‘The arts are an easy target’: Northern Ireland’s budget blues

All funding has been cut to six organisations, including leading independent publishers and theatre companies. Job losses are a certainty and the long-term impact on the sector could be disastrous

 

These are difficult days for the arts in the North, with news of the feared cuts in funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland descending with a thud.

The council has undergone an 11.2 per cent cut to its own funding, passed on as part of the Northern Ireland Executive’s 2015-2016 budget. Its coffers have been diminished by £1.38 million (€1.9 million) to £10.9 million, and it says it has been forced to make difficult decisions in order to stabilise the arts as a whole, and has done so with a strategic perspective designed to protect the future.

The North’s cultural sector languishes at the bottom of the pile when it comes to public funding, and there has been loud criticism of the lack of political will to improve the situation. The council’s chief executive, Róisín McDonough, reports that a mere 1 per cent of the Executive’s budget goes to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. A minuscule allocation of 0.1 per cent of the overall budget trickles down to the Arts Council.

In the wake of the announcements, political representatives were conspicuous by their absence, but McDonough has put herself forward for media interviews. She says the decisions are “highly regrettable” and describes the Executive’s approach to arts funding as “short-sighted”.

She says the Arts Council decided against applying what she calls “a salami cut” of 11.2 per cent across the board, although a number of organisations have since said that they could have lived with that decision.

“We wanted to look at core elements in the arts infrastructure. Jobs are a big issue,” she says, a statement that resonates loudly within those companies where jobs have been lost.

Publishers hard hit

For some, the news could hardly have been worse. All funding has been withdrawn from six organisations, including two prominent publishers – Blackstaff Press in Belfast and Guildhall Press in Derry – and Martin Lynch’s Green Shoot theatre company. Derry’s Nerve Centre took a hit of £104,000 (€144,000), which is 67.4 per cent of its 2014-2015 total. The result is the closure of the award-winning cultural website Culture Northern Ireland, which was run by the Nerve Centre.

Six days after the cuts were made public, the Nerve Centre tweeted that the Minister for Culture, Carál Ní Chuilín, had hailed the Nerve Centre and Culture Northern Ireland as “creative trailblazers”.

The Board of Publishing Ireland has expressed its dismay at “the savage cut by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland of its grant to Blackstaff Press. This is historically one of the most distinguished publishing houses on the island, bravely founded at the height of the Troubles. Our concern is at the effect the council’s approach to Irish book publishing is likely to have on the sector and on the wider writing community.”

The #ArtsMattersNI group, set up by professional practitioners to raise public awareness of the value of the arts, expresses concern that the cuts might be “potentially fatal” to the cultural sector and could have a detrimental effect on the local economy through economic regeneration, tourism, education, health and wellbeing. It fears that the devaluing of cultural activity sends out a negative message about Northern Ireland as a progressive society.

The actors’ union Equity has joined the fray. In a letter to members, Drew McFarlane, national organiser and secretary to the Northern Ireland committee, argues that, in addition to the damage done in employment terms, the cuts “send out a message to those students who are at college and drama school that your aspirations will not be met by the decisions taken by government and politicians”.

He foresees the possibility of a knock-on effect on Game of Thrones and other high-end television and film productions, which are shot in Northern Ireland and rely on the local professional talent base.

While 74 applicants experienced standstill funding, two of Belfast’s longest established independents, Kabosh and Tinderbox, are reeling at cuts of 44 per cent.

Kabosh has just embarked on a tour of community groups and assorted venues across the region, with Laurence McKeown’s play Those You Pass On The Street.

“We had planned for the possibility of a 20 per cent cut, but there was no way on this earth that we thought 44 per cent was coming,” says artistic director Paula McFetridge. “It’s a shock. We have a small core team of three, and last year employed 200 practitioners and played to an audience of about 15,000. There will inevitably be redundancies and an impact on projects. After 21 years in business, it’s hard.”

Meanwhile, Tinderbox is rehearsing Lally the Scut, a new play by Newry writer Abbie Spallen, which opens at the Mac on April 16th. Artistic director Michael Duke is angry not only at the level of its cut but also by the unexpected loss of a key staff member as a result of the Arts Council’s intention to “review the current delivery mechanism for dramaturgy”.

“Like everyone else, we opened our letter from the council with some trepidation,” he says. “Shocking doesn’t begin to cover what unfolded for us in the next few moments. After 10 years of unique and inspired service to the theatre sector in Northern Ireland, our dramaturg, Hanna Slattne, was effectively given two weeks’ notice by the Arts Council.”

Martin Lynch, a well-known playwright, producer and lifelong community arts champion, says that the decision to cease funding Green Shoot, with the loss of three part-time jobs and two major productions, makes him feel “ incredibly undervalued. I have a track record second to none in bringing people to the theatre, creating access to the arts and doing community engagement. It’s beyond being angry. I’m bemused by the decision.”

Increase for NI Opera

At the other end of the spectrum, there is an 8 per cent increase for NI Opera (taking its funding to £561,569 or €776,036). Big institutions such as the Ulster Orchestra and the Grand Opera House lose £100,000 (€138,000) each; the Lyric Theatre (recently nominated in 10 categories at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards) and the Mac lose £50,000 (€59,000) respectively. One new organisation, the East Belfast Partnership, is awarded £94,000 (€130,000) to fund three festivals: the East Side Arts Festival, the CS Lewis Festival and the Woodstock R&B Festival.

Earlier in the week, Queen’s University dropped its own bombshell by announcing it is halting its 52-year funding of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. The university’s pro-vice chancellor for external affairs, Prof Tony Gallagher, acknowledged that the university had invested significant funding into the festival’s success, but must now concentrate on its core academic activities. “The decision is a consequence of financial challenges to the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in recent years and significant cuts to the public purse.”

Festival director Richard Wakely put on a brave face, saying “in no way are we dead and buried”. He added that he and his team had returned the festival’s finances to a stable footing and were talking to the other stakeholders and sponsors with a view to finding a way forward for 2015.

Heated discussion about arts funding in the North has figured prominently in local and national media in recent weeks, a fact that an arts observer from a political consultancy views as encouraging in itself:

“The arts community can be very proud of the enormous progress made over the last 20 years,” he says. “The cuts debate is now mainstream, top of the news and feature programmes. But the platform is burning.

“I wonder if the arguments have been promoted enough. A blanket protection has been applied to health and education, without more detailed analysis of what is in those budgets. Will arts therapy in health be protected, for example? Or the arts in youth work from the Department of Education? And we should not expect to see change after the election. It will make no difference; we’re on our own now.”

While arts groups are licking their wounds and hoping against hope for better times, there are those outside the sector who take a more hard-nosed, pragmatic line. Economist John Simpson is equally pessimistic about the financial prospects for Northern Ireland if there were a change of government at Westminster after the general election.

“I think it most unlikely that there will be any easing of the situation or any uplift in the block grant,” he says.

“Northern Ireland gets little sympathy across the water when it asks for more funds. All budgets here are in difficulties. The Stormont Executive has cut rates, rents and water charges. We are living with extra welfare spending. The reductions to arts, roads and the environment are self inflicted and should be viewed in the wider context. Local arts cuts are simply a consequence and a fair share of unwise budgeting.”

Fellow economist Michael Smyth says that when politicians have to make cuts, they go for things that don’t cost them votes. “The arts are an easy target,” he says.

This article was modified at 1.42pm on April 8th, 2015 to correct an inaccurate funding increase for NI Opera.

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