Belfast Telegraph

Art groups face cuts blow

Orchestra, venues and festivals told their budgets will be slashed

By Noel McAdam

The Ulster Orchestra, Grand Opera House and Belfast Festival at Queen's have been warned of immediate spending cuts – with even worse to come.

They were among representatives from 37 organisations and events called to a meeting by Arts Council chiefs and told huge savings have to be found in the next few months.

The council stressed yesterday that no final decisions had been taken and it was too soon to say which venues or festivals would face the heaviest hits.

It is understood, however, the two-tier budgets cutback – 2.1% now and 2.3% in the next Executive spending round – amounts to more than £4m in total.

And the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) confirmed that apart from the double whammy over the next few months it anticipates even further reductions in the next financial year 2015/16.

Organisations which will be affected also include the Lyric and Mac theatres and NI Opera as well as a number of festivals – the West Belfast Feile and Cathedral Quarter events among them.

Confirmation of the cuts came after the Stormont Executive agreed an overall £78m must be saved, with a further £87m expected to be confirmed in October.

But ministers have already been warned they are "sending the wrong signals" by short-changing arts and culture groups in the budget share-out.

John Davison, a board member of the NI Theatre Association, told a Stormont committee: "I think that the Executive need to take some leadership and say that they place a value on the arts as a contributor to those areas.

"They are sending out a message at the moment that, because DCAL receives the smallest percentage of the Executive budget and arts receives a small percentage of that, it is not that important and that it is really not for communities out there. It is not even a case of working together; rather of seeing it as a priority of the Executive," Mr Davison, who is from Terra Nova Productions, warned MLAs.

Sinn Fein Culture and Arts Minister Caral Ni Chuilin is currently on leave but has told the Assembly committee her department might consider sponsorship and other ways to boost investment in the arts.

"Maybe we need to think a bit smarter about what money is there, what else we need to do and how we can get other sponsors and other investment in," she said.

But Ms Ni Chuilin also strongly argued that spending on the arts could bring about savings in other areas of department spending, including health – whose budget along with education is 'ringfenced'.

She said: "People are kept well by their participation in and access to the arts. It keeps people out of hospitals. It keeps people off waiting lists, because, when you are mentally well, you are physically well.

"It may not comfort people who are on a waiting list for an operation or an appointment, but, frankly, the Department of Health needs to take that on board and challenge it."

She added: "The arts are an economic driver, and it is about time that we started to appreciate the potential of the arts and artists to generate our economy rather than see them as something that people do in their spare time or as a luxury."

Her comments were echoed yesterday by the Arts Council which said it would continue to make the case to DCAL and the Executive "of the value of the arts to the economy and to society".

"It is not just about arts programming, as important as that is, but it is about the very valuable education and outreach work that these organisations undertake in order to help meet the NI Executive's own Programme for Government priorities," a statement said.

Background

Arts and culture organisations are the latest area to feel the heat from the Executive agreement to cut £78m from budgets, with a further £87m reduction expected in October. Jobs linked to the NI Environment Agency have already been affected, along with victims groups, Queen's and the University of Ulster, and tourist attractions potentially including Dunluce Castle.

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