With the recession hitting much of Northern Ireland’s economy hard, Matthew McCreary looks at how the arts industry in the province is faring and asks — are our arts safe?
The arts have long been at the bottom of the pile when it comes to government funding, not least when the powers-that-be are struggling to keep the economy afloat.
While jobs may be haemorrhaging in Northern Ireland’s manufacturing, building and banking sectors, it would be tempting to assume that the arts industry here is facing a similar freefall.
Yet the truth is, that while things are far from healthy for artists here, recession does breed a strange dichotomy in public attitudes and responsiveness towards the arts.
Perhaps most surprising of all is that footfall and attendances at many of Northern Ireland’s arts establishments are going up, and no-one it seems is more surprised than the artists and organisers themselves.
“People are having to make choices. The city break is not an option now, but a night out at the theatre is,” said Graeme Farrow, director of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
“You might not be going on that £300 city break, but you still want a night out.”
In spite of the recession, the festival enjoyed a record year in 2008 for box office sales.
Ticket sales at the festival have doubled since 2005, ironically during a period of great financial uncertainty for the event.
In 2006 it was revealed that the festival might be forced to cease operating due to a shortfall in public funding.
But just two years later the picture is very different, as title sponsor Ulster Bank pledged a major financial boost over three years.
As box office revenue has risen, so has the number of visitors from outside Northern Ireland, who now account for 7% of its total audience.
“The festival is in excellent health,” said Mr Farrow.
“Audiences have soared. We are now running a £1.75m turnover business which brings fantastic benefits to Queen’s University, to Belfast and the region.
“The arts make a significant contribution to regional prosperity and to the quality of our lives. They represent a value for money investment and, even in this stringent economic climate, we need to ensure that they are properly resourced.”
At another long-standing Belfast institution — the Queen’s Film Theatre — attendances have also soared.
“We have had a very busy few months. People still need the arts and an escape and something that makes them feel there is more to life than bills,” said Susan Picken, manager of the Queen’s Film Theatre.
“There’s so much doom and gloom around that people need to feel there is a little bit of escapism. If you go to see a film for a fiver it’s really good value, it takes you out of yourself — you feel like you are doing something good for your soul.”
An added boost to the QFT in recent years has been the support of corporate sponsors. Until recently this role was filled by Stella Artois, while the cinema is now looking forward to a new relationship with BT.
“We’re very lucky and happy about that, because it will be much more competitive for people looking for corporate sponsorship,” said Susan.
“For people looking for the right relationship and the right fit between something to be sponsored it will still happen, it may just be more competitive.”
Robust ticket sales are also key to the success of any event, as customers prove increasingly discerning about how they will spend their hard-earned cash.
One event which has seen a massive rise in popularity is the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, which has announced record ticket sales for its programme, which kicks off next week.
“We have worked very hard to ensure we keep our ticket prices as affordable as possible this year,” said festival director Sean Kelly.
“There is a real hunger for people to engage socially with other people, to go out.
“The downturn, in some ways, can be a catalyst for making people want to go out and engage more socially.
“People will make cutbacks in various areas, but there is still a desire to go out. If you’re doing shows that are fairly affordable, like cinema or comedy, people are still going to want to go out.”
And the need to laugh off the doom and gloom is another aspect of the festival’s popularity, Mr Kelly said.
“The comedy programme is virtually sold out at the moment,” he said.
“Part of the reason for that is that it offers you a real relief in uncertain times.”
Case Study: The Ulster Orchestra
‘We rely on loyalty of our fans’
When it comes to financial hardship, not even some of Northern Ireland’s longest standing arts institutions are immune.
The Ulster Orchestra (right) is one such body which has had to stringently cut its cloth to suit the straitened times.
Recently it was revealed that its musicians and support staff could face a pay freeze in an effort to meet costs in the current economic climate.
The cost of hiring venues, maintaining equipment and touring to other venues across the UK and Ireland also takes its toll on the coffers.
“I would not plead a special case given all that has been happening with jobs in Northern Ireland, but arts jobs are no less important than those in other sectors,” said the orchestra chief executive David Byers.
“We already start from a low base as Northern Ireland has the lowest per capita public arts spend in these islands.
“We had a lobbying campaign last year which raised the level of funding a certain amount, but nowhere near what was needed.
“Suddenly you are hit with a credit crunch and a general recession, so suddenly things are much worse.”
Like other arts organisations, the orchestra has built up a portfolio of corporate sponsorship to supplement its public income, but still relies on the support of its loyal fans and followers.
“Ticket prices are a source of income we need,” said Mr Byers.
“So far ticket buying is holding up. We have a very good, reliable core of season ticket holders who are very loyal and supportive.
“I don’t want to put ticket prices up because people’s disposable income is going to come into question. They are tough, trying times and we need to trim accordingly.”
Underpinning the need for frugality is the demand to maintain the artistic integrity for the orchestra, as well as meeting the expectations of the audience.
He added: “I have planned a programme which I hope will continue the artistic growth of the orchestra, but suddenly you are overtaken by financial events so I have had to cut it back to something more affordable.
“It is important now to prune accordingly, face up to the challenges and make sure the business is in fit shape when the upturn comes.”
Case Study: The visual arts
‘Our footfall is going up’
One beneficiary of the recession, in terms of visitor interest at least, is Northern Ireland’s visual arts sector.
A lack of art galleries around the province has often been blamed for not properly enabling the development of visual arts in the province.
With few dedicated exhibition spaces, many casual art visitors would be forgiven for not making the effort to try and seek out what is on offer.
But the arrival of the credit crunch has had an unexpectedly beneficial boost to some local show spaces.
“Our footfall is going up slightly, we’re noticing more and more on the weekend that families are coming in,” said Peter Richards (right) of Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery.
“It’s something free to do and we’re looking to respond to that. Also a lot of kids are doing things for their schoolwork and the gallery ties into some of that.”
Funding has often been tight for visual arts in the province, and a sustained period of economic turmoil could see subsidies getting tighter.
“I don’t see anyone putting any prices up, because it is so much about trying to build an audience,” said Mr Richards.
“People will be looking to capitalise on the fact that people want more stuff to do for free.”
One unexpected benefit of the decline in property prices here is that impoverished artists are now able to find better premises within which to base themselves.
“The quality of studios has got better in the last couple of years,” said Mr Richards.
“People have been forced out of really rubbish places and found better places for similar amounts of money — it means you don’t have to wear thermals for six months a year or a ski suit.”
It is a view shared by fellow artist Daniel Jewesbury, a member of the Visual Artists Ireland lobbying organisation.
“Commercial property in the centre of Belfast is now cheaper and more available,” he said.
“For arts organisations who in the past have had very unsatisfactory arrangements with leases, it’s now a very good time to try and buy buildings in partnership with one another and get slightly better arrangements.”
Mr Jewesbury said he believed artists in Northern Ireland have learned to adapt to the economic difficulties.
“The artists here learned how to survive during all the years of the Troubles when there was hardly any money going into visual arts,” he said.
“There’s alot of ingenuity and resourcefulness among visual artists here; that is worth something at a time like this when you have galleries closing elsewhere. We’ve always had to get by.”