Arts cuts come with a health warning

9 Oct 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Oct 2015

Arts Council chair Bob Collins
Arts Council chair Bob Collins

As the Arts Council finds itself hit by more cuts - most of which will have to be passed on to funded organisations - Scope speaks with chair Bob Collins, who says seeing the sector as a soft target misses the point and will lead to trouble.

The chairman of the Arts Council has said further cuts to the sector were a shock that undermine the whole sector – and could lead to far-reaching and lasting problems for wider society.

Bob Collins said further that the latest cuts from Caral Ní Chuilín were “unexpected and unprecedented” and flew in the face of ministerial and Programme for Government policy commitments.

Following the latest in-year reductions announced by DCAL, funding for the arts has been slashed by almost 20% in the past 12 months.

Previous cuts were absorbed by the Arts Council – leaving them offering a reduced programme of services, but allowing the bodies they fund to continue without losses – but over 70% of the latest tranche will now be passed on to supported organisations.

“The impact is not just for the arts organisation that will get less money, although there are big impacts there, or for those who work within the organisations – but primarily they are for the people of Northern Ireland who now won’t have access to the provision of arts services and organisations that they would otherwise have had.

“This flies in the face of every policy, ministerial commitment, the Programme for Government, and the aims of the Arts Council.

“They are all for increasing the access to arts, increasing participation in the arts, and reaching out to people who might not be involved, or those whose lives may not consciously have been touched by the arts.”

More reductions

Arts funding has seen several tranches of cuts over the past 12 months.

The latest mid-September announcement saw the Arts Council lose a further £870,000 – or 8% - from its budget. It has been able to find savings of £250,000 from its own operation but the remaining £620,000 will be found by cutting grants to its main clients. A total of 32 different bodies will see their budgets reduced by a flat rate of around 7%.

Other aspects of DCAL have also been hit by new in-year cuts, but these are much lower than those borne by the arts, roughly ranging between 1% and 3%.

These latest cutbacks mean organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra – which nearly went to the wall a year ago – the MAC, the Playhouse Theatre in L’Derry and the Lyric in Belfast will all be affected.

“I know why this is – if you are a grant-giving body you have a volumes of money that are perceived to be within easy reach.

“However, no-one has attempted to explain what the basis of these cuts are, what are the priorities to which greater significance was attached, such that required this scale of cutback. We don’t know.

“We wrote to the minister last week asking for an urgent meeting so we could convey the great shock, dismay and concern of the board, and convey some sense of the real implications of these reductions.

“The cumulative 20% reduction in 2015/16 is a very significant reduction of the base of activities on which next year and the years thereafter can be based. The foundations are weakened by these kind of significant reductions.

“We know what kind of world in which we live and the economic pressures that are faced by everyone and the general difficulty, the real difficulty, governments have in making decisions in these circumstances. But this round of cuts is completely beyond our comprehension.

“There was no indication to us of any kind [from the minister], other than “here are the reductions”. We hope and expect there will be a meeting with the minister.

“I’ve no idea the projects are that are so urgent, so significant, so absolutely necessary that this funding is required, robbing our Peter to pay their Paul. We will find out when extra allocations are made.”

Investment

For many of the organisations now affected, the Arts Council (ACNI) is their main funder. ACNI’s 2015/16 funding had already been decimated in March – with a £1.38m slash removing 11% of its finances.

Scope wrote previously about how the arts can be an investment – something the council chairman was keen to both emphasise and also to assert was true in the broadest sense.

Mr Collins said arts were fundamentally a good thing in themselves, and good for personal wellbeing, which then helps society.

Further to this, he said there were obvious economic benefits, boosts to tourism, and that the arts can also have real impacts in areas such as healthcare.

“I’m always disappointed with the characterisation of spending being a subsidy, a crutch for something that would otherwise fall over.

“In exactly the same way the provision of roads, education services, the whole range of facilities, it’s an investment in people’s lives from cradle to grave and appreciative of the fact that the arts are central in the lives of people, is absolutely fundamental to what it is that people are, and recognition of the richness of the lived experience.

“Rightly there is a focus on the achievements of the creative industries in Northern Ireland, and there have been spectacular success.

“But one fact is frequently overlooked – that the first word in that term, creative industries, is absolutely crucial. The industry wouldn’t be there unless there’s the creativity to support it.

“Creativity starts at the earliest level, with exposure to the arts at home, with their parents, at school, and in third-level arts education, without which much of what’s happened in creative industries simple wouldn’t have happened.

“In addition, and this is not to take a completely instrumental view of the arts – which are fundamentally a good thing – but the arts are also good for the economy.

“Arts are an essential human experience, good in themselves, but also good for the economy, good for our sense of wellbeing, good for personal development, and good because they make this an attractive place to come to.

“Attracting FDI is the basis for the Executive’s aims for corporation tax, we want to make sure this is the kind of place in every sense that people want to invest.

“This has to be a place people want to come and want to live. The arts, cultural offering in general, are an essential part of that.”

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