Ignorance and the Arts in Northern Ireland

2 Feb 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Feb 2018

Two quotes 120 years apart about the value of the Arts and Culture signify the shift we are currently seeing. 

 “Art cannot be a luxury except to a poverty stricken, spendthrift or ignorant people; and if we allow it to be a luxury in Manchester, we must decide under which or how many of these categories we come.” J. Ernest Phythian, Manchester City Art Gallery Committee 1898.

“The government just doesn’t have the money to meet all the demands placed upon it and the priorities it has set are those which society cares deepest about – health, education, jobs, infrastructure, identity. “ John Edmund, chair of Arts Council Northern Ireland 2018.

Has it really come to this? 

How can we have reached the position whereby the chair of our arts funding body appears to believe that culture and arts are indeed a luxury to be addressed only after other, more pressing priorities are met? Are we that poverty-stricken, or just ignorant or both?

Ultimately this comes down to a judgement of the value of the arts and the “return” they give on investment.

Let’s briefly look at the sums involved. The proposed cuts to the Arts Council’s budget is 8% on the current expenditure of £8,369,796 so we are looking at around £700,000 off that.

This is a massive figure to arts organisations but would diverting that to infrastructure make any meaningful difference, or to health?

Of course not. In the broader scheme of things the monies involved are tiny.

The cuts make no discernible difference to public finance generally or any other budget, but given the fact that the monies distributed by the Arts Council are so small they have a massive impact on the organisations that rely on them.

Mr Edmund’s intervention with his talk of more pressing priorities is reminiscent of those radio phone in callers who measure all public expenditure in terms of nurses salaries.

It ultimately raises the question of whether government should fund the arts at all.

This gets back to the issue of value. In Victorian days Phythian expressed a view which was widely accepted: that arts are not a luxury they are part of what we are as individuals, and define the societies in which we live.

For centuries the value of artistic and cultural expression was not challenged. For sure, it used to be the preserve of the church and was deployed to express the ineffable power and majesty of the deity. And there has been a running debate about what constitutes art, and the extent to which “quality” matters.

But that all seemed to change when, from the 1980s onwards, culture started to become  ‘instrumentalised.’

In other words arguments for supporting the arts became based on their contribution to other policy areas – the economy, social inclusion, health etc. This meant that increasingly public sector investment became based on policy objectives entirely separate from the objectives of the cultural experience itself.

There is nothing wrong with this per se – artistic and cultural works can have many beneficial impacts in all sorts of areas. There is good research on how art can help to rehabilitate offenders, on the positive impacts in health care and indeed mountains of evidence about the economic impacts of thriving arts organisations.

But this left a yawning gap – the actual impact of experiencing art on each one of us, how it affects us, what we learn from it, and how it helps us to understand the wider world.

And precisely because we tend only to debate public funding of the arts we then tend only to focus on a small number of organisations, blinding ourselves to the fact that we are all immersed in artistic and cultural experiences every day.

We ignore the fact that there is a vast and hugely successful commercial arts sector which is so important to our economy. The film, television, music and digital entertainment industries, the buildings, both contemporary and ancient that surround us.

And where does the talent come from to power that? Where should it come, is it not a good investment to nurture and develop it. Is that not what businesses in other sectors demand and expect from government, and does it not provide a very health return on funding?

These days most of us get most of our experience of arts and culture in our own homes, listening to music, watching films, 94% of which are seen at home rather than in picture houses. This too is art. We all know and feel its value. Without it we would be bereft.

So simply regarding art and culture in the context of roads and jobs is to profoundly misunderstand its centrality and importance. It is, to be frank and without wanting to appear unkind, an ignorant view.

Most of the art we experience is not publicly funded. That which is needs to be. There are many reasons for this.

Mr Edmund says audiences should pay more for their experiences. There may be cases where this would be legitimate. But does that mean people should pay to access libraries and museums? Does it mean that people on low incomes cannot attend concerts and events?

And how about the community arts organisations who do some of our most important and challenging work?

And what about those organisations that cannot survive by “acting like a business”? The Ulster Orchestra is a full time symphony orchestra with 63 musicians. Symphony orchestras cannot survive without public subsidy because their size (which is necessary for them to play the musical cannon) means that costs cannot be recouped through box office sales and sponsorship. This has always been the case.

You either recognise their value and pay for them or watch them fall.

The Lyric Theatre runs a programme for young people in Northern Ireland, giving them the skills to audition for drama schools. It has a great track record of success. Because it enjoys public funding people from all social backgrounds can and do attend. Without that subsidy only rich kids would be able to go.

No, the argument is simple and has not moved on from Phythian in 1898. We are not that poverty stricken, we are not that ignorant. Arts and culture are part of a collective heritage. They are not a priority to be measured alongside others. They define us. They are part of us. Every society needs to find the very modest sums required to finance those parts of the sector that require public subsidy.


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