Once more around the fishbowl … or maybe not

Ali FitzgibbonAli FitzGibbon is now a freelance arts consultant and producer. In March she will leave Young at Art after 12 years but not before she and her small team deliver the 18th Belfast Children’s Festival 4 – 9 March 2016. This year they have raised over £500,000 to run the festival and do year-round (mostly free) programmes with up to 50,000 children all over Northern Ireland. A really vital 40% of this came from ACNI core funding. There are 38 other sources.

To coin a phrase “So yet again…” someone is saying the arts sector is asking for more money from the public purse and why can’t it stand on its own two feet.

It’s all getting a bit tiresome isn’t it? This endless cycle of perceived freeloading by a bunch of luvvies who can’t earn a crust independently.

It is tiresome as I feel I have been repeating myself – iterating the same points as yet another discussion about arts funding swims around the fishbowl.

Or it would be except that it’s mainly just very depressing. The living and working conditions for artists in Northern Ireland are pretty appalling in the main because of the collapse of public arts subsidy at local and government level in a way that is disproportionate to the rest of these islands. And as a post-conflict, largely rural bit of an island off the coast of another island on the edge of western Europe, the population and economy is simply too small and too poor to finance this provision through private means unless it is done on a largely voluntary basis or on a minute scale to a tiny elite (who will most likely go to London for their culture fix) while Northern Ireland’s social and cultural needs and development challenges are greater.

I personally don’t believe that this region, as part of one of the wealthiest western democracies, should push our arts provision entirely into the private sector. For me, they are as important to the place I call home as our natural environment, our public parks and our libraries. They are as important to our political expression as a free press. I also happen to believe that they are the only part of Northern Ireland apart from our landscape that is unique to us and irreplaceable. They are our international calling card, our best ways to express ourselves and key to our development as humans.

I fully espouse to the rights of access for all to the best, most ambitious world standard excellent arts in all its forms and modes of delivery that we can.

Which is kind of challenging given that, since the ceasefires of 1994, the peace dividend for arts and culture has been a steady drop in funding in real and cash terms (per capita spend currently sits at less than it was when the Good Friday Agreement was signed), a ramping up of the cost-of-living as well as out-of-control expectations and excessive administration from our departments and public bodies. For speed, you can read what I’ve previously written about inflation and fiscal realism in arts funding here at your leisure. Not so much a “gimme, gimme, gimme” as “not waving, but drowning”.

There is no full cost recovery model for delivery of the arts in Northern Ireland and there is no statutory provision of the arts in any sector by any element of government that does not rely heavily on the non-profit arts organisations and the fundraising they do with skeleton staff or volunteers. Even if every seat is sold, it is done at a subsidised price (from a mixture of public and private sources raised by the venue or the company or by the artist). We have the lowest ticket prices for live events in the UK while many public bodies have expectations that work will be done at no cost to the attender or participant (even if that funder is only paying a % of the cost).

With a highly insecure low income occupation, artists are leaving in their droves – relocating, retraining – and new generations either can’t even access training or leave to study and work elsewhere, restricting who can afford to be an artist or pushing them and their families into situations of extreme stress and hardship. As a result of this, we cannot estimate how many lost opportunities and lost ideas have already passed us by – for an artist to succeed and achieve something on a world scale, or to reach a child in a classroom that no one else could, or provoke real social change through words or images.

So rather than tiresome I would suggest Kris Nixon’s understanding of the economic realities of the arts sector is naïve. Does he really believe that with £10 million (less ACNI administration of course) the 110 arts organisations who receive core funding are kicking back and just waiting for a fat cheque to drop through the letterbox? Do the maths. Most arts organisations receiving funding through this tiny pot given to the Arts Council from the tiny pot given to DCAL are raising at least the same and in many cases substantially more through fundraising from other (mostly private) sources – up to 40 or 50 different partners each year, each with their own administrative and strategic demands.

I totally agree with him on one point, which is that the price of administering public resources is disproportionate to the budget but then again is ACNI unique in this or is this not part of a culture of bureaucracy that pervades so much of life here? The NI Assembly is feeling the pain of the lost opportunities that RPA (remember that?) offered. At least there is only one Arts Council as opposed to the 8+ public bodies involved in education delivery (not including the multi-million pound one that was abandoned). And the purpose of an Arts Council is to establish an arms-length principle so that funding is not open to political manipulation (it is a moot point whether this is currently the case or in the words of one observer whether the arm has just got a lot shorter).

So I would rather end on a point of agreement but I have to pick up this idea about participatory budgeting. While this approach has a lot of sense for health and community care or policing, none of the models I have come across remove the need for an authority of some kind so the rationale that this model would save a few million in administration is unconvincing.

The second point is that among the disadvantages are problems with localism and the dominance of particular interests over-riding the best use of funds. Do we think that is something we should run into with open arms here? Right now?

Most compellingly, to reduce all decisions about provision and who should get money to what happens in the district is not only highly reductive and a bit patronising to those communities but fails to capture the boundary-smashing, crazy adventure, the surprise and imaginative leaps that are the essence of the arts.

At least this time it was politicians asking for the arts to be recognised as valuable and worthy of investment – that makes a nice change.

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