London Letter: Arts face tough year in 2011

It’s hard to make an economic case for the arts at a time when all departments face cuts and shortages. However, many believe that the survival and continued nurturing of the arts needs to be fought for, as thousands of people are employed in the sector in Northern Ireland and it is such a huge part of the social structure. In recent years, it has become more popular for people to attend the theatre (particularly affordable community theatre) and it is almost the norm nowadays for parents to send their children to dance and drama groups. It is widely accepted that when the axe falls it will be arts that will suffer the most. CRAIC Theatre in Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, is just one example of a community project that works incredibly hard to further the arts in Northern Ireland, but is often overlooked and not appreciated enough.

According to Micky Carolan, one of the founders of the theatre, people just don’t realise what theatre is and often they aren’t aware of the chance and opportunity it gives young people in the area. Over 700 children cross the doors of CRAIC Theatre on a weekly basis and Carolan is confident that their time spent there is very beneficial. “I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve watched kids come in as quiet as mice and in no time at all they’re outgoing and their parents are commenting on the change they notice in them,” he said.

Fellow founder of the theatre, Brian Duffin, said that the problem lies with the fact that so many influential people just don’t care about the arts. “Community arts are way down the priority list, even though we provide a facility for a wide section of the community. Cuts will have an impact on the whole social structure and that’s inevitable due to how many people we cater for, both audiences and through education. Some people just don’t see the point or relevance of the arts and unfortunately a lot of the time those people are in positions of power and could make changes,” he said.

It isn’t just Northern Ireland that faces problems with funding and unappreciative attitudes. Even in London, where the West End glistens and sparkles, theatre is shunted to the side in favour of other things. Due to gentrification in the Dalston area of Hackney, a hugely successful, and indeed famous, fringe theatre has been forced out of the location it has enjoyed for ten years. The owner of the building which housed the Arcola Theatre wants to turn it into luxury flats, and has no interest in the arts, so has forced the Arcola crew to find premises elsewhere.

The Arcola Theatre faces an uphill struggle as just £25,000 has been raised to help start work on its new location down the road from Arcola Street. The theatre, which has had to borrow money, launched an appeal at the beginning of October which stated that £250,000 needed to be raised by November.

Ben Todd, Executive Director of the theatre, said: “We’re going upwards slowly. The £250,000 was a nice hope, but we said it to create a sense of urgency. The new theatre must open on the 12th of January, and no normal person would try to open a theatre in ten weeks, but we’ll do it. We have lots of volunteers, project managers and professionals, but doing it with no money is really hard work.”

Mickey Carolan of CRAIC Theatre said that in this business there will always be obstacles that have to be overcome. “They will get to the other side with a lot of hard work. The voluntary work here at CRAIC was unbelievable. We built this place on a shoestring so it can be done,” he said.

Todd is confident that the theatre won’t lose any audience members due to the move and commented on the convenience of the new location situated opposite the train station. However, despite media coverage, Todd fears that not enough people realise the Arcola’s plight.

“People are really supportive, but I think that a lot of our regular audience members haven’t quite realised what is going on. We’re hoping for more money in November, but next year will be a really hard year, and we’ll produce slightly fewer shows,” he said.

CRAIC’s Brian Duffin says that when it comes to arts funding in Northern Ireland, people simply just don’t know what will happen. “The Arts Council requested an increase of £.1.5m this year but that will be cut by millions and there will certainly be no increase. I’d imagine that this will mean that Belfast and Derry will be a priority and rural projects will suffer as a result,” he said.

2011 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the arts, but there is no doubt that the enthusiastic, determined and resilient attitudes of the people involved will help them power through and make the most of what they’ve got.

Catherine Wylie is a reporter at the Press Association in London.