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Lifeline for Northern Ireland's ailing arts sector but fears remain over future

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Hopeful: Ian Wilson

Hopeful: Ian Wilson

Hopeful: Ian Wilson

Crisis-torn arts organisations across Northern Ireland have been thrown a financial lifeline as they struggle for survival amidst the coronavirus pandemic which has closed theatres, music venues and forced the cancellation of festivals here.

But one insider has warned that even with the £12.9m funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), the arts sector will never be the same again and that some companies will go to the wall.

He added: "No-one can say for sure how we will get out of this nightmare. But it's almost inevitable that some organisations will fold."

The ACNI yesterday announced it was making upfront payments of 50% of annual funding to 97 key arts organisations in a bid to stabilise them to withstand the Covid-19 emergency.

The money is usually paid in four separate instalments through the year.

John Edmund, the council's chair, said the situation for artists and organisations had never been as bad, with the shutting of venues removing opportunities for live performances, adding: "Each of these organisations is under enormous financial pressure, as is public expenditure generally, during this period of quarantine so we are thankful we could maintain funding to applicants at last year's level."

He said that the ACNI was working with Deirdre Hargey, the Communities Minister, to seek more help for artists and organisations to ride out the crisis.

Some self-help crowdfunding initiatives have been launched to assist out-of-work actors and technicians and details of an ACNI artists' emergency programme are due to be announced shortly.

There's a new world coming rapidly once this is all over. Audiences may be reluctant to gather in spaces where there are one or two thousand people around them Richard Wigley

The Ulster Orchestra's managing director Richard Wigley said the ACNI's 50% funding move was re-assuring as it removed pressing cash flow problems.

He added that the coronavirus shutdown was deeply worrying. "We have 65 full time musicians and a group of administrators who aren't able to do what they were born to do. We have no income from audiences or corporate supporters so that is troubling for the long term.

"And nobody knows what the future holds. There's a new world coming rapidly once this is all over. Audiences may be reluctant to gather in spaces where there are one or two thousand people around them.

"It may be that people will want to source their music online before they come out to a concert hall to enjoy the live experience which is the lifeblood of all culture."

Many of the orchestra's musicians have been posting performances online from their own homes.

At Belfast's Grand Opera House, the lockdown coincided with the shutdown at the theatre to enable the historic venue to undergo a £12.2 million restoration project.

But chief executive Ian Wilson said Covid-19 forced work to stop on the renovations on Wednesday, March 25.

He added: "We can't know how long it will be before the contractors will get back in and before the building will be ready to re-open, which had been due to happen later this year with the annual pantomime.

"We're still hopeful but we've also had to abandon or postpone most of the plans by our creative learning team who were to mount a huge education and outreach programme involving 200 events around the province.

We've had to cancel a number of productions and there are a lot of questions for the entire sector and most of all for individual artists. But we mustn't forget that this is foremost a health crisis which is claiming thousands of lives Jimmy Fay

"We're still programming touring shows for 2021 but some of them have been pushed back by producers into 2022."

The Lyric Theatre's artistic director Jimmy Fay said the ACNI funding for the Ridgeway Street venue had been at the same level for the past six years.

"But having said that, I welcome what the Arts Council have done to get the funding to us right now. The next year or 18 months are going to be extremely very challenging for all of us.

"We've had to cancel a number of productions and there are a lot of questions for the entire sector and most of all for individual artists. But we mustn't forget that this is foremost a health crisis which is claiming thousands of lives."

In the Name of the Son, the latest production by playwright Martin Lynch's not-for-profit company Green Shoot Productions about Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, was one of the first shows to be cancelled at the Lyric.

"Ticket sales were brilliant and we have lost a lot of money and we hope someone will cover the losses for us," said Martin.

He added that though he was pessimistic about the future of his company, he thought the arts sector would eventually recover.

One of the ACNI'S two new annual funding awards for 2020 was to the Outburst Queer Arts Festival whose artistic director Ruth McCarthy said: "We are delighted with our financial assistance but these are still very frightening times for individual artists and venues.

"We have no idea if our festival will go ahead in November and we don't know how audiences will respond if it does."

Belfast Telegraph