Emily DeDakis of ArtsMatterNI: Can we afford to sacrifice creative purpose and innovation?

dedakisThis morning Emily DeDakis, the Literary Manager of Accidental Theatre and an advocate for ArtsMatterNI, spoke at a prayer breakfast at the 4 Corners Festival. Her passionate advocacy for the arts put its tiny (and very much threatened) budget into perspective, prompting us to ask: can we afford to sacrifice creative purpose and innovation? Her contribution is reproduced below:

In 2005 I moved from Los Angeles to Belfast, almost on a whim. This has been my adopted home for almost 10 years. I’ve lived in two of its corners (first South & now North) and have worked and loved people in all four of them. I’m a writer, an editor and the literary manager for a company called Accidental Theatre.

My mum’s an Anglican choral musician & dad’s a retired TV journalist. I make theatre & love baseball. I was raised in churches, newsrooms, theatres & ballparks. I’ve always connected this slightly random collection of places as buildings where we come together in faith, of one kind or another. Bear with me …

To start off: togetherness. We’re together in this fiscal crisis, that’s for sure. Everyone will be affected by the cuts coming to the NI Executive in this coming budget year. Hospitals, transportation, education, policing – all the intricate structures that keep us moving are going to be under intense strain. Hardworking people won’t get the pay raises or pensions they deserve. Essential services will be squeezed till there’s no pith and I doubt we’re getting any lemonade either.

Something has to give. Many things will have to give. But to be totally frank, the arts should not be one of them. Not anymore.

‘Operations not Opera’.

Anyone heard that before? Said it before?

It’s a charming one. But that common refrain is mathematically flawed. The entire arts budget is less than 1% of the NI budget. To be exact it’s 1/6th of 1%. All of those operas and community projects and visual arts exhibitions and the orchestra and plays and dance festivals and film festivals and festival festivals? They represent one of the tiniest portions of government spending.

There’s a number of ways the arts are funded: social enterprise, food & drink in venues, ticket sales, private trusts, business sponsorship … But what the government puts toward these people, places, organisations and events is absolutely crucial. And by most lights, it’s miniscule. Cutting it won’t buy you much. The entire year-long arts budget would run the Department of Health, Social Services & Public Safety for only one day. The myth that the arts can afford the cuts is over. The arts cannot. And we can’t afford to let the arts go under. Quality of life is a frontline service.

The size of our investment in the arts is tiny, but the return is massive. The most modest amount that arts investment returns to the economy at large is £3 for every £1 spent. Some of the bigger touristy events (like Culture Night and Derry City of Culture) have a return of £20 to £1. It’s never just artists that benefit when the arts are supported. It’s taxi drivers, bartenders and waiters. It’s health professionals and patients. Teachers and students. More than half of the work core-funded by the Arts Council takes place in schools, hospitals and community centres.

That fingernail sliver of the budget serves 96% of young people and 79% of adults here. The vast majority of us take part in the arts in one place or another.

Over the past decade, businesses, foundations and the government have invested tens of millions of pounds in creative place-making – constructing and renovating the Lyric Theatre, the MAC, and dozens of arts venues across the province. By and large, these buildings don’t represent a single identity or community; they’re shared spaces where the past can be thoughtfully considered and the future can be fearlessly imagined. We can get angry or uplifted, have wild and surreal experiences, question power and come to understand people who’d otherwise be strangers.

I said earlier, this is all about buildings. And it still is, kind of.

But ultimately it’s people who bring faith to the building – whether it’s a newsroom, a church, a ballpark or a theatre. Inventive, transcendent thinking is what we need to have faith in – faith of the head & heart kind, and the kind that comes from backing our collective wellbeing. We need to make the link between arts investment and people.

When culture is put on the block, it’s in the name of preserving essential services and defending jobs. But the arts isn’t abstract programming, lovely if you can afford it. The arts is human. Almost 40,000 people work in the creative industries in NI – more than are employed in agriculture.

Art is action. The act of turning marks on a page into epic music that rumbles and lifts a cathedral sanctuary. A company of writers and actors coming together to make a new play. One act may be religious and one decidedly earthly; both mean having faith in collective creation. And most importantly both take the time, technique and training of professionals. A concert or play takes a single night to enjoy, but could be weeks – or even years – in the making. And artists, in a lot of cases, are the working poor.

Average wages for freelance artists in Northern Ireland are, on average, less than £6,000 per year. Even those in the creative industries on regular salaries are often paid below average for the wider non-profit sector, and many don’t have pensions. Options for our current generation of makers are pretty limited. Many of my peers have left, or are considering other places where they can more successfully pursue their work. New Zealand, Canada, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, London … They don’t deserve our best artists. We need them here. And it’s getting harder, even for those who have made a long-term commitment to this place, to stay.

Arts investment in Northern Ireland has been declining since well before the financial crisis – and in actual terms, not just because of inflation. It is lower per capita than in England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. (Scotland spends nearly twice as much per capita on the arts.) In early 2011, almost a quarter of the arts budget was nearly chopped; the Assembly reduced that cut by a lot, but it still happened. The cuts coming this next year, of more than 10%, will take spending levels back a decade.

I’m working with a campaign called #ArtsMatterNI – a broad coalition of the professional and community arts sectors across the province. Our aim is to celebrate the contribution of the arts, to be clear about how necessary they are, and to help achieve the strategic policy and sustained investment that will feed it. It’s time to speak up about the value of the arts – in concrete and economic terms, sure, but also in terms of the rich intangibles that come about when people get together and make new things happen.

Find #ArtsMatterNI on Facebook. Talk about your experiences and ask questions with the hashtag, if you’re the Twitter type. Write letters to your councillors & MLAs. It’s time to be noisy and joyful. Honest and serious too.

We can’t pretend this is a matter of luxuries vs. necessities. We’re a fully interlinked society full of creative purpose and a talent for innovation. And our collective wellbeing is worth our investment and our faith.

Read DeDakis’ ‘Budget Cuts Could Erase Decades of Success’ in the Belfast Telegraph

The next performance of the Accidental Theatre is:

T  H  E     L  O  S  T     M  A  R  T  I  N  I
An immersive theatre experience

10 – 14th March 2015
Discover more & book a ticket via accidentaltheatre.co.uk

photo by Brian O’Neill: DeDakis with John Kyle PUP and Alban Maginness SDLP at the 4 Corners Prayer Breakfast.

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