Tuesday, 9 May 2017


On the afternoon of Wednesday, 17 May we will be hosting an event at CAP called Assessing the Challenge. Co facilitated by the Interactive Institute in the person of our good friend Stevie Johnston we will be looking at a variety of issues that impact upon the arts sector within the overarching Third Sector of the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise remit. This seminar is part of a wider conversation which Building Change Trust is initiating about the future of the VCSE sector.

For any organisational representatives that engaged in the #artsmatterNIcampaign, this seminar aims to reflect the challenges that were there some years ago, which have actually become greater today.
Carving out a space for the arts so that it doesn't get lost between the cracks in the armature of government has always been a difficult challenge. Today amidst the clamour and contestation of an election campaign; our own unresolved local election; a review of all arm's-length bodies and a White Paper coming from DCMS detailing a more rigid economic focus for the arts, there is unquestionably further challenge to be anticipated. Added to this the fact that most arts organisations operating professionally in Northern Ireland have only had half a year’s funding guaranteed and with the introductory speech from a new chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland ringing in our ears, it is clear that a new reality is dawning on the arts and that previous wider horizons are perhaps dimming from view.

Working in the arts, for all its creative and spiritual reward, is a difficult lifelong role. It demands dedication to your art; long, often antisocial hours; continuing professional practice development and a rallying, rousing ability to offer optimism, where little is evident and a crushing sense of insecurity for any future often blots out our blue sky. Today the level of short-termism within the funding and support structures for the arts represents a new low for a commitment to this sector. This is perhaps not the fault of local politicians, not civil servants, NDPBs, nor local government but, that being the case, it is definitely not the fault of the arts and organisations themselves, who have managed to increase levels of participation in our cultural activity year on year for the last 15. This at a time over the last seven years (at least) where funding has been in decline if not for some in absolute free-fall.

The shock that many locally felt around the level of cuts in 2008 to budgets in England say, at both departmental level and local government level, we have now felt that level of impact locally. And the future looks even worse.

Our principal funder, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland seems to be setting a new tack against the prevailing winds. The new chair said that his focus will be on sustainability and understanding the financial environment but he also cautioned that he is unsure of what the function of the Arts Council is, whilst also reminding us that the reason he didn't go to work in the arts was because "there was no money in it". Well John, there might still be no money in it by some estimations or perhaps there is even less in fact, but there are over 5,500 employed. And we want to find ways to remain. (pun?...perhaps) employed in this diversely rich and rewarding area of work and public benefit.

The Department for Communities, which presides over the arts, is conducting an arm's-length review not just of the functions of the Arts Council but indeed a whole raft of arm's-length bodies. Conversations and consultations have heard indications that there may be shared services or amalgamations but whatever is decided, it is clear that there is an appetite for change. Another challenge undoubtedly.

But in this prevailing turmoil of uncertainty, where no clear strategy or ambition for the arts community has been offered, the one fixture that gives philosophical comfort and supports artistic autonomy is the Arm's Length Principle. Francis Maude ,then Minister for the Cabinet Office, in 2010 offered four tests in his extensive review of public bodies -  

  1. the first was existential and asked does the body need to exist and do its functions need to be carried out at all 
  2. then they sought to establish whether those functions should be properly carried out at arms length to government 
  3. if the body carries out a highly technical activity is required to be politically impartial or 
  4. needs to act independently to establish facts then that is right for it to remain outside direct ministerial accountability. 

In areas like the arts and science the public expects funding on merit not favouritism so the need for political impartiality to distribute taxpayers money is well established.
When that reform bill went to the Lords they added two sub-clauses that the powers given to them must regard: 

  • achieving increased efficiency effectiveness and economy in the exercise of public functions and 
  • securing appropriate accountability to ministers and the exercise of such functions.

Section 23 of that Hansard noted that the "present incoherence and inconsistencies cannot have helped the conduct of the review or the drafting of the bill" and that there "should be a single set of tests that covers whether a function needs to be performed, whether it is appropriate for it to be performed independently or can it be delivered most cost-effectively. 

Essentially it boils down to three things 

  • whether a function needs to be performed i.e. it's existential 
  • whether it is appropriate for it to be performed independently by a public body ie impartiality and 
  • can be delivered most cost-effective way ie value for money. 

In any of the current arm's-length review process that I have been a part of with the Department for Communities so far, I have yet to hear these tests be dealt with.

So, if you do value the arts and you KNOW that they matter and you lead an arts organisation, now would be the time for all of us to re-engage with the #artsmatterni campaign and offer a deeper understanding of our role and our need for support.

Please join us in Assessing the Challenge as you see it and beginning to articulate our responses.


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