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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  • Cosmo

    As referred to in Fitzgibbon’s 3rd last para, Nixon’s interesting suggestion for on-line voting to release money on projects, is susceptible to organised voting campaigns by, minority but energised, pressure groups – who won’t necessarily reflect general opinion, and will generate even more division than we have already.

  • culturalpolicywonk

    Whilst Kris Nixon’s argument displays a wholly superficial understanding of both the mechanics of public subsidy for the arts and its underpinning ideology, I don’t think this article really answers his main question. It is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of participative democracy in relation to the arts – it has been done elsewhere – and it is a question which the arts should address with some urgency. To dismiss a democratic process on the basis of ‘the dominance of particular interests’ is a bit rich coming from someone who works in the arts, a sector which is the very embodiment of this approach. The entire history of public subsidy for the arts – and let’s be very clear that’s what we are talking about here – is a perfect case study of the establishment of a cultural hegemony by a white, middle-class elite.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Naseem Khan’s 1976 publication: The Arts Britain Ignores furthers your argument in an interesting direction. Mulgan and Worpole’s 1986 work: Saturday Night or Sunday Morning? discussed the dilemmas facing ‘cultural policy’.

    Democratisation of the arts to avoid a sense of dispossession and exclusivity is essential and would be an argument I would expect to be espoused by the supposedly egalitarian Culture Minister. Nonetheless, she has declared herself to be not that um … involved in the arts. Full democratisation, leaving it to market forces or paternalistic top down largesse all individually present their own unique risks and tensions to the arts. The last of these is the present arrangement and of course allows for cronyism (whether perceived, non-existent or invisible to a possibly indifferent Minister).

    Prolier than thou disinterest, negligence, obfuscation and incompetence at ministerial level result in concentration of the negotiating power in statutory bodies whether arms length or not. ACNI (statutory & arms length) at least acts as advocate and arbiter. This midriff wagging the dog might be the best we can expect with the level of expertise that is appointed to Exec position. It’s very unfortunate that the voices of the sole practitioners/smaller players, i.e. the least politically powerful players, are inevitably drowned out. Ah well, there are always call centres to employ the out of work artist/actor/dramaturgue/playwright/arts facilitator/director and we can let unfunded amateurishness flourish. Sure look at what the paramilitaries kept up and they never got a penny from Govt!

    Greater democratisation of the arts could produce more interesting (or less predictable) results than political democratisation through devolution and will create a greater stake among its consumers (whether for good or ill). But if we become stakeholders in an art economy might we be at risk of seeing our reflections more clearly than our elected reps would like.

  • culturalpolicywonk

    In essence all (good (great?)) art is dissent, which is why Thatcher did so much to dismantle the system of state subsidy. Our politicians unfortunately see ‘the arts’ as a means to a (political, ideologically fuelled) end, and the arts sector obediently follow that lead. The arts sector quite
    rightly argued vociferously against economic impact studies in the 80s – now they can’t wait to produce stats on their ‘impact’.
    The issue around democratisation is not about how to democratise ‘the arts’, but why ‘the arts’ are to be democratised at all. Ali Fitzgibbon’s article makes the fatal mistake of equating ‘the arts’ with ‘publicly subsidised art’, and moreover falls into the hole of the great self-mythologising of the sector. Culture, broadly defined, may be key to ‘our development as humans’ but to suggest the same is true of publicly subsidised culture is absurd.
    The arts sector in NI isn’t even, at the end of the day, representative of the model of public subsidy as conceived post-WW2. Large swathes of public subsidy support commercially viable activity (as the commercial promoters pointed out to ACNI not that long ago, and no doubt need to do again) and too much of what is subsidised is simply not of good enough quality. When you consider the implications of ‘The Best for the Most’ as Mulgan and Worpole did, or ‘Great Art for Everyone’, what we have in NI is nothing of the sort. Maybe that’s the best one could wish for all things considered.