Despite an abundance of talent in Northern Ireland’s Arts industry, the lack of funding for local organisations is abysmal. In recent years we have welcomed some of the biggest names in television, and in turn fans from across the globe, to our shores. The tourism industry is booming as we cash in on tours for three of the most talked-about programmes of 2019 - Game of Thrones, Derry Girls and Line of Duty. Yet, local councils seem to be more fixated on attracting more Hollywood ‘big shots’ instead of supporting the masses of local talent already on their doorstep.
What do these cuts actually mean?
In 2018/2019 the arts council of Northern Ireland faced budget cuts of 4.7%. The total amount divvied up between the 100 groups is around the same as the previous year - around £13.1m - however £600,000 of that is made up of emergency funding from the Department for Communities. This particular sum was intended for the MAC and the Ulster Orchestra, who had previously argued that they were underfunded. Where these groups saw an increase in funding for the year, 43 of the 100 arts groups who receive the bulk of their yearly budget from the council received cuts. Some of the biggest hits were received by the Grand Opera House, who lost 22% and the incredibly talented Bruiser Theatre Company who lost a devastating 85%. In addition to this, seven groups who had received annual funding in the previous year were cut off completely.
Funding has fallen by almost 40% since 2012 and according to an internal ACNI report, this financial stress has an impact on the long-term sustainability of annually funded arts organisations and their audiences. An independent review of the Arts Councils five year plan revealed that audience numbers dropped by over a quarter, while exhibition visits fell by around 50% in the same distance of time thanks to the lack of funding in place for marketing and publicity. The report stresses that;
“…damage to long-term sustainability is evident, especially in the Annually Funded Organisations. Any further funding cuts are likely to be counterproductive because of the resulting reduction in audience and participation: the arts sector will always prioritise artistic programming, but has cut back the marketing and audience development that ensure people can hear about and benefit from this work.”
Arts Matter NI commented on this fall last year stating that some of the 43 organisations who faced funding loss “won’t be able to come back” from this hit. This fear may become a reality after the Government announced that public sector funding is likely to fall by a further 4% in 2020. As this funding is generally relied on to cover staffing and accommodation costs, this puts yet more jobs in jeopardy. Unfortunately, the topic is generally overlooked in favour of covering the political disarray that we perpetually seem to find ourselves in.
The hard truth is that perhaps we don’t value our local talent as much as we should. Last year a local theatre company was challenged on how much they were paying the members of their pit band in a professional production. Where local professional musicians were set to receive approximately minimum wage for unreasonable commitment expectations, those that had been flown over from mainland UK not only had their travel, accommodation and food expenditures covered, but also received almost double the fee. This is only one among many examples in which local talent is overlooked in favour of the more ‘exotic’ musicians from the mainland or further afield.
Why do we need the Arts?
You might ask why more arts funding is really something to fight for in a time of great financial struggle. It may seem like a waste but there really is no line between culture and everyday living. Art in the general sense is not only something to be enjoyed and appreciated, but it is also designed into everything around us. Investing in the local arts industry would almost certainly benefit Northern Ireland economically in attracting more visitors, creating jobs, developing talent and drawing in new businesses. In a recent interview with The Stage, Equity’s general secretary Christine Payne expressed her concern about the impact of these successive budget cuts and her frustration with the lack of active investment in the arts;
“There continues to be a huge missed opportunity in Northern Ireland in terms of investing in the arts and building a strong creative economy. The creative sector is an engine of growth across the rest of UK, creating good, highly skilled jobs – it is such a shame that Northern Ireland is losing out.”
So much can be said for the health benefits of engaging in community arts. It’s proven that musical interactions can help to ease or cope with symptoms of Parkinsons, Alzheimers, and Dementia. It’s also a useful tool in working with children and adults with learning difficulties. Even more so, it’s no secret that singing in a choir improves general wellbeing for people of all ages and abilities. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times; the arts is a vital part of education! Subjects like Music, Drama, Art and Creative Writing help to build essential skills like creativity, visual learning, decision making through expression, perseverance, focus, teamwork and so on. Such subjects have also been shown to improve general academic performance and can help in the development of fine motor skills in a child’s early development. Perhaps the most urgent reason to increase funding, particularly in Northern Ireland, is the indisputable social benefits. Community arts organisations have been working to improve quality of life in NI for decades and their contribution to healing historical divisions is irreplaceable. Places like ‘Arts for All’ in East Belfast provide outreach programmes for a wide range of people from different backgrounds, fulfilling a number of needs. Like many other local organisations, their arts-based work is particularly significant in their unique ability to reduce sectarianism and anti-social behaviour through uniting participants and communities in heartening, constructive experiences. Such programmes encourage people of all backgrounds and ages to use expression as a means of learning, understanding and growing as open-minded members of society. In a country where having the ‘wrong name’ could have you sent out of a bar, these local organisations have acted as catalysts for social cohesion, improving cross-community relations between those of opposing religions, denominations, sexualities and generations to prosper and grow for the better.
Above all, encouraging and funding our local arts is a vital part of building our cultural legacy. After-all, once we are dead and gone, it’s our culture that will be left behind. You only need visit a museum to confirm that. Arts programmes are crucial for celebrating and appreciating every aspect of our country’s culture in a manner that can strengthen and preserve a distinctive legacy which can, in turn, be passed down to future generations. In order to be able to do this, however, we need to ensure that our local arts organisations are able to survive. Unless something is done to prevent these budget cuts from worsening, one of Northern Ireland’s brightest sectors is sure to disappear.
Amy Murray is a final year student, currently completing an undergraduate degree in Music at Queen’s University. She is a rare NI individual who doesn’t wish to pursue political journalism, but rather is passionate about Cultural, Social and Solutions Journalism. She recently represented Northern Ireland at the British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference in 2019.