Respect our culture! Can the arts help craft a modern economy?
We live in swingeing times and, when it comes to public sector cuts, the arts are easy money.
The sector is constantly vulnerable to indirect accusations of triviality, its budget not measured in pounds and pennies but in nurses’ salaries.
This week Scope spoke with the Arts Council, asking them for a robust defence of the position they adopted two months ago, when they asked to be spared from cuts affecting almost every area of public policy.
Waging war on those who hold the public purse strings is an unusual step for any arms-length body, but CEO Roisin McDonough came out swinging with her campaign to save her sector from the general budget butchery.
Her campaign pointed out that the total arts budget, which seeds and supports our local creative industries worth £714m a year, equates to just 13p per week for every person in Northern Ireland.
That amounts to £12.3m per year – the same as the cost for policing the Twaddell Avenue protest, a staggering fact in its own right, independent of opinions about the parading stand off.
If you consider Twaddell an extravagant waste of money you must surely believe the arts budget is rather more important; if you think facilitating the loyalist picket is a principled and important example of democracy in action you would still struggle to argue the cultural significance of one parade among thousands outweighs the entire value of the arts in Northern Ireland.
However, as things stand the arts are now set to receive less financial backing than Twaddell. The proposed cuts have not been seen off and remain part of the draft Budget.
Noirin McKinney, Director of Arts Development at the Arts Council, “We are obviously bitterly disappointed. The 11.2% cut, which lies on top of our already very small arts budget, is £1.38m and that’s what we were campaigning against. We weren’t asking for an increase, just to be spared the cut.”
But the council’s defence of its position goes much further – it points out that arts funding represents 0.1% of NI’s total budget, and this money provides pathways into our creative industries, which employ 40,000 people and is worth £714m GVA for the local economy; huge numbers that might surprise anyone who thinks the arts sector is like some non-stop episode of Blue Peter, without the cameras.
Last week Ed Miliband came to Belfast and talked up the strength of creative industry as part of his vision for a high-wage, high-skills economy. Driving down the already paltry arts budget would seem to go against this, an idea with which the council agrees.
“Arts are often compared in an invidious way to funding across the board. We don’t want to argue against health and education, these are core human rights and they need huge investment.
“Our £12.3m is 0.1% of the NI budget, it’s absolutely nothing and it would make a negligible impact on the spending for the big departments. This total annual spending wouldn’t sustain the health service for a day, it would sustain education for less than two-and-a-half days.
“Our argument is very much based on the wonderful investment and contribution to the economy, so we are asking please don’t take off £1.3m which will make no impact on health or education. Our argument is, because it’s true, that the arts represents the backbone of the creative industries.
“The creative industry sector is bigger than agriculture and represents 5% of the total employment in NI, but the arts budget is 0.1% of the total. What creative industries add to the economy is £714m and we would argue that the backbone of that is the arts.”
She pointed out further that all of these have further knock-on benefits, such as in tourism.
Northern Ireland’s arts legacy – with literature a particular highlight and, within that, our status as a world beacon for poetry – is a huge part of its appeal as a place to visit.
Our recent boom in film production has also been a great advertisement, with shows like Game of Thrones shining a spotlight on our landscape heritage.
Noirin said the council has already made efficiency savings in recent years and these new budgetary reductions will mean their grant giving will suffer.
“We are going through the process of our annually funded organisations, of which we have 119, all have applications in for funding.
“Obviously we don’t know the outcomes yet but we know the consequences and we cannot continue to sustain 119 organisations, so there will be losses unfortunately, and that’s a real shame because all of those do fantastic work, they are all meeting our criteria, that’s why we are funding them.”
The Arts Council campaign attracted several thousand supporters via petitioning and also some vocal backing from celebrity quarters. James Nesbitt observed that “without the arts, we're just left with politics and we don't want that.”
According to the council, the losses will run deeper than perhaps expected; we might be losing a lot more than we think.
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