“investment in the arts is a sound investment for Northern Ireland..”

The Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, isn’t a fan of rational thinking when it comes to science.. but what does he think of the arts? And, in particular, public funding of the arts? The recently reconstituted Arts Council have joined the unofficial opposition to the draft budget and claim that they face the equivalent of a £250,000 cut in funding, threatening around 200 jobs and thousands of programmes. Interestingly, the Legislative Assembly in October passed a motion calling “upon the Executive to raise the level of arts funding to at least the United Kingdom average”, whatever that decision’s worth, and during the debate the minister spoke in “support of the spirit of the motion” and in answer to one particular question

Dr Farry: In light of the Minister’s discussions with his colleagues, has his Department, through the CSR, made a formal bid to bring spending on the arts in Northern Ireland in line with the other regions of the United Kingdom?

Mr Poots: The answer is yes, and the Member should not have expected any other answer. It would cost around £26 million over the three years of the CSR. I do not need to tell Members that this is a very tough negotiating round, and we shall see what comes out of it. What happens today will have some impact on the announcement at Westminster on the CSR.

I support the spirit of the motion and of both amendments. For all the reasons that I, and other Members, have outlined, investment in the arts is a sound investment for Northern Ireland. It is important that local government and private funders step up to the mark along with central Government. Members can rest assured that I have made the case very strongly in the context of the CSR, and I very much value the many contributions made by the arts to Northern Ireland, its society, and its economy, as illustrated in the speeches this morning. [added emphasis]

As Karen Fricker at the Guardian Arts Blog recorded in April

To trot out the depressing statistics: per capita spending on the arts in Northern Ireland is by far the lowest in these islands – £6.13, literally half the amount spent per head by the Republic of Ireland, and well below the per capita spends by the Scottish Arts Council (£11.93) and the Arts Council of England (£8.09).

But there’s also the more specific issue of community festival funding.

On 4th December, the Minister made a statement to the Assembly on the future of community festival funding. There was no official press release from his department, although his party colleague at the Department of the Environment welcomed the statement.

The Newsletter had its own particular take on that decision – “Festival funding move may benefit unionists.”

And one of the points made in that article’s was illustrated by this exchange during the questions which followed the statement

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement, but I do not welcome its content. The Benches opposite have missed the point entirely; there is not enough money for community-festival funding. I declare an interest, because I am a director of Féile an Phobail, and I thank the Minister for his complimentary remarks about that féile, which he recognises as being one of the largest. In recent years, funding for that féile has been slashed, and the community festival fund owes it £30,000. We are now in a situation where £450,000 will be available for 40 community festivals. Can the Minister tell the House whether there are guarantees to ensure that local councils will match funding? Will efforts be made to increase funding? Will the community festival fund repay the £30,000 that is owed to Féile an Phobail?

Mr Poots: I cannot guarantee what individual local authorities in Northern Ireland will do — thankfully, for everyone, I do not have that authority. Ultimately, Members will seek to influence their local authorities in the best interests of their communities. I do not think that there is a strong case for anyone not to accept the funding being offered, provide match funding and create the best opportunities for their communities to develop festivals.

The West Belfast Festival has been very successful, and its success should lead to more private-funding streams. As that festival moves towards receiving more private-sector funding, having demonstrated its success, opportunities can be created for new festivals on the basis of the funding being distributed across Northern Ireland — west of the Bann; east of the Bann; in nationalist and in unionist areas. My Department is not discriminating against people; funding is being allocated on the basis of population and deprivation, and this is an opportunity for everyone to get a slice of the cake. The larger festivals have the capacity to move forward, and, hopefully, smaller festivals will come on stream that can also move forward and benefit from the funding that might not have been available to them previously. [added emphasis throughout]

But the initial effect, of moving responsibility for funding to Council level with the Department matching any funding provision will, probably, result in a cut in the outlay from the Department – and almost certainly an increase in outlay from Council rate-payers. And the ability of those festivals to attract private-sector funding is not guaranteed. Adds Nor does there appear to be any assessment of whether those festivals could attract any significant amount of private-sector funding.

Here’s the relevant part of the minister’s statement to the Assembly

My intention, therefore, is to transfer the delivery of the community festivals fund to local authorities from 1 April 2008. It is a pressing issue, as there is a significant lead-in time for the funding application process. In most cases, planning for festivals in 2008 is already under way, and organisers need to know their budgets to enable them to book artistes, venues and equipment well in advance. By transferring admin­istration of the fund to local government, it becomes much closer to the community and the people it supports, making it more responsive to differing local needs.

The Minister of the Environment has confirmed that, given the pressing need to inform festival organisers of funding arrangements, she fully supports my proposals. My Department has taken legal advice, and I under­stand that there is no legal impediment to an early transfer of the functions to local authorities. No legislation is required, as local authorities already have statutory powers to fund local events. Indeed, many local councils are already involved in funding festivals.

My Department has consulted with the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) on the mechanics of trans­ferring the fund to local government. The preferred option is that DCAL retains responsibility for community festivals policy, and that the Department makes an annual allocation to each council under a specific grant process. That model is successfully operated by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to award grants to district councils for their community-relations programmes.

Councils will be required to take account of the Department’s policy and guidance framework on community festivals. However, consistent with the ethos of devolving decisions to local councils, they will have considerable flexibility to develop their own application processes, with local criteria. As councils already operate a number of small grant schemes, that should not be onerous to administer. Furthermore, I anticipate that the application process will be much less onerous for festival organisers, and I know that they will welcome that.

It is my view that councils should support local community festivals from their own resources; there­fore, I shall seek match funding. Many councils already fund community festivals, and will continue to do so, and pooling of the community festivals fund and local support will maximise the benefit. The Department will liaise with NILGA on the detailed arrangements for implementing the scheme. [added emphasis throughout]

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  • ” I cannot guarantee what individual local authorities in Northern Ireland will do — thankfully, for everyone, I do not have that authority.” He’s a bit funny, that Mr. Poots. I wonder if he got a laugh out of anyone in the Assembly

  • dewi

    Anyone know the detail on the dosh owed to feile? Seems very strange.

  • joeCanuck

    To sum it all up:

    Bah humbug.
    Merry Christmas,
    Mr. Scrooge.

  • The Raven

    Personally, I am sick and tired of every bloody hole-in-the-hedge having a community festival. Pick 8-10 regionally important events and stick with them, I say.

    Mind you, that’s a strategy that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board goes with, and it means the REAL interesting places in NI never get a look-in. Cos really, all that matters in NI, is Christian Heritage, the Mournes “National Park”, the Titanic Quarter, some funny-shaped rocks on the Antrim coast….and the best one of the lot: The Walled City of Derry (hi).

    My good f**k! If the latter is all we have to hang our hats on, we are truly screwed. Bottle of Buckfast and a matching shiv, anyone…?

    Ok, ok, I take it back! Let them eat cake and have their “wee” festivals!!!!

  • Pete Baker

    Joe

    There’s a great deal more to this decision than “Bah humbug.”

  • Pete Baker

    Raven

    While that might be a valid criticism, the Minister has stated his agreement with the argument in favour of investing in the arts [and community festivals] but does not seem to have assessed whether private-sector funding is either available, or willing, to replace public funding.

  • The Raven

    Pete, I have to say, the above post was pretty much tongue-in-cheek, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously! 😉

    I have a few connections to local authorities, and indeed, many of the staff who work with in the community festivals end of things. The availability of private sector funding (certainly to the wee festivals – like, anything outside the main ones noted above) is down to whether or not there is someone in the local business community willing to put up a couple of grand. Because that is often all that it is available – that and the odd grand here or there from a suitably willing local authority.

    To be honest, in my limited experience, sponsorship for the bigger festivals is limited by the same factors as anywhere else:
    What big acts are you bringing in?
    How many people do you expect to get?
    Do I get my name in big lights?
    and
    Things are doing well this year, I can give you £10k
    or
    Things are going shite this year, I can take an ad in your programme.

    And if you want an answer to your question, just listen to Radio Ulster around fund-raising time each year for the “Feile fears that a cut in government grant aid will affect next year’s programme” story. It’s as regular as the change in the seasons – give or take a bit of global warming.

    As for the big festival scene in the South…Westport and stuff like that…well, I wonder how they do it…?

  • Pete Baker

    The tongue-in-cheek part I can understand, Raven.

    However, the success of the Minister’s stated objective requires the emergence of private-sector funding.

    As you suggest, that will require – should there be sufficient local private-sector sources – a move away from the current focus of the more well-attended festivals.

    That may be arguable in purely market terms. But it’s not necessarily arguable in terms of the value those festivals, and the wider arts community, currently bring from “the many contributions made by the arts to Northern Ireland, its society, and its economy”.

  • kensei

    I’m kind of torn here. I can see The Raven’s point about focusing on 8-10 big festivals, but I think there is a lot to be said for developing smaller festivals and community initiatives which might help foster community and could expand in the long run. The pot is far too small considering the other stuff we piss money up against the wall for.

    In terms of Feile, I think they have to bite the bullet and get more private and community funding because even if they stave things off this year, this will be an increasing problem. Aside from pursuing money owed, the attitude needs to be more of one “Fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves and make it even better to spite the bastards” rather than relying on patronage politics. There are problems when even Queen’s Festival looked like it was going to die on its arse, but Feile has been going long enough and consistently enough to be able to answer all of The Raven’s questions in a reasonably favourable light. The Feile organisers and SF should pull out all the stops to make it a success. Stick the cap round in America or dip into SF funds, if need be.

    It might change the relationship of the community to the Festival, which is the danger. A long term plan would need put in place to balance the need to secure funding with benefiting the community. But I think it could be done.

  • joeCanuck

    Pete,

    I guess the thing that jumped out at me was the 250,000 equivalent cut in the Arts Council funding.
    And downloading in Canada has meant transferring responsibility without the necessary funding.
    But I guess you’re telling me to read more closely.

    Fair enough, I will.

  • Pete Baker

    Ken

    As with the Ministerial proposals, there’s a lack of analysis in your suggestions –

    “Stick the cap round in America or dip into SF funds, if need be.”

    Indeed..

  • The Raven

    “That may be arguable in purely market terms. But it’s not necessarily arguable in terms of the value those festivals, and the wider arts community, currently bring from “the many contributions made by the arts to Northern Ireland, its society, and its economy”.

    I dunno if we’re maybe arguing the same point here, NOTWITHSTANDING my initial glibness! I certainly don’t doubt the artistic contribution made, though part of me does question the economic – and if I am to be completely honest – the social benefits of all these festivals. Must run well over 100 across NI?

    But really, unless you hit the questions from my previous post square-on in terms of “what’s in it for MY company”, then the answer to what I think is your question, is no: the private sector simply is not out there to take up the slack, apart from the very big draws (even for them, it will be tight) and the very local festivals that get a few bob from an anchor tenant at a local enterprise agency.

    kensei mentioned dipping into SF funds…fair do’s. Time they put something back into the community they’ve made so much from. (runs and hides, tongue glued firmly to inner side of mouth)

  • joeCanuck

    A society without the arts would be a fairly miserable place. You can’t apply a cost/benefit analysis. Either it is appreciated or it isn’t. I happen to believe that most people do appreciate the arts in the widest sense.

  • kensei

    Pete

    In fairness, I am not elected nor paid to analyse these things, and took 5 minutes to get the same result.

    Regardless of how they get there, they need to move to funding from other sources, be it private sector, charging more for big tickets events or the community fundraising. I think someone quoted on this site that there is an attitude here that “If the government doesn’t do it, then it can’t be done”. We need to get away from that and all.

  • Briso

    As Karen Fricker at the Guardian Arts Blog recorded in April

    To trot out the depressing statistics: per capita spending on the arts in Northern Ireland is by far the lowest in these islands – £6.13, literally half the amount spent per head by the Republic of Ireland, and well below the per capita spends by the Scottish Arts Council (£11.93) and the Arts Council of England (£8.09).

    And if we take into account the average wage and the cost of living, how does it stack up?

  • Bleeding Art

    Private sector investment in the arts is falling across the UK and has been for some years. The situation is particularly dire in Northern Ireland where the majority of arts organisations cannot guarantee their existence even in the short term and the profile of the arts in the media is depressing low. Corporate investors want to tap into profile and prestige. Grass roots festivals are fairly good at securing sponsorship from local businesses but there is a limit to what can be raised from this source.

    The social impact of festivals is massive. During the summer months they provide a much needed distraction. I remember in 2005 a local fire chief in Derry praising Shantallow’s Golden Link Festival, saying it was the first year they had not been called out to any bonfires over August 15.

    If you want to see the contribution that a local festival can make check out the Glasgowbury Festival. Great bands and 2000 visitors each summer to the middle of the Sperrins.

    Of course there are some festivals that are little more than a bouncy castle and drinks tent but for many communities this is just the first step in developing the capacity and skills to develop a quality event. Many of these skills are transferable to other community development projects.

    In relation to the wider arts sector – the creative industries contributed £900million to the Northern Irish economy in 2006, a figure which doesn’t take into account revenue generated through tourism.