Arts funding should be higher – and uncontroversial

28 Sep 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 28 Sep 2021

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons (right) with Dungeons and Dragons producer Jeremy Latcham (left) and NI Screen CEO Richard Williams
Economy Minister Gordon Lyons (right) with Dungeons and Dragons producer Jeremy Latcham (left) and NI Screen CEO Richard Williams

The arts are often treated as an economic sick man. This does not reflect reality. Two new reports from the Arts Council highlight the importance of investment.


Earlier this month Economy Minister Gordon Lyons visited Titanic Studios to pose for photos and visit the set of upcoming Hollywood film Dungeons and Dragons.

The Paramount Pictures film will have a huge budget – Chris Pine, just one of the stars involved, is picking up $11.5m for his role alone – and lots of this will pour into Northern Ireland, along with  plenty of other cash that is peripheral and not from the movie’s central financing.

That’s great. No wonder the Economy Minister wants to highlight such a big success at a time when good news is scarce.

My Lyons said: “Our local industry has risen and adapted to the significant challenges posed by Covid and continues to provide jobs and promote Northern Ireland.

“This has been done with support from Northern Ireland Screen. As we rebuild our economy, further development of skills in the screen industries will play a key role in that recovery… This is Paramount’s first production in Northern Ireland, but I hope that it will not be the last.”

Northern Ireland’s growing reputation as a world-class location for filming did not spring from nothing.

Some of it is, more or less, luck. Our Wee Country is a beautiful place with a bounty of natural scenery all located within a small geographical area.

But a lot of it is by design. You can’t make a film without skilled labour, and Northern Ireland has made efforts to boost its creative skills base. Organisations like Northern Ireland Screen and the Arts Councils have worked hard to make this happen.

Ultimately, however, a skilled creative sector will best flourish when surrounded by a thriving artistic scene. On this front, NI’s record is much more mixed. Funding for the creative sector never seems to be high, and always seems to be at risk of further cuts.

The pandemic has been brutal for the arts but is now trending in the right direction. Theatres and cinemas are creeping closer to normality, and open-air events are back - Liam Gallagher would have played Ormeau Park last weekend had he not fallen out of a helicopter.

But that is not enough for a sustainable sector. State funding makes a huge difference to the arts, and Northern Ireland could do more.


Covid-19 has dealt a battering to artists and the arts. The closure of venues is the most obvious issue and probably the most brutal, given it removed the central income stream for several types of performer.

However, as with so many challenges that have emerged during the pandemic, Covid also preyed on weaknesses that already existed. Statutory support for the arts has long been a battleground.

That is just something that should be borne in mind when looking at two reports from the Arts Council, both published this month, looking at the financial stability of NI’s creative sector.

Findings from a series of surveys of individuals and organisations that accessed emergency funding during the pandemic were released by the council last week:

Artists and Creative Practitioners:

  • 97% sustained significant loss of earnings as result of the pandemic; 74% lost more than half their income.
  • £12,960 was the average loss of earnings.
  • Artists experienced a high level of hardship and social disadvantage, with 74% forced to curtail all non-essential spending; 22% struggled to meet basic food costs.
  • 36% said they would have ceased trading without emergency funding.
  • 84% reported that their grant had alleviated immediate stress; however, 50% were less optimistic about their longer-term financial security.

Arts Organisations:

  • 74% confirmed that, without the Emergency funding, they would have had to remove their creative programming entirely; 85% would have had to reduce their scale of activity.
  • 80% reported that their grant had alleviated their immediate financial stress.
  • 58% used the funding to cover deficit or loss of income.
  • 67% have been able to protect jobs and retain skills through the pandemic, thanks to the funding.

From April 2020 to this February, the Arts Council co-designed and administered eight emergency programmes with Department for Communities funding. These offered some sectoral stability, protected jobs and skills, and increased access to the arts.

A total of £11.3m was distributed through 2,869 grants to creative practitioners and £14.7m through 501 grants to arts organisations.

A further £5m recovery fund was opened this month - the Creative Individuals Recovery Programme (CIRP) - aimed at the retention of skills.

Arts Council CEO Roisin McDonough said: “[R]esearch demonstrates there is currently a significant risk that the talent pool of artists and creatives in Northern Ireland, needed to support our creative ecosystem, will disappear as individuals leave to find alternative work. That would take NI years to recover from, as these freelancers, artists and individuals are essential to the success of our creative industries.”

Some of that research was also done by the Arts Council. In early September it published a report on the needs of freelance artists working in theatre and dance. Findings include:

  • Many freelance artists from the theatre and dance sectors feel they need to leave Northern Ireland to find the training and funding they need – 86% of respondents have considered relocating from NI.
  • The research reveals a clear need from theatre and dance freelance artists for access to funding to support the independent development of their projects.
  • A Project Funding programme designed specifically for freelancers in theatre and dance would result in more varied and experimental work, which would in turn broaden and diversify audiences.

These surveys were carried out before the relatively good news about social measures in theatres becoming more relaxed. Nevertheless, this will not solve the issue on its own.

Grassroots arts rely on statutory support in a fundamental way. Having theatres back to something approaching normality does not change this fact.

The public purse is one big bag of money and, unlike in other jurisdictions, Northern Ireland has little flexibility on how much the bag holds. We get given what we’re given from Westminster, and that has to pay for everything.

The arts are in competition with health and education for a fixed amount of cash. Arts funding therefore tends to be measured in the salaries of teachers and nurses. This a framing that leads to artistic cuts.

Surely an extra paediatric nurse is more important than grants for five dancers? This question sounds simple, but it is not. At its heart, is one of the most fundamental arguments – and misunderstandings – about the importance of giving money to creative people.

Broader truths

Support for funding the arts comes from a wide range of places. Plenty of business leaders know the importance of thriving culture. It makes people happier, makes them healthier, and improves society.

So, the arts are important, and most people know and accept this. That along should be enough to justify greater backing for the sector.

But there’s more.

Arts, culture, entertainment – whatever you want to call it – is big business. And its an area of business where Northern Ireland is doing well. This should not be put in jeopardy.

Dungeons and Dragons is just the latest big-time movie or show to be filmed in NI. Line of Duty, Dracula Untold and, of course, Game of Thrones. Derry Girls grew into a global smash. Plenty of other films and TV series were shot here too. All this is great for the local economy.

Treating culture and the arts as mere commodities is reductive. Failing to acknowledge their commercial importance ignores reality.

The sweet spot is a simple thing to understand. It is an arts sector that is well funded, and provides support to the widest variety of creators and performers, while still maintaining their artistic liberty.

All the funding that does happen should be welcomed. This includes the DfC streams administered by the Arts Council, as described above. However, the arts scene could be more vibrant, and more secure (nothing described as “emergency funding” is ever going to provide the foundations for something robust).

Statutory help is essential for a healthy arts scene – one which will bring big economic benefits.

Drawing a clean line between investment in one randomly chosen theatre producer or dancer and the wider economic rewards of a big Hollywood production coming to Northern Ireland is almost impossible – but that doesn’t matter.

The case for better support does not rest on counting all the peas onto the plates of individual freelance artists.

The case is made by the obvious benefits of a thriving local culture, and copperbottomed by the economic benefits that stem from that culture. Northern Ireland’s arts, and artists, deserve better.

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