we know - the budget at least. The unknowing of what actually propelled the budget to be arrived at this way may have to remain a mystery, like why more people watched Mrs Brown at Xmas than anything else and why Norn Iron is better at golf than anyone else!!

Depending on what you read, there was a huge level of responses made to the draft budget by arts supporters of the ACNI 13p campaign. As Roisin McDonough of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland alluded to, if 20,200 responses gained a fantastically welcome extra resource of £64 Million to primary and post-primary education, what might the 15,000 responses in support of the arts get?? The answer: a cut in excess of 10%.

And while some gloat about receiving Christmas presents of monies they never even asked for, others in the sector hang on tenterhooks until they learn their fate.

The arts infrastructure has received a real body blow despite all the rhetoric of championing and securing extra, the arts now know how little they count in the grand scheme of N Ireland PLC. With funding already at an all time low, we now have slipped further. In relation to our neighbours, we are approaching half the level of funding support. Does that mean we are half as creative, half as dedicated or half as entertaining or rather does it more accurately reflect the outlook of policy-makers' interest in the arts? Another mystery perhaps?

Whatever the reasons; the inequalities, the rhetoric and the hubris, the arts are now in a far more precarious position than they have been for decades. But its not just the arts that lose. Our whole society loses out because of it. And indeed as a direct result, the most marginalised, those least able to respond to cuts bear the brunt, yet again.

I suppose we do have brilliant golf courses. I still don't understand the other mysteries mind you

Tuesday, 13 January 2015


Change is a constant and managing change is perhaps the greatest skill that we can acquire in our lives. It speaks to the ebb and flow of everything, to the constantly changing seasons, our notoriously mercurial weather with four seasons in a day, or the fact that we progress so rapidly from wellness to illness and back again, sadness to elation, and relatively speaking, childhood to adulthood and old age. All these transitions require a whole range of skills and attitudes if the changes are to be easily made.  But managing these transitions can be too much for many of us. Once our security is threatened, we tend to start to respond in perhaps more primitive ways, to rely on our impulses and emotions rather than our wits and intellect. And often, our emotions, which command so much of who we are as people, win. We get angry, depressed, sick, scared. We hit the “fight or flight” button.

So, given the huge level of changes that are coming down the track for all of us here, how should we respond? We can fight – fighting cuts, fighting decisions, challenging those who would make the changes. But it’s difficult to run. The arts have put up a tremendous challenge to policy-makers and budget setters in the Executive lately with the 13p campaign of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Over 13,500 responses thus far apparently, saying collectively that the arts cannot afford another cut and that any further change is too much.A HUGE well done to all concerned, not last the communications department and staff team at ACNI. Let's hope it makes a difference.

But, we have elections coming too. A general election in May this year. Even if we don’t have a change of government in Westminster (how depressing would that be??) there will be inevitable change. How will we manage that? One way of course is to start to campaign and lobby now, challenging the powers that be and those challenging for power themselves, ie political parties. to put the plight of the arts and in particular community arts on the agenda. This is a constant aspect of the work of Community Arts Partnership but also is now being focused on by a short term lobby group called ArtsMatterNI. You will have seen the twitter hashtag. It is worth having a look at this campaign that CAP has helped instigate and manage. ArtsMatterNI have engaged the services of professional lobbyists Stratagem to assist in urging government and would-be government to see that the role of the arts is core to civil society and a modern, knowledge-based, engaged and creative society. And that for relatively very little investment, we gain huge benefits from all aspects of the arts. ArtsMatterNI are having a public meeting on Thursday 15th January, 2015, in the Lab in the MAC Belfast at 11 am. The arts need everyone’s support at this time.

But even though we have seen incredible change locally, for many people, the people that are supported by CAP, change has perhaps left them disadvantaged in some way – out of a job through shifting economic priorities or lack of supported education; unwell through the impact of an accident, or disease, or another circumstance; marginalised by being a new settler in a place, or having different lifestyle preferences or determinations; left isolated through old age or struggling to fit with the constant pressures and demands of these days. And for our young people, where how they understand the world is technologically so changed from the world that parents or policy makers understand it to be. Managing change, and understanding how to do it, is an immense challenge, too much for many.

For those, where we can’t fight or we can’t fly away, we have to stop and help. For those, where the changes to their lives have perhaps undermined their ability to thrive in life and is impacting on their well-being, community arts can be a fantastic support, encouraging, rewarding and affirming place. Community arts can communicate to others the value and worth of a person or a community and getting people thinking about the changes that they have made and considering the next one and build up that creative resilience that we all need. Being able to reflect on one’s own ability to create is a skill that can help us all make those more informed decisions to enable our lives – instead of running away or lashing out or being left behind.  "Be the change that you wish to see in the world" as a wiser man said.