ARTS and business leaders have joined MLAs in demanding protection for arts funding in Northern Ireland.
Around 100 packed the Long Gallery in Stormont yesterday for a public debate on the sector's financial future.
Hosted by MLAs Mike Nesbitt and Claire Hanna, speakers at The Big Arts Debate hit out at what they called "death by a thousand cuts".
A draft NI budget for 2018/19 has forecast cuts of up to 8% in the arts, with a budget that has already shrunk by 30% over the past five years.
Yesterday's event follows a backlash against the chair of the Arts Council board, John Edmund, who said the creative sector had become too dependent on government handouts and needed to diversify its funding stream to survive.
The Art Council's chief executive, Roisin McDonagh, stated: "I think our core message was articulated in the room today - the arts require public funding, that much has been well established."
She said the "huge disparity" in arts funding compared to other regions showed how undervalued the local sector had become.
Annual spending per capita in Northern Ireland is estimated at £5.28, far behind that of £10.03 in Wales and £12.79 in the Irish Republic.
Ms McDonagh said she was hopeful the Secretary of State Karen Bradley would oppose cuts.
"Regardless of the level of funding the arts may or may not receive, they create dialogue and a sense of shared space," she said.
"That's particularly important at this moment in our society which is going through a very painful process in trying to manage deep-seated division."
Belfast hotelier Bill Wolsey said the arts had massively boosted the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland in the last 40 years, citing the frequent praise of his customers for cultural events in Belfast.
"To cut the arts is death by a thousand cuts each year and is an appalling state to get into," he said.
Conor Shields of the Community Arts Partnership said the current situation was a "crisis moment" and urged Karen Bradley "to explore how we might invest in the arts and give us the capacity to do great work".
Dr Jenny Elliott is head of Arts Care, which provides an arts programme across all health trusts. She invited politicians to be "courageous and visionary", adding "if you invest in the arts we can assist you to meet your strategic aims".
Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt commented: "We're not here to discuss art for arts sake but the impact it has on every sector of our community. I can think of no sector that creates as many positive outcomes."
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna recognised the pressure on other budgets but said "nothing could create a shared space like the arts".
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll spoke of the "false argument" of putting arts funding in direct competition with health and education while Green Party MLA Clare Bailey urged the arts sector to become a louder voice in the halls of Stormont.
"There's very little lobbying going on, when you're invisible you're easier to ignore," she said.
While most spoke in agreement, freelance arts manager Cathie McKimm said there was too much focus on funding organisations rather than individual artists.
"I just think if you're going to call something The Big Arts Debate, you would hear some opposing ideas. It was more like a trade union campaign," she said.
Regarding the recent negative reaction to John Edmund's speech on arts funding she said: "If someone actually had an opposing view today I wonder how well they would have been received. It concerns me we aren't able to look at alternative models for fear we'll lose out on government funding."
Cuts to arts funding in Northern Ireland over the past five years, with a further 8% forecast in 2018/19