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New campaign challenges ‘death by a thousand cuts’

This week, as northern Ireland anticipates the restoration of the Stormont Assembly, the arts sector is in turmoil, as Conor Shields explains.

Last month Sir Kenneth Branagh received the Freedom of the City of Belfast. This celebrated son of the city paid tribute to the support he had received from its arts organisations and despaired about the funding crisis we are once again faced with.

He began his career in those dark days that cast a long shadow in Northern Ireland but is now recognised as one of the greatest in his profession, emblematic of the persistent talent that we nurture in this wee corner of the world.

A few weeks ago, many of those like me, who manage arts organisations, were at an event in one of Belfast’s most prestigious arts spaces. We listened with intense disappointment as the chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), John Edmund, offered no challenge to the funding cuts and instead stated that the business acumen of the arts sector didn’t match that of others and that we our organisations are too dependent on funding.

He spoke of a ‘new model’ of funding and of our ‘high dependency’. We looked at each other, flabbergasted. There were muted boos from one side of the auditorium amid less than enthusiastic applause.

Mr Edmund has since shifted position, but only after a backlash from his board. A week later he offered his idea of a ‘new partnership model for arts funding that involves government, councils, the audience, business and trusts and foundations’ in the Belfast Telegraph.

As a result of all this, over 50 arts organisations, as part of the Arts Matter NI campaign, have called for him to consider his position and issued a statement of no confidence in his ability to advocate for the arts.

It is the honest truth that artists in Northern Ireland are very sincere about their plight. Cut by over 40% in real terms in six years, the budget for the arts in NI has not risen in 10 years. Lottery funding is plummeting like elsewhere across the UK, and the per capita spend locally is less than half of any other jurisdiction in these islands!

If these cuts go through, only 1p of public exchequer monies will be spent on every citizen per day. Put another way, out of every £100 of exchequer spending here just 7p goes to the arts.

But the chair claims the ‘current funding model has created a high level of dependency and, frankly, has not been a sustainable one for some time’.

Last year, 2016/17 across all 107 annually funded organisations, on average 24% of turnover came from Arts Council funding. That means on average every organisation was generating £3 for every £1 it received from ACNI, with a further 6% from councils, 8% from other public sources, 8% again from programmes like Tourism NI and were averaging almost 50% in earnings and contributions. This model has been operating for the last 20 years or more.

It’s a shame that only after departments closed their consultation on next year’s budget, this chair of the Arts Council chooses to offer his ideas, not to officials, or the sector or indeed his publicly appointed colleagues on the board, but to the readership of a Belfast newspaper.

Had he asked us we would point out to him, that this sector is made up of thrifty, well run businesses, whose profit is only to serve the public good, this community with its many needs and growing demands, and to support and nurture our shared artistic and creative future.

If creativity and intellectual property are to fuel the global economy of 21st century, then the cuts to the NI creative sector will only ensure further stagnation in the creative economy, and little prospect of the opportunity of a diverse digital future. This sector is so diverse: at the forefront of attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, supporting education and skills development, improving health and wellbeing, contributing to the local, national and evening economies, attracting investment and talent, and delivering time and time again for those most in need. We need support.

The arts are not here to profit –we are here to offer something noble, supporting and fundamental to our lives and indeed to our future prosperity. We work long hours, with artists struggling to earn often little more than minimum wages, so that the arts can be enjoyed by all and not only by those with the higher earnings, educational advantage or through family tradition.

The arts matter in Northern Ireland. In total, 82 of 107 annually funded organisations support the Arts Matter NI campaign Statement, and over 50 of those organisations also support a message of no confidence in the current chair’s ability to champion and advocate for the arts sector here.

Like so many struggles for normality here, the people of Northern Ireland should enjoy the very best that the arts sector can provide this community, emerging from those long shadows. We deserve better.

Support our campaign. #artsmatterni

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