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.

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  • just sayin’

    Searches for sympathy ….

    Nope …..

    None found.

  • Marian Brady

    Well said Catherine, its unfortunately very true, when the Dept of Finance need to make cuts they go for the soft options and leave their vision outside the room! There is so much benefit for all levels of society from participation and exposure to the arts but it usually ends up the preserve of the well heeled. Things are even worse in the US where there is no government subsidies for the arts, so philantropy is very important there. Here in Ireland or indeed in the UK, there is not such a culture of philantrophy, so if the cuts come, its a big problem.

  • Kevin Barry

    Catherine,

    Good piece. It is an incredibly difficult argument to persuade people that there should not be cuts made to the Arts. I for one believe we should not be doing this either.

    There is the simple economic argument that Polly Toynbee made in July:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/28/arts-funding-cuts-big-society

    I agree with this, but I think that their is the more important argument, the intangible benefits that the arts bring to society. I am not talking about the subsidising of such places like the Grand Opera House, but the local initiatives highlighted above.

    The sense of well being participating in the arts brings to some who for instance, may not be too interested in sports, cannot be discounted.

  • joeCanuck

    We are told that we are up against the wall when it comes finances of the country. I agree with importance of the Arts towards quality of life but Arts just cannot escape, The best that can be hoped for is not any greater cuts than to other important services.

  • Kevin Barry

    Joe, whilst I agree that we do not want any more cuts to important services, the point that I would make and that was also made by Polly Toynbee and others is that the Arts is an area whereby investments and subsidies by the government actually creates a net return for the exchequer.

    People are willing to pay hard earned cash to partake in the Arts and in these straightened times I would imagine we would want to focus our energies in growing our economy out of a rut rather than compound the situation.

    I think we should stop thinking of the Arts as something that is an optional extra to our society and more as a necessity and a driver of growth. We are told that our economy’s future is as a ‘smart economy’, the arts would definitely tie in with this strategy.

  • just sayin’

    How many schools to close, rates to increase ….. etc ….. for the sake of protecting particular visions of the arts?

    I remain to be convinced that arts activity benefits meaningfully from subsidy. My total life experience would suffer not a jot in the absence of the Ulster Orchestra or the Lower Ballymacsnotteridge Community Arts Festival.

  • Archie Noble

    “It’s hard to make an economic case for the arts”

    It is but you start by calculating what the sector is worth to the local economy. People are often suprised at the wealth produced by investment in the arts and that is before you talk of ‘social capital’ etc. Loads of good studies out there.

  • The Raven

    But then, just sayin’, that is your choice not to be involved.

    Perhaps you’re a sports fan? “I begrudge every single penny of tax money that goes into a single football ground in Northern Ireland.”

    Maybe the environment is your thing? “I cannot abide my taxes going into a single managed environmental project with government backing.”

    Perhaps you’re a smoker? “Why should I pay for your emphysema treatment?”

    I’ve been lucky enough to witness what happens when a £10k grant or subsidy goes into a community arts project, and it actually changes a life. It was £10k well spent. Similarly, I’ve seen a sports project get funding which then used football to teach maths to kids who didn’t engage in the education system.

    It’s like when people complain about local government rates – but then quite happily use a leisure centre run by a council; eat from a take-away which is regularly inspected by environmental health inspectors; go into a new building which has been cleared by building control; used a beach or a park which is kept clean by council groundsmen; and so on.

    It’s very easy to pick on the arts – at least have a better rationale than “I don’t use it” to justify your remarks.

  • Kevin Barry

    Agreed Raven. The point to be made is that investments in the arts is a win win for all. If, as is the case nowadays, we have to do a cost benefit analysis or see if something is profitable, then the arts provide a bigger bang for buck than a lot of other government expenditure.

    Sorry for regurgitating Polly in the Guardian, but In England for every £1 invested by the Arts Council helps generate a further £2 in commercial revenue while in the North East for every £1 of subsidy brings £4.

    It’s easy to cut the Arts, the people who defend them are seen as being soft and easy to push around, but I think that especially in this climate where we would want to raise money and rebalance our economy and help provide the funding for the public services we want and have come to expect it’s time to invest in those things that will help raise money.

    Just saying; glad to hear your life wouldn’t be effected by cuts in the arts, with the exception of the lost revenues that would be raised in connection to them of course that would go to pay for frontline services.

    It’s not a simple choice between do we have more funding for schools and hospitals or do we subsidise the Grand Opera House and an alternative theatre troupe in Coalisland and please don’t pretend that it is.

  • just sayin’

    Interesting … never said I didn’t use the arts. Just happens I seem to prefer arts that are paid for at market value. Not a specific choice as such but thats the way it works out. Why are those areas that are funded privately so much more economically (and I would suggest) artistically more successful?

    I also have witnessed spending on ‘community arts’ through grant aid. Very directly as it happens. Almost always an expensive means of massaging the ego of the councils Arts Officer and the usual suspects in the local area.

    The investment argument is an old and crocked one. So public investment in the north east generates the economy? Billions have been pumped in over decades and its still a relatively deprived region. Not what I would call success.

    The notion that removing arts funding would be an economic loss is bunkum. That money would either be invested for more necessary public services or (preferably) left in the hands of people to make their own spending choices. As individuals make better choices than governments it has much more economic value.

  • Kevin Barry

    Just sayin’

    Sorry, but as you can imagine I will have to strongly disagree here.

    “Why are those areas that are funded privately so much more economically (and I would suggest) artistically more successful?”

    This, of course, is an opinion and not based on fact whatsoever. For instance, the RSC is subsidised by government and would be considered a resounding success by many; meanwhile, if you go to the West End it is full of musicals based solely on the music of other bands (Mama Mia, Never Forget, Thriller Live); are these artistically better than anything coming from the RSC? Maybe this is what you prefer by way of entertainment?

    “I also have witnessed spending on ‘community arts’ through grant aid. Very directly as it happens. Almost always an expensive means of massaging the ego of the councils Arts Officer and the usual suspects in the local area.”

    You didn’t enjoy what you saw; that’s fine, sorry to hear that. I too have witnessed community arts first hand and I was pleased with what I saw. In one instance, it has helped transform a cousin of mine from someone who was incredibly shy and lacking in self-confidence into someone who has found something to channel her talents through; she is now studying an arts related under grad and is comfortable in her own skin.

    If we are discussing the fact that arts back home is all too often funding projects tied to our political reality and not used to advance arts that may be controversial and unrelated to politics, then I would have to agree with you, but again, this is probably a discussion for another thread.

    Can we streamline the Arts Council and put more money into frontline arts? Probably. It should be the purpose of the AC to help in the delivery of and the creation of a space in which new artists and projects can flourish.

    “The investment argument is an old and crocked one. So public investment in the north east generates the economy? Billions have been pumped in over decades and its still a relatively deprived region. Not what I would call success.”

    £1 generates £4? That’s a great return in my books. The other billions you are referring to is not Arts spending last I saw of it so your point isn’t particularly valid here. I would imagine the subsidies to industry in the NE should be re-examined as it hasn’t brought about the desired consequences.

    “The notion that removing arts funding would be an economic loss is bunkum. That money would either be invested for more necessary public services or (preferably) left in the hands of people to make their own spending choices. As individuals make better choices than governments it has much more economic value.”

    i) Taxpayers get a return, a profit if you will, on their investment (subsidy) from the arts. The profit can go to frontline services such as hospitals, schools etc.

    ii) Why should all arts projects be made to make a profit? Take for instance Catherine’s highlight of CRAIC in Tyrone; this is providing a service by getting children in, helping them grow in confidence and providing a platform for a budding thesp to see if this is what they want to do.

    Is their no intrinsic social value in providing funding to community arts? As someone who grew up in a deprived area, funding of any kind that provides children, particularly adolescents, something to do. It keeps people out of trouble and helps some find their calling in life.

    I thought it was now common knowledge and the consensus that leaving matters for the market on it’s own to decide was that old neo-con myth we had just recently debunked?

    As is always the case just sayin’, if you can provide me with evidence to prove your points then I will cede mine.

  • just sayin’

    I’m afraid we’re going to have to disagree on a few things – which is good?

    The £1 – £4. Produced by the arts lobby by chance? Investment in early years education shows much bigger returns (produced by the early years lobby). Does that de facto mean money from arts to education? If true, why has the private sector not moved in with force? Tesco after all make tiny amounts on their invested capital.

    A lot of your argument, which I can understand and accept as being a valid position, is that the arts of themselves have ‘societal’ and personal value. My view of arts is perhaps different. I fully accept the validity of both the RSC and Mama Mia. I struggle to accept subsidizing one over the other and indeed feel we should subsidize neither.

    I suggest a solution. A bit of good old fashioned democracy? Participative Budgeting where citizens can decide how and where their money is spent. Up for it and how do you think the arts would fare?

    If you believe that the operation of free markets is a debunked neo-con myth you are reading the wrong copy of the Guardian. The market will always adjust and correct. The excessive interference of generally social democratic governments causes the problems when they won’t allow it to do so. The main triggers for the recession had the fingers of Clinton and Blair on them – hardly neo-cons.

  • Kevin Barry

    I’m rather enjoying this thread.

    Let’s go through what you’ve proposed or highlighted above then

    “The £1 – £4. Produced by the arts lobby by chance? Investment in early years education shows much bigger returns (produced by the early years lobby). Does that de facto mean money from arts to education? ”

    I believe it was, but of course if you can provide me with something that debunks it by all means provide. How about the profits made from the Arts (increased taxes from the revenues) then going to Education the next year and they can produce more money.

    “If true, why has the private sector not moved in with force? Tesco after all make tiny amounts on their invested capital.”

    How about the Community schemes not aimed at making a profit but providing a service to those who would not normally be able to access certain Arts or the expertise of those within? Are the Arts the preserve of those who can afford it? The arts are mainly the preserve of small to medium enterprises with minimal overheads who would not be able to survive if they were a large corporation with the extra costs that come with being so large. After all, SME are the back bone of any decent economy and allows for diversity.

    “A lot of your argument, which I can understand and accept as being a valid position, is that the arts of themselves have ‘societal’ and personal value. My view of arts is perhaps different.”

    Why is societal in inverted commas? Do you feel that the Arts don’t have any value to society? What is your view of the arts aside from them having to be market based; do tell.

    “I suggest a solution. A bit of good old fashioned democracy? Participative Budgeting where citizens can decide how and where their money is spent. Up for it and how do you think the arts would fare?”

    How old fashioned; Cleisthenic? I’m intrigued to hear of your championing of Participative Budgeting, please expand on this. How would you decide who gets to have an input into the budget then; would we all have a vote on this?

    Participative Budgeting is a great idea, except it costs an insane amount of money and time to get anything done. We have 26 councils, 18 MPs, 3 MEPS and 108 MLAs, we’ve got enough representation. PB is a charter for more accountants and consultants being drafted in to draft reports and proposals for local authorities. You’re unhappy subsidising the arts but fine with subsidising accountants, consultants and lawyers?

    “If you believe that the operation of free markets is a debunked neo-con myth you are reading the wrong copy of the Guardian. The market will always adjust and correct.”

    The ‘market’; what’s that? I hate to assume, but I’m guessing you’re someone who believes in the entirely free market. This does not exist, quit kidding yourself. It has never existed nor will it ever so long as there are governments who can influence the markets with the revenue they raise from taxation and then spend which is every single one. You resemble an old socialist who says if only we could get this and that in place then socialism would work and all would be perfect.

    “The excessive interference of generally social democratic governments causes the problems when they won’t allow it to do so. The main triggers for the recession had the fingers of Clinton and Blair on them – hardly neo-cons.”

    LMAO. Ever heard of Reagan, Thatcher, Bush and Greenspan? Great social democrats. You didn’t even mention the banks, because, as we all know they have been constantly lobbying for more regulations to reign in their excesses.

    Just cut to the chase, you don’t believe your money should go to fund those less off than you for something like the arts which you see as an optional extra. I think the arts should not be the preserve of the rich and that their value is greater than the profits they generate.

    You seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.