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Only a philistine could justify latest cuts to Northern Ireland's arts sector

By Fionola Meredith

Published 07/08/2015

Lena Headey in Game of Thrones
Lena Headey in Game of Thrones

It happens every time there's yet another cut to spending on the arts. The philistines start cheering.

This week we learned that 32 of Northern Ireland's leading arts organisations, already suffering badly, may have their funding reduced. Again. The Lyric theatre, the Mac, the Grand Opera House, the Ulster Orchestra and many others were told to plan for up to 10% in-year cuts to their budgets, which means that the cheese-parings already allocated to these groups may be diminished still further. There's barely enough in the coffers to keep a mouse alive, let alone a vibrant arts organisation.

Sure enough, right on cue, the usual joyless bunch of gombeen-men, culture-phobes and petty bean-counters seized their chance to demand a complete end to public subsidy of the arts. That's it, they sneer: shut up the shop, bring down the shutters, the show can't go on. If theatres or galleries or orchestras or opera houses can't generate their own cash through advertising and ticket sales then they are commercially unviable and the taxpayer shouldn't be obliged to fund them. Especially not now, they add, in these penniless times when what little cash there is must be redirected to worthier causes like schools or policing or hospitals.

This is usually followed by some ritual spluttering about lazy indulged artists, middle-class elitism and the systematic exclusion of the working class. Honestly, you could write the script with one hand tied behind your back. Just don't expect to get any funding for that.

The accepted response to such miserable, small-minded and ill-informed wind-baggery is to counter it with the economic case for the arts: how the tiny spend of 13p per head of population (which is less than anywhere else in the UK, a mere thousandth of the total Executive budget) generates a disproportionately large financial return.

At this stage it is customary to mention Game Of Thrones and the scads of money that the hit show apparently generates for Northern Ireland. You may also point out that slashing the arts to the ground won't do much for so-called front line services. Reallocate the entire arts spend to health and social services, for example, and that would keep them going for just a single day. It would be eaten up in two-and-a-half days in education, and you'd get a princely four days out of it in justice. Not much return for decimating our entire cultural landscape.

Or what about the enormous social benefit that the arts can bring? That's a good one, popular with literal-minded politicians, who often see art's primary purpose as a tool for the breaking down of barriers and the promotion of social inclusion. If it boosts self-esteem and confidence, opens minds or makes us more tolerant to each other and outsiders, then that's a big fat tick for the arts.

Either way the pressure is stronger than ever to quantify the value of art. To pin it down and determine what exactly it's worth. But I say that the intrinsic value of art to a society cannot be quantified in the way that the bean-counters require. What's more, you shouldn't even try.

The money, the love, the tolerance - it's all great stuff, if and when it happens, but these are by-products of something far greater. Art matters not because it delivers a measurable financial or social return, but because it's part of what makes us human. It enriches and awakens and challenges us in ways that can never be reduced to a check-list. It adds meaning and possibility and excitement to a world that would otherwise be grey and one-dimensional. Any society that likes to think of itself as civilized must demonstrate that intrinsic value by investing as generously as possible. Not whingeing and whining and begrudging every paltry penny.

And if some people consider that the arts scene is just for the middle-class metropolitan elite - whoever they are supposed to be - well, just wait until the philistines take over and start running the show. That's when the arts will truly belong to the rich. Without subsidy the price of theatre tickets would rocket to levels only the seriously wealthy could afford. Only commercial galleries would survive. Festivals would be a sad, diminished shadow of their former selves. The only films you could see would be the big name Hollywood blockbusters. And we certainly wouldn't have our own orchestra. All right, so you'd get an extra day's healthcare. But don't tell me it would be worth it.

Belfast Telegraph

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