So, its been a while since I wrote my blog. I have been dumbfounded, spellbound and held in suspense by the sheer volume of political and social changes that seem to be sweeping society. And in an ever-shrinking globalised media-space, it seems that our lives are more inextricably amplified in the experiences of others than ever before. Amidst all the clamour of new presidents, new (but hardly fresh) elections, Supreme Court rulings, ash, cash, dot dot dot, dash dash dash, we find ourselves where we have always been and this is the way it is.
For a moment in every day, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a parallel universe, where the boundaries of one time continuum have let slip and somehow tv pundits are presidents and ruling by decree is no longer the preserve of a monarch.
We don’t have to look too far to understand the surreality, whether cash for ash, or promoting the stability of democratic institutions by having elections after only one year, or parking a new agreement before it really got started – a Fresh Stop perhaps.
In all this, in the arts, there are a few certainties among all this incertitude. The daily assault on our humanity, whether the plight of refugees, here and abroad, especially the challenge facing the 80,000 children displaced by conflict in the Middle East, fears of famine in sub-Saharan Africa, the precarity of the lives of the working poor across the developed and developing world and indeed, those JAM, just about managing, the growing inefficacy of our medical challenges to infections and disease, the rising threat from racism, sexism, paternalism… a dreadful and growing list of topics for all artists to try to assist making sense of. And against all this, where are our arts when we need them most? When we need to be transported in imagination and challenged to renew layers of empathy and understanding, where are the sense-makers, the challenge takers…the artists? They are here, although it seems that the direct flight to Berlin (and perhaps a cool wind that begins with “Br” and ends in “exit”) may account for an increasing exodus. Our arts health check, although it appears that more organisations are supporting more audiences and participants than ever before, are increasingly doing so with ever increasing uncertainty and rising deficits. The mercury is hitting the red and we are running some big risks as a sector. Where we have tried to diversify our funding and indeed, revenue streams, we have been in the main quite successful but the cost has been doing more, probably for less. With these narrowing margins come less risk-taking, so actually meeting the challenge to make sense of the craziness of the world, becomes more problematic. Ironic isn't it. And it must be remembered that the only measure that the government really wants to assess is the ability of the arts to count more bums on seats – not more well-being, or greater socio-economic advantage, or educational attainment or whatever – just greater levels of participation and engagement. So once again, where the most nuanced, flexible and capable component in a society’s tool-kit for creative and intellectual change-making is available, we only see the arts as making up the numbers.
But the real and pressing fear for many if not all publicly funded arts organisations is knowing that they can deliver greater numbers but that requires greater budgets. In all the development of the Programme for Government (the draft of the last Assembly’s version might be ready for the next one – if that can ever rise from the ashes of the recent fall out ) – greater efficiencies were simultaneously called for, albeit with increasing participation. In a period of direct rule, whilst we are in an interregnum, between Assemblies, the bloc grant is not offered in its entirety – only 90% is budgeted to be released. If that reality is shared across all government departments and expenditures, its stands to reason that the arts will see a cut of that order. Depending on the prevailing wisdom, it could be more or indeed less. In any case, I cannot foresee any situation where there will be a penny more – not even thinking about some of the deficits that taxpayers here will have to fire-fight along the way.
The arts as a sector has always been operating in the spaces between – it is here where the tensions and frictions, the nuance and overlaps, the dialogue and space for debate and experimentation resides. But, whilst these precarious spaces become more prevalent, the ability of the arts to respond has become more constrained. So, between the canvassers calling to your door and the messages constantly quoted in the media, when you’re approached for your vote and asked what you value - what are your burning issues – you might consider a few things:
Revenue funding of the arts has now dipped into the single digit millions – where less than 10 years ago, the ask was £26M, this year, revenue funding for the arts will have dwindled to less than £9M (where a mile of new motorway costs on average £30m, according to the Highways Agency)
Between our neighbouring states to the south and the east, there is a massive gulf between how culture is valued and supported. Annually, over €200M goes the arts in the Republic of Ireland and in Scotland over £150M (€175M). There are 4.5 million in RoI and 5.3M people in Scotland – for us to have parity of per capita spend, we’d need to see €68M or £58M – that’s £49M more than we get – or about 2 years' RHI overspend at current quoted rates.
Comparing the annual, year-round expenditure in our health and social services sector amounts to the total spend on our arts sectoral health, we spend £150 per second on health and less than 28p on the arts.
And when we ask our young people to imagine a better future here, when we seek to support our increasingly ageing population to live more valued and rewarding lives, to chart a new industrially creative opportunity for us all to thrive within, to reinvigorate our educational system to cope with new and diverse technologies and populations, how will our political parties respond?
We need to ask them, to recognise that educational, creative and mental health and our artistic expressiveness, our need to be entertained and to perform and communicate and celebrate, all this offers all of us the chance to transform who we are and where we live. And that only creativity offers us that capacity. If only politics could…