As DCAL Committee calls for more arts funding, why are the arts special?

The NI Assembly for Culture, Arts & Leisure has called for all executive departments to contribute to the arts.

13p 11p for the artsSo yet again, we are being asked to give more public money to subsidise the arts sector. Previously, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland had ran a public awareness campaign, “13p for the art,” I’ve written about this previously on Slugger. So what’s changed since then?

Funding has been cut further, a couple of times I believe. But certain facts remain.

The arts budget, which is now below £12million, is administered by the Arts Council… who had a wage budget in 2014 of over £2million. Approximately 16% of the entire budget for the arts in Northern Ireland is spent paying the wages of those who decide how to spend the other 84%.

In times of budgetary constriction, some out-of-the-box thinking is called for. Instead of, “gimme gimme gimme,” when it comes time for budget allocation, what if DCAL exercised some modern thinking, engaged the public AND put some power into the hands of the people.

I’m talking about participatory budgeting, a scheme that has worked brilliantly in areas such as Porto Alegre, Brazil.

I’m a strong believer in a free market, in standing on your own two feet. If arts organisations can’t get enough money from the public purse, then they need to get the money in private funding. So in the current situation where the public purse is getting shallower… if sponsorship and/or ticket sales aren’t making the numbers work, perhaps the organisation has run its course.

Supply and demand, as true in the arts sector as any other. If a theatre group perform 2 nights in a 300 seat venue and sell 50 seats per night, maybe they only needed a 100 seat venue for 1 night… It’s simple, except there are those in the arts who see this kind of logical thinking as, “Anti-Arts.” Why can’t one be sensible and not be anti-art?

Let’s say that £12million budget remains the same… but we increase the amount available to arts organisations by cutting out some of the administration costs?

Crowdfunding as a concept is an increasingly common way for businesses to raise enough capital to launch products and companies. Not only does crowdfunding provide the money but it also provides qualification of interest, it shows whether or not the public want the product.

SO, here’s the idea. £12million budget, let’s take say… £3million, 25%. Set up a portal where organisations and arts groups submit a brief, outlining their activities, what the funding will be spent on, a complete breakdown of what the money will go towards. Then we let the public decide. People interested in voting can register, we can work out the details later but let’s say…unique identifier of a National Insurance number.

Added bonus, as groups campaign for funding they will naturally build up PR for their event.

We’ve also cut out most of an entire layer of bureaucracy, saving money in the process.

If the scheme works, we’ve established Open Government, engaged the electorate in direct democracy, participatory budgeting and also ended up with arts funding going to organisations and groups that have proved that they have a value to society and an audience lined up or at least interested enough to vote for them to receive public funds.

If it doesn’t, then some different organisations got the funding and the world continues as normal.

But then doing something out-of-the-box is just too damn interesting for Northern Irish politics to embrace. For now, we’ll just have to put up with the never-ending rendition of Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’….”Please sir, can I have some more?”

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On Friday, Ali FitzGibbon responded to this post in a Soapbox piece


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  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Disclaimer: I forgot to write this on the end of the piece. I was a member of the Open Government NI Steering Committee up until December 2015.

  • ciaran mcquillan

    I think I’ve developed RSI from multiple facepalms while reading this.

  • chrisjones2

    You can get holistic therapy on the NHS.

    It will be totally useless but you can get it

  • murdockp

    Arts and Culture needs to be defined in the first instance.
    Spending money on hosting Jedward, May McFetteridge, Nathan Carter and Frankie Boyle and football stadia should not be arts or culture funded projects.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    If you record it then you could probably get a grant to show it across the province

  • notimetoshine

    One man’s art is another man’s rubbish, how do you decide?

  • hugh mccloy

    There seems to be a culture and arts centre in every town, with limited space and even more limited capacity to hold events, big part of the problem. There was obviously money to spend but was it spent wisely

  • murdockp

    of course, from stone age cave paintings through to Duchamp’s Fountain this ‘what is art’ debate has bee with us, and that is just painting and contemporary art mediums, but it is at this point you have to decide whether arts that can stand on its own two feet commercially requires funding from the state.
    We have a track record in NI in wasting public money on projects that don’t require public funds.

  • Graham Parsons

    Dear oh dear. Where to start. So you reckon that reducing the oversight on how the arts are funded is a good idea?

    We can afford to drop bombs on Syria we can afford to fund the arts properly. Your administration percentage is a red herring as well. Provide more funding and the percentage spent on admin will magically go down.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    In what way is massive public contribution and an entirely open and transparent application and funding process, engaging the electorate in participative budgeting…reducing oversight?

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Trust the public.. who also happen to be the audience (or not) for every single group applying for arts funding.

  • notimetoshine

    Very true arguably the likes of Frankie Boyle are more than capable of bringing in the crowds without subsidy, but they might be part of an overall programme of events (I assume you are referring to Mr Boyles appearance on the falls).

    Though as for jedward, I seem to remember newry and Mourne council bringing them to Newry, much to the chagrin of many. Obviously they don’t have enough for a big name act so instead of facilitating some sort of private event they decide to stump up for some third rate act. I always remember that event, in the same year Newcastle managed to host the prodigy, remember thinking what was going on.

  • Graham Parsons

    Sounds like you’d be adding admin expenses rather than reducing them. The decision on what arts to fund needs to be made by subject matter experts not some geezer who likes Eastenders.

  • Graham Parsons

    What about having a ballot to decide who starts for norn iron in the euros?

  • notimetoshine

    True but some art forms would be quite unaccessible to the public for cost reasons and overall popularity, yet are culturally very important. Opera for instance, certain choral forms as well. There was an excellent article just yesterday in the Guardian about the important work the English national opera is doing in broadening access yet preserving a culturally significant art form. Performance of Shakespeare as well, critical to our understanding of the modern English language, requires support to continue to ensure access to his plays.

    On a more prosaic level youth orchestras get public money. They may not be very marketable but it would nuts to cut their funding because people might not pay to listen to them.

    To take your point to its logical conclusion why not subject cultural and archaeological artefacts to your crowdfunded audience driven funding model. The Ulster museum can poll the public to see which artefacts they like and any they don’t can just be thrown out because they are obviously not worth saving.

    There is need for sense in art funding but frankly your utilitarian view of culture is not conducive to the development (and preservation)of art and culture

  • Graham Parsons

    This comment kinda shows you attitude to the arts. If I don’t like or understand it then it must be crap.

  • murdockp

    I still am unsure who did worse of of that one. Jedward’s having to come to Newry or the citizens of newry putting up with them.

    But they were shite.

    They are now showing repeats of the gig on the big screen in Newry. The rest of NI needs to see this thing. It really is shite

  • notimetoshine

    That bloody screen, I work opposite it at weekends, we were talking about it last week. You know they have shown the same St Patrick’s day video from two years ago over and over again for the last three weeks now.

  • babyface finlayson

    Great idea! The players that perform the best arabesque get to go.
    Oh sorry, thought you said ‘ballet’

  • babyface finlayson

    Homeopathy, at least, should be fine with 0.01% of funding!

  • murdockp

    Subject matter experts. If only we had them. Sadly they are few and far between.

  • murdockp

    The model regarding civic space needs to change. The term arts centre needs to be binned. It is all about multi functional shared space . NI needs to wake up.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    If all someone does is watch eastenders I would doubt they would be that interested in voting for arts projects anyway. Although they would of course be entitled and welcome to.
    But who better to be “subject matter” experts than… Oh, I don’t know – the entire catchment audience for whatever project they want funding for. Seems a more likely gauge of public opinion and whether it is in the interests of the public enough to get out public funding than a very well-paid quango

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    That’s also really elitist. Someone who likes eastenders has just as much right to care about where public money goes in the arts than a season ticket holder for the Ulster Orchestra.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Because if you’re proposing solutions to the ever-hungry arts sector funding, you must be anti arts. Innovative.
    I’m pro arts, but I’m a pragmatist.
    I accept that many things I don’t like or don’t understand aren’t crap.
    But if those things can’t convince, say, 200 people to indicate that they are good enough to justify public funding… Maybe they are crap after all.

  • Compared to all the other things we can find money/ support for – not least division at home and war on a wider scale – the arts give a huge amount and ask relatively little in return.

    Tourism wouldn’t take Belfast/ NI too seriously without an arts sector, for example, and that’s not to mention young people already deciding if they should stay here or be paid more elsewhere. Like my rant about the Sunflower Bar or the importance of the old Stand cinema, once you have taken the heart and soul out of a city it is too late to put it back. You can only count the cost of the mistakes.

    Anyway, I appreciate that Kris isn’t anti-arts but is making a point about arts funding.

    I don’t agree with the suggested idea as I don’t see why ground-level arts bodies should be singled out and reduced to spending their time and money in this way. I’d say arranging staffing and managing a small arts body is already hard enough without the uncertainty of such a system.

    I agree with Kris that how we fund the arts shoudn’t be a sacred cow. I suspect that – as per any funding system I’ve ever seen – arts bodies are forced to spend a lot of time on the bureaucracy behind funding. Adam Turkington has written some insightful thoughts on this. If this could be improved it could be a win-win for everyone.

  • chrisjones2

    NI politics in its usual bipolar form –

    “I am fur it” – spending money and buying votes


    “I am agin it” – anything that may lose a single vote

    Arts are 90% “fur it” as its importraht for those who value the arts. The 10% rub is anything involving Irishness or Marching bands

  • chrisjones2

    …absolutely …. they may break even and that just wont do

  • chrisjones2

    .07% of a huge number is a big number

  • chrisjones2


    should slugger not get a grant as (1) an arts organisation (2) for its contribution to mental health by keeping posters from wandering helplessly around the streets annoying the puiblic

  • Graham Parsons

    Any evidence?

  • Graham Parsons

    No sorry but they don’t. As I said below if I attend a Northern Ireland match should I be consulted on who should play?

  • murdockp

    The art itself.

  • Graham Parsons

    Examples please.

  • Nigel McKinney
    There already is some innovation in arts financing and pleased to be associated with an initiative that is researching future possibilities. To some extent the funding regimes in place mitigate against organisational development and mitigation – change is needed both within organisations and within their statutory and philanthropic funders – not all arts activities can or should be financing through income generation – but where there is potential then it is right to support organisations to explore possibilities. The importance and potential too of grant aid to support the arts can’t be lost

  • Matt Johnston

    I’m disappointed by this.

    This is asking for the sort of populist knee-jerk attitude that makes the “Sun the most widely read newspaper”. The point about the arts is not that it should only be funded if we think it’s good, but that it should provoke us in new ways and make us think.

    The idea of crowdsourcing funding ideas is not new or innovative. In fact, there was a startup (Cambrian House) which based it’s entire business model on crowdsourcing the “wisdom of the crowd”. In truth, mob stupidity is more likely to result. The people who know to hire a good marketing/campaign manager will do better than those whose only skill is to be an “excellent artist”.

    These entirely reasonable arguments seem easy enough to agree with but really when someone says “I’m not anti-arts but….”, then yeah, they’re anti-arts. I’m not an expert on art by any means (I know what I like) but I can appreciate art for what it is.

    I am a proponent of the free market. No-one could ever argue that I’m protectionist in any way. I do appreciate, however, the complexities of being in the arsehole of nowhere. I do appreciate the difficulties faced by artists who may not have a core competency in filling out forms. I have tremendous sympathy for artists whose only crime is to be ahead of the crowd.

    I presume these, like many other artists, can enjoy the recognition they deserve and the fruits of their labours posthumously. Because under the proposals above, they’d have starved to death.

    My own disclaimer – I have worked with the Arts Council many times and provided consultancy to them via DCAL and Digital Circle. I’ve helped give out funds, helped people apply for funds and also seen the economic benefit of the Innovation Fund (which is much wider than ‘the arts’) which has been killed off these last two years leading to a slowdown in the number and quality of innovative startups in the sector as a whole.

  • smeeho

    There is a good argument for reforming arts funding in NI, but this isn’t it.

    If you’re arguing that the complexities of the Porto Allegre participatory democracy experience can be replicated by some kind of X-Factor audition, then you’re devaluing the obvious benefits of that approach, looking for a quick fix solution.

    Your point of about the ‘free market’, and I think it is arguable that one has ever actually existed outside the mind of Milton Friedman, is bogus when applied to NI. There is no sustainable unsubsidised market for the arts here because we don’t have the population to sustain it.

    So, like most other societies we make a choice that we want arts and culture to exist here, and so we funnel collective funds to that area in order to make sure it continues to have the impacts on our society we recognise. If you are arguing that we don’t need to support or value arts and cultural institutions and providers in NI, then go ahead and make that argument, don’t just target the arts sector for some ‘anti-luvvie’ fun.

  • Shar

    Sounds like the Britain’s Got Talent/X-Factor approach to entertainment.

    If arts funding went down that route we’d lose the niche arts in favour of those popular with the majority. And if arts came to depend on corporate funding, they’d lose their independence, their ability to challenge society, which is often part of their strength.

    Why would you want to silence the minority voices in the arts world on the basis that they lack popular support?

  • Phil

    There already is a mechanism for people to directly choose which projects get funded: the market.

    Public arts funding fills an entirely different role. The fact that something may not have broad enough appeal to attract sufficient private funding to allow its production does not mean it is not worthwhile. Turning arts funding into some absurd popularity contest subverts the point of publically funded art entirely.

  • Brian O’Neill

    And commentators 😉