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.