Arts Council urges Government Ministers to rethink spending plans for the Arts
In its response to the Draft Priorities and Budget 2006-2008 consultation, which closed yesterday (Monday, December 5th), the Arts Council of Northern Ireland is urging Government not to reinforce budget cuts introduced last year. Further spending reductions, the Arts Council argues, will exacerbate an already grave situation and threaten the sustainability of future arts provision in Northern Ireland.
The Arts Council fully endorses the wishes of the Secretary of State, Mr Peter Hain MP, published in his statement of Government priorities for Northern Ireland over the coming two years, to deliver “a world class Northern Ireland”. However, the important contribution made by the arts to the social, cultural and economic prosperity of the region is poorly reflected in the proposed spending plans.
Arts budget continues to decline
Comparisons with spending on the arts throughout the other regions of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland, yield a clear statement of the extent to which Government continues to undervalue the significance of the arts and culture to the people of Northern Ireland and their contribution to the prosperity of the region. Northern Ireland has the lowest levels of per capita Government spending on the arts, and the disparity of funding continues to grow, with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland expected to receive only £6.13 per capita, contrasting sharply with England at £8.19, Wales £8.80, Scotland £11.93 and the Republic of Ireland whose budget for the arts has escalated to an impressive £12.61 per head of population.
The comparatively low level of Government support for the arts is at variance to a 2004 Omnibus Survey of attitudes towards arts and culture in Northern Ireland, which found that 79 percent of people agreed that arts and cultural activities help to enrich the quality of their lives, and 78 percent agreed that such activities should be publicly funded.
“The annual arts budget barely registers in terms of overall spending allowances across departments in Northern Ireland. The repercussions of any cut made to our meagre arts budget will consequently far outweigh the size of that cut relative to the overall budget for Northern Ireland,” says Arts Council Chief Executive, Roisín McDonough. “For an overstretched sector, having its funding chipped away year by year can mean the difference between survival and going under. It means the erosion of our ability to sustain the important ‘front line’ work of our artists and arts organisations.”
The funding situation for the arts is worsened by two additional factors. Firstly, the sector has already had to absorb a sizeable reduction in its annual budget when central government support was reduced last year. Secondly, the shortage of Treasury funds has created increased reliance on National Lottery funds to support our arts organisations, but this source of income is also in decline, with income from the sale of Lottery tickets forecast to drop.
Capital arts infrastructure under mounting pressure
James Hunt, Chair of the Grand Opera House Trust , welcomes the £4m from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to part-fund Act II, the Opera House’s new development and extension programme, but warns, “our annual funding has decreased by 23% in real terms since April 2000. It is as though the government is giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
Referring to Northern Ireland’s low level of per capita expenditure on the arts compared with spending in England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, Mr Hunt continues, “It seems ironic and inconsistent that the Government, always previously a champion of the arts, believes the people of Northern Ireland to be only half as entitled to access to culture and the arts as the people of Scotland. Following the Belfast Agreement consideration should also be given to the North / South axis, where comparison with An Chomhairle Ealaíon (the Arts Council of Ireland) shows a per capita spend of £12.30 on the Arts - more than double the projected spend in the North.”
In similar vein, Sid McDowell CBE, Chair of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, says, “The Lyric, like many arts organisations, is undergoing an exciting period of development with plans for a new £12million theatre. However, the proposed cuts in revenue funding to the arts at a time when there is considerable investment in our capital infrastructure is a major cause for concern. It seems that, yet again, the government’s left hand is unaware of what the right hand is doing. There is little point in building landmark arts facilities for Northern Ireland if they are not to be funded to a reasonable level. Adequately resourced, cultural facilities have a huge part to play in the economic and social regeneration of our region. Sadly, we are lagging behind the rest of the UK in funding for the arts and a basic recognition of what the arts can do for Northern Ireland with a proper vision and commitment at government level.”
Liz Donnan, Manager of the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, also welcomes the announcement of the capital funding package to improve the arts infrastructure and is delighted not only for the centre but for all the other arts venues. She cautions, however, that she is “very concerned that the reinforcement of cuts to the annual budget, already introduced, will be detrimental to the sustainability of these same venues and will threaten the survival of others. A little has had to go a long way in the arts but there is a limit to how long it can go with continual cuts. In the light of Minister Hanson’s statement that ‘this announcement puts arts and culture at the heart of city life’ the Crescent urges Government to look again at arts spending and put the heart back into the arts budget.”
Niall Mc Caughan, General Manager of The Playhouse in Derry, which rose to national prominence through the BBC’s Restoration series, adds, “We are delighted with the recent funding which we have received in relation to our proposed refurbishment of our buildings, and over the last few years the arts infrastructure has been greatly strengthened to deliver arts services across Northern Ireland. However it is important in the medium to long term, that this investment is properly resourced, built on and sustained. Northern Ireland lags well behind other parts of the UK in relation to the spend per head of population, and this needs to be rectified, particularly when one can see the huge contribution that the arts have made in Northern Ireland. We call on the government to rectify the imbalance so that the improved infrastructure which we have all invested in continues to deliver high quality programming to all parts of Northern Ireland, long into the future.”
Arts delivering on Government priorities
Heather Floyd, Director of the Community Arts Forum , comments, “As well as complementing the work of the health, education, youth and community sectors, community arts organisations and artists have a track record of working with disadvantaged and excluded communities. The decision to cut the arts budget by almost £1 million over two years will jeopardise projects that have improved the quality of life of thousands of people across Northern Ireland.
Rather than merely paying lip service to the valuable contribution that the arts make to society, the Government needs to deliver sufficient levels of investment to ensure that this vital work can continue. Cutting the budget only illustrates how little the Government actually values these projects and the communities they serve.”
The arts are also major contributors to several of the priority areas specified in the current Draft Priorities and Budget document; notably, Children and Young People, Education, Health and Economic Competitiveness.
Children and Young People
Vine Haugh, Creative Youth Partnership Advisor, SELB , maintains that “ The arts are a central part of children’s learning and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland supports this through the provision of funding to enable the development of creative programmes for children and young people.
Most recently, over the past two years, Early Years activities and Creative Youth Partnerships have greatly enhanced education both inside and outside schools.
The personal skills and creativity these programmes provide are valued way beyond school and into adult life.”
According to Pearse Moore, Chief Executive of the Nerve Centre, which helped to develop the new ‘Moving Image Arts’ qualification in schools across Northern Ireland, “Major curriculum change is underway in Northern Ireland and arts organisations are taking a leading role in the promotion of creativity and digital literacy within the classroom. The introduction of new subjects such as Moving Image Arts A level is providing a stepping stone into the creative industries for hundreds of young people.
Artistic expression is a vital element of a new skills-based curriculum for the 21st century and organisations such as the Nerve Centre are working at a strategic level with the Council for Curriculum, Examination and Assessment (CCEA) to ensure that every school pupil in Northern Ireland can gain actual hands-on experience of the creative industries.
The contribution the arts can make to the educational, personal and social development of children must be recognised by the government. Therefore, the government needs to set a value on this contribution and ensure the provision of adequate financial support to the arts sector. This investment in young people is essential not only for the development of their creativity but for their personal, social and economic well being in the future.”
Art in the hospital environment helps healing and reduces anxiety. In addition to developing integrated public art in hospitals, the Arts Council supports arts in the healthcare environment through its Treasury funds. For example, ArtsCare, the arts and health umbrella organisation employs ‘artists-in-residence’ to deliver arts programmes in the healthcare environment and has set up a Northern Ireland Clown Doctors service where artists work alongside medical staff.
Lorna Hastings, Director of Arts Care , points out that “The Draft Priorities and Budget 2005 recognised the valuable contribution that culture, arts and leisure made to economic and social life here (p51). ‘Arts in Health’ is a fast growing sector throughout the world with huge potential to improve the physical, mental and emotional health of individuals and communities. Arts Care, the Arts and Health organisation working in healthcare settings throughout Northern Ireland, finds that there are unlimited benefits in making arts activities accessible to marginalised adults, young people and children. In line with so many of the overall aims listed in the Draft Priorities and Budget 2006-08, we have noted that through the arts there has been an improvement in the quality of life of many of our participants, including increased social skills, job creation, improvement of environment, and social inclusion. Current levels of funding are not sufficient to sustain growth, therefore it is imperative that the Government increases funding to the sector.”
Value for Money
Without realistic financial support for the arts in Northern Ireland, it will be hard to sustain a propitious climate which encourages the development of tourism and inward investment and establishes the conditions of confidence needed for our artists to continue to live and work here.