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It's time to act as arts facing death by thousand cuts

By Fionola Meredith

Published 18/12/2015

Sir Liam Donaldson
Sir Liam Donaldson

Here we go again. No sooner had arts organisations been told that the in-year cuts they'd been told to brace themselves for had been reversed than the next onslaught came. All Stormont ministries - including the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure - have been told to plan for cuts of up to 10% in their budgets for 2016/2017.

Which slash at spending will be the final one that sends the arts in Northern Ireland into oblivion? Already they are barely standing, running on little more than fierce passion, belief, goodwill and loyalty. Cut to the bone, I believe the phrase is. No more fat to be chopped away. We're down to lean meat, the core flesh and blood of these organisations that keeps the lights on, the doors open and the shows going. Once that's gone, or fatally damaged, there's no coming back.

Ah, but who cares about all that, some people say, when health and education are at stake? We can't afford the luxury of subsidising art and culture when we have no money to treat the sick or buy school books for our kids. Theatres and galleries, museums and libraries: they must suffer alongside all other publicly-funded institutions. They cannot expect special treatment or exemptions. If anything, the arts must suffer more not less, because there are higher priorities to be met.

Besides, such 'critics' sneer, the arts don't really need any help from the Government because they are already supported by the affluent middle-classes who attend cultural events. Arts organisations are aloof and elitist, pretentious and obscure, always looking down their noses at ordinary people and greedily soaking up money, taking it away from working-class communities who are in far more urgent social need.

Let's nail both of those patronising, poisonous myths right now.

Killing the arts won't rescue the health service. It won't rescue anything at all; the imposed sacrifice would be entirely in vain. Why? Because the entire arts spend, if reallocated, would keep health and social services going for one day. One single day. You'd get two-and-a-half days out of it in education.

Which illustrates just how paltry and embarrassingly tiny the amount allocated to the arts actually is - the most minuscule in Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Perhaps Stormont ministers are not embarrassed by this fact. They should be. They are presiding over a vast philistine bonfire which shows us up to the rest of the world as the crude, crass knuckle-brains it always suspected us to be.

If ministers are really serious about saving money in these painfully-straitened times there are far more obvious and effective ways to do it. How about shutting a hospital or two for example? A review into Northern Ireland's health service led by the former chief medical officer of England Sir Liam Donaldson said that there were far too many hospitals for our relatively small population of 1.8 million people.

The excess of hospitals spread expertise too thinly, Donaldson said, and didn't allow the public to receive the fit-for-purpose healthcare it deserved.

But closing hospitals doesn't go down well with the populace at large, so politicians shy away from it, just as they shy away from tackling other monstrous wastes of money, like the duplication of services in education.

The arts are an easy target. Slowly but inexorably annihilating them can be made to look like a reasonable, possibly even desirable, way of protecting core financial concerns.

But that is nothing more than a convenient fiction. The true cost of it will be measured in a joyless, mindless, one-dimensional society, stripped of curiosity, laughter, pleasure and insight. Is that really what we want?

And speaking of fiction, what a rotten lie it is to say that only privileged, middle-class people attend and benefit from the arts. On what evidential basis is this glib nonsense trotted out time after time? Where is the proof?

There's actually a veiled snobbery in such a statement because it implies that working-class people are somehow less capable of enjoying an orchestral performance, say, or an Ibsen play.

It implies that the arts have to be "brought down" to a level where everyone can understand them in the name of social inclusion and accessibility. This is such patronising, pernicious rubbish.

The arts are open to everyone, to engage with in whatever way they choose, whether it's street art or concertos, stand-up comedy or experimental film.

They are the lifeblood of an otherwise dull, grey world. We must stand up and fight for them before it's too late and the axe falls a final, fatal time.

Belfast Telegraph

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