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.

  • barnshee

    gimmie more public sector subsidy

  • No, gimme more ambition … and like firms funded by Invest NI, the industries will grow and mostly become sustainable and commercially viable (playing in a much larger field than just NI) and not need to be subsidised.

  • Practically_Family

    There’s no more money.
    Put your big boy pants on and come to terms with it.

  • Practically_Family
  • Stephen Lewis

    How much does the Arts Council itself cost? Anyone know? Can be much if they only have to distribute £14m

  • Ian James Parsley

    To answer the final question: culture thrives in an open (and frankly social liberal) environment.

    That’s why not.

    We do pretty well, as the article rightly points out, despite that.

  • David Lewis

    The Replay production did receive coverage on the Culture NI website http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/performing-arts/replay-babble-about-theatre
    Just as Culture NI covers many of the other smaller arts organisations and lesser known artists, who the mainstream media won’t touch. Unfortunately the Arts Council has cut Culture NI’s core funding this year…

  • wil chamberlain

    Having been sat next to Rosin McDonough and Martin Lynch in the studio, I didn’t hear the arts community turn on itself. But leaving that aside, the real problem with the situation regarding coherent strategy and investment is nothing to do with failing to make the arguments. They have been made time and again. The are irrefutable which is why the rest of UK, Ireland, Europe invests so much more than NI in the arts. The real problem is that decisions are not made here with regard to logic, or argument, or outcomes. They are made with regard to narrow and usually tribal interests by politicians who are followers rather than leaders. The embracing vision is not witnessed in our politics. It is not just the arts that suffer, but every aspect of our society takes a hit.

  • Croiteir

    Why not get Invest NI to fund it – after all they do not mind funding bashes in London for the Integrated Education Fund

  • There’s no denying the relative gross underinvestment in the arts in Northern Ireland, which makes its achievements all the more remarkable. Also on radio recently on this topic was Paula McFetridge, who made a compelling case without resorting to desperation. Indeed, at an event of ours at which she made the case for the role of arts in conflict transformation — http://citiesintransition.net/2015/03/18/art-opens-up-community-imagination/ — she prophetically said, “Artists need to be like fish — they need to be able to change quick in the water.”

    We are about to see which are the nimblest fish.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Where are the Brian O’Nolans? Where are the Swifts, the Laurence Sternes, the Man from Merrion Square. Where indeed are the James Usshers. Where are the Oliver Goldsmiths? The Joyces, the Behans, the O’Caseys, the Sheridans: where indeed.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Suppose we can cut sewage, sanitation, health, agriculture and feul payments then …

  • David Crookes

    Good questions.
    But individual writers, artists, and musicians are often able to survive and thrive by working at something else for part of their money. Philip Glass worked as a taxi-driver.
    Drama, opera and ballet need to get financial support either from big business or from the government, and in a civilized nation they always get it.
    Whenever I attend a ballet in the Grand Opera House, I realize with a thrill that I’m not living in a completely barbarous country.
    Urbane civilization comes at a price. At times that price can not be paid out of ticket sales.
    What are we to do, then? Go down the road of “what most people think”, if most people think (for example) that ballet is stupid?
    Of course not. Do you want a capital-punishment referendum based on “what most people think” (when they’ve been whipped up by the Daily Express)?
    If you really want to save a bit of money, get rid of the multitudinous quangocrats.