Funding the Arts in the "real world"

Ali FitzGibbon, director Young at Art
Ali FitzGibbon, director Young at Art

Ali FitzGibbon, director at Young at Art re-frames the debate about arts funding.

You couldn’t avoid two news stories recently – the 100% cut to NITB’s events funding for the next year threatening the region’s top cultural events and the announcement by the Ulster Orchestra that, without additional funds immediately, it will close before Christmas.

It would also be easy to tell the hand-wringing artistic leaders to “dry your eyes”. In a realm of unprecedented destabilising of our public funds, leading to difficult decisions in all sectors and cuts to public services across the board, the arts are not as important as hospital beds, schools or policing. The answer to which is of course not.

I could write an impassioned plea about the importance of the arts but I have been told so often recently that I have to live in the real world, that here is the reality for the arts in Northern Ireland.

The two news stories – Orchestra and Events – are the canary down the mine for the collapse of the arts in Northern Ireland. Our largest and most successful subsidised events and organisations will go to the wall for the sake of relatively small grants if not this year then within two to three.  The reason for this is that decisions about how all the arts should be funded from exchequer funds has been operating within a policy and strategy vacuum for at least the last ten years if not longer, predating all current crises of a political or economic variety.

This does not mean there haven’t been strategies or policy documents or departmental priorities. The arts in all its forms and at all levels of engagement is referred to in countless documents from DCAL, ACNI, DENI, DETI, DEL, DSD, DHSSPS and OFMDFM as well as all 26 local authorities and across a range of European policies.  By policy vacuum I mean that while there have been priorities and targets set, the conversation about what we all want long term, what is realistic, what is needed, who needs to be involved in its delivery and what it will actually cost has been absent.

Too often, a list of priorities and criteria are handed down for delivery by a pressurised arts sector with the funds offered on a short-term basis based on what is left in the kitty. And too often, in a desire to address every possible sector, a slice is handed to each and every interest which is always too little and too late.

So that is in part my real world – an unrealistic expectation of what can be done on the funds available with an expectation that the voluntary organisations that make up the arts sector will find the difference.

The second reality is one of the cost-of-living. We have all recognised that prices have risen for pretty much everything. So too did the NI Assembly budget up to now. But the arts budget with a little flicker upwards every now and then has remained broadly unchanged since 1997.

Think about it – a litre of petrol in 1997 was 62 pence and arts spending was around £6.20 per capita. Now petrol is more than £1.30 with arts funding at around £6.80 and falling.

And the next reality is that my first experience of campaigning for the arts was in 1997 when we asked for the arts budget to be increased because it was so far behind every other region within these islands (in fact the per capita spend was less then half what they spent in Scotland or Ireland at the time). And despite the austerity in the Republic, its recent budget awarded a figure of around 15euro per capita. So to say we are behind the pack is to put it mildly.

Add to this the costs of being on an island off an island off the coast of Europe. Then add the effect of the conflict – damaging our economy, but also breaking social habits and destroying our communities, city and town centres. It also cut off our experience of engaging with diverse and new cultural experiences for a long time. It would seem logical or realistic that recovery from this would attract greater public investment not less.

The reality is that we no longer know how much things should cost and if we did we can no longer pay it. The reality is that there is insufficient economic growth in Northern Ireland for ticket sales and sponsorship to be high enough to replace the funding gap for the delivery of the arts as a public service. Budgets for materials, technical expenses, artists’ contracts cannot compete with neighbouring regions. Pay levels have collapsed with salaries below comparable voluntary sector posts, while staff are covering full-time work on part-time hours or core management being delivered on short-term contracts.

The average annual earnings for self-employed artists in Northern Ireland is less than £6,000. Few organisations can afford salary increments, pensions or any other benefits, including redundancy. Specialist skillsets have left for other shores and our infrastructure can barely keep its doors open while many venues can no longer afford a programme, relying on artists performing for a speculative split of the ticket sales or for free. Any ability to plan or grow strategically has been quashed by lack of long term resourcing and now, the latest cuts and current insecurity will probably be enough to send us over the edge. As the greatest pilot that ever lived once said, “She cannae take any more captain.”

The arts vs education or health budget is not realistic. One is a gnat to the other’s mountain. Nor is it realistic to invest in one part of the creative industries such as film while letting another part wither and die, they are ecologically linked in their personnel and their related skills (acting, design, construction, scriptwriting, etc).

What is realistic is to engage in discussion with the arts sector and more widely to establish collectively – what is it we want?  If we are to effect a systemic change to all publicly funded budgets, instead of tweaking a status quo to death, let’s sit down and discuss a realistic approach about what we want for the whole of society and think beyond the next budget or spending review. To go back to the recent news stories, this is not about whether we should save the orchestra. The real question (there’s that real word again) is “Do we want an orchestra and if we do how much does an orchestra cost?”

If the answer is yes we want one, only then do we ask “Is this particular orchestra the one we want?”

If the answer to either of the above is no, the question is “what will we lose in five or ten or fifteen years if it is not there?”

Without the arts we cease to be a society, we are an economy. In the real world, the arts is society’s route to knowledge, self-expression, discovering the new and the imaginative. It is a shared celebration or experience. It makes us think and open up to new ideas and concepts. It engages with our past in a creative and provocative way, helping us move into the future. The arts is the only thing that sets us apart from anywhere else. Nurturing creativity helps us think laterally and find new ways of resolving problems or new approaches. Is that real enough?

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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