The arts are more than just a pleasant diversion – the arts are essential to quality of life

It’s been a bad few days for arts groups.

Queen’s University announced Friday it would no longer be funding the Belfast Festival. Then, yesterday morning, came the Arts Council cuts and a brutal BBC Radio Ulster interview with Roisin McDonough and Green Shoot Productions.

Roisin McDonagh was there to take the fall for a failure of political and civil service leadership. The responsibility for these cuts should not fall solely on the shoulders of the arts community. While it is understandable that those groups affected by the cuts are angry and disappointed, it was painful to listen to the arts community turn on itself. It needs to turn its anger outward and use that energy to craft a compelling, positive message.

As a recently returned NI resident, it’s abundantly clear to me just how unique this place is. The accessibility, diversity and creativity of the arts community here is a core part of that. That cannot be overstated. From a personal perspective – the perspective of an arts consumer, not practitioner – the quality of arts services here has vastly improved my family’s quality of life.

Thanks to free or low cost events, my son has had access to an almost unimaginable array of activities, from roller derby to astronomy, and from virtual reality to sword fighting. It has enabled us to make new friends, and it has most certainly played a part in our choice to stay here. It’s far better than what we had access to in New York, in London and in Dublin.

And access is a key issue. Access is what transforms the arts from an ivory-tower, issue – a pleasant and decorative but rarified pastime – into a nuts and bolts quality of life issue, up there with traffic control and park maintenance. Access to the arts is something Northern Ireland has in spades.

This is where both the political, civil service and media classes must change their blinkered worldview. The political establishment seems more interested in perpetuating what is at this point nothing more than a pathetic grudge match than moving forward. This barely functioning system is itself underpinned by an excruciatingly cautious and unimaginative bureaucratic class. And the media – with a few exceptions – seems content to re-report the same story over and over again, and sadly all too often framing it in the most negative possible terms.

The fact is that Northern Ireland produces world-class creative work. Take, as one modest example, the dance company Replay. They design shows for babies, children and teens as well as children with profound and multiple learning disabilities. They also train teachers and have worked with CCEA to develop a new PMLD curriculum. They also are currently performing their show on Broadway, to sold out audiences. This is the same show that Sure Start children in Northern Ireland – kids from some of the most disadvantaged populations in our society – have enjoyed for free. Has Replay received any media coverage for this fact here at home? No.

It’s time for a rebrand. Why can’t NI rebrand itself as THE place in the UK, THE place in Europe, THE place in the western hemisphere, for the culture industry? Is there a strategy, a policy coming from Stormont to outline how that might happen?

It’s the arts (in the broadest sense) that have put Northern Ireland on the world stage in the last several years. Festivals, events and arts programmes not only entertain, educate and inspire our population, they also stimulate spending. It’s time for those who make the decisions – and those who cover them – to wake up to these facts.

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