A major injection of £1.57bn into the cultural sector by the UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden may prematurely raise the hopes of Northern Ireland artists that their industry is finally set to receive the relief and attention that many other areas of business have already enjoyed.
Arts, creative and cultural workers in Northern Ireland have felt particular pain during the COVID-19 lockdown. Theatres, music venues and galleries have been dark for months. The nature of theatre and artistic programmes mean that many freelancers are employed on short-term contracts for the duration of a particular show. Many performers teach children to supplement their performing income, but back stage and front of house staff don’t have the same opportunities. Many couldn’t be furloughed, and some – with a mix of freelance and PAYE incomes – also fell outside the HMRC self-employment scheme. Some small schemes offered funds were set up to fund artists to produce short pieces of work, though the artistic community rightly commented that not every role in the sector was always eligible to apply (lighting designer, stage manager), and not every artistic practice could be adapted to video.
Generally, when extra money is spent on initiatives in England (or only England and Wales, or just England, Scotland and Wales), the (crude) Barnett Formula is used to derive the proportion of extra block grant that the remaining devolved administrations will receive. In this case £97m will be given to Scotland, £59m for Wales and £33m for Northern Ireland.
On 30 June, Finance Minister Conor Murphy told the NI Assembly that “the Executive has received Barnett consequentials of £1,442·2 million to address the impacts of COVID-19”.
Just because extra funding is received because of an investment in English policing doesn’t mean that the money has to be spent on Northern Ireland policing. The money goes into the NI Executive’s pot and can be allocated as they see fit. There may be a moral obligation to ring-fence it for a particular purpose; however, hypothecation is not guaranteed to match the most pressing needs on local budgets.
The question for the NI Executive is how much of the expected £33m will be spent on the cultural sector?
Just in case you feel that left-wing luvvies living bohemian lifestyles off the back of government subsidies are already well-supported in Northern Ireland, consider these statistics, unearthed in a fact-check by FactCheckNI last year.
If government spending along with National Lottery funding is compared across the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales – calculated per head of population, using 2016/17 figures published by the House of Commons Library – then Northern Ireland (£6.06) spends less than half what is spent in England (£12.97), Scotland (£12.39) or Wales (£13.29).
In some ways, the Cinderella nature of the local cultural sector is reflected in the demise of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the reorganisation of Executive departments. Coincidentally, DCAL’s final minister is now minister for department (Communities) with responsibility for arts and sport amongst its large portfolio that also spans welfare benefits, housing, urban regeneration, historic environment.
While the Arts Council NI reconfigured some existing funding streams to support artists during lockdown, the largest intervention so far was made last week with the somewhat overdue but welcome launch of a £4m lifeline for the arts by Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín.
Will the minister and her Executive colleagues listen to the recent briefing by the Arts Collaboration Network at a recent meeting of the Committee for Communities and pass this funding onto cultural sector? Or will it find other priorities?
As a society we could probably live without sport. But we’d have to swallow the drop in business that surrounds those activities and any impact on the well-being and health of those who partake or spectate. So essentially, we shouldn’t. Similarly with the arts. Part of Northern Ireland’s tourism is based around being a land of saints and scholars, poets and playwrights. And for the sake of the 1.89 million people living in Northern Ireland, are we content not to have access to fresh ideas, challenging critiques, and a modicum of mindless entertainment in the years to come?
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Update: In a press release this morning, Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín commented:
“Whilst ultimately it will be for the Executive to decide on how this money should be spent, the argument for a comprehensive package of support to local musicians, freelancers, theatres, artists, museums and the heritage sector at a time when they are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be overstated.
“Last week I announced that the sector is to benefit from an initial £4m from Executive funds, however it was always expected that much more additional finance would be required to help protect the sector that is vital to our economy and wellbeing. I will be making strong representations to my Executive colleagues at the earliest opportunity on how this money should be spent to ensure the short term and long term sustainability of the sector.”
Update – The Arts Council NI also issued a statement saying that the “announcement is most welcome and we are delighted that the arts and cultural sectors in Northern Ireland are to get lifeline support; it signals just how important the arts are to our economy, to our society and to our mental health and wellbeing”.
“The Minister for Communities is aware of the size of the need within the sector and the near decimation experienced by those working in it. As the primary funding and development agency for the arts, the Arts Council has estimated that the funded sector in NI is facing an estimated initial loss of box office income of £25 million, while Arts organisations have identified an initial deficit total of £5 million this year alone. We are aware too of the needs of our partners in local authorities which run arts and cultural venues as these have also been seriously affected.
“The creative sector in Northern Ireland is projected to lose 20% (6,000) of its creative jobs and see a 23% (£300 million) drop in creative industries Gross Value Added, while the funded arts sector currently supports approximately 7,500 jobs as per the Annual Funding Survey 2018/19 published by ACNI. There is an urgent need to save those staff who have been furloughed as well as underwrite risk for the safe reopening of our venues and theatres which will welcome reduced audiences and will need help to breakeven on box office income in that context. We must encourage audiences back to the arts, invest in outdoor events in the interim and increase the digital capacity of the sector.
“We must also ensure that support reaches the creative freelancers who are part of the arts environment and the wider creative industries and who have been badly affected by the loss of events and the closure of venues …
“The Arts Council looks forward to discussing these priorities with the Minister and the Department for Communities.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.