Belfast Telegraph

Fall in audiences and more cuts spark fresh fears for Northern Ireland arts sector

The amount of awarded to the Ulster Orchestra has fallen by £100,000
The amount of awarded to the Ulster Orchestra has fallen by £100,000
Victoria Leonard

By Victoria Leonard

The arts sector is facing further cutbacks after it emerged that audiences for performances and exhibitions are dwindling.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland said it has been advised by Stormont officials that its budget will be slashed again.

The decline in attendances, revealed in a review of the Arts Council's five year strategic plan, took place as funding fell by almost 40%.

Government investment in the sector fell from £14.1m in 2012 to £9.8m in 2017.

The study by Annabel Jackson Associates Ltd said that the "absence of a functioning Assembly Executive at Stormont has weakened public accountability in decision-making".

The Arts Council financed 108 organisations in 2014/15 and 106 in 2016/2017, but funding to arts groups decreased by some 38% during this period.

Small organisations with a turnover of less than £200,000 were the hardest hit, with funding decreasing from around £3.12m in 2014/15 to £2.43m by 2016/17, a drop of £685,785.

The report said that this was "in part due to the desire to maintain the critical mass of flagship large organisations, which might be called the orchestra effect".

The amount awarded to the Ulster Orchestra fell by £100,000, from £1.88m in 2014/15 to £1.78m in 2016/17.

Total Arts Council funding to organisations declined from £15.77m in 2014/15 to £13.92m in 2016/17.

The report warned that "annually funded organisations are showing signs of financial stress".

It pointed out that spending on publicity, marketing and promotion is falling, which "would be expected to have a long-term effect on audiences".

It added: "Building maintenance seems low across the whole portfolio, which might be storing up problems for the future."

Funding cuts could also have negative consequences for audiences, the report said.

While the number of performances and exhibitions rose from 2014/15 to 2016/17, attendances have declined.

Audience numbers at performances dropped from 3,219,332 in 2014/15 to 2,334,042 in 2016/17 - a decrease of 27%.

The number of exhibition visitors almost halved from 1,240,657 to 628,340 over the same period.

The report said that "annually funded arts organisations have worked hard to maintain their level of activity" but that "audience numbers have fallen, perhaps because of the low level of marketing/publicity/promotion and cuts in other overheads".

The report added that "damage to long-term sustainability is evident".

The Arts Council said the loss of more than £4m in funding between 2012 and 2017/18 meant that it "inevitably had to reduce its grant-in-aid to arts organisations".

It described the decrease in exhibition visits and performance attendances as "a worrying trend".

It also said it had asked arts organisations to demonstrate the impact of both a 5% and 10% cut for the incoming year, "as we have been advised by the Department For Communities that further cuts will be forthcoming".

"Government announced earlier this year that public sector funding is likely to fall by a further 4% in 2019/20," the Arts Council added.

It said that such cuts would be "worrying indeed" for its annually funded organisations and "could result in a smaller arts sector here, one which is under increasing pressure to survive".

The Department for Communities said it had not yet finalised the Arts Council budget for 2019/20 but had advised it to plan based on a 4% reduction in its opening allocation that exceeded £10m in 2018/19.

It added: "Alongside the department's funding, the Arts Council receives an additional £8m from Lottery funding.

"The department has yet to have its 2019/20 budget confirmed by the Department of Finance.

"When this process is complete, all departmental arm's-length bodies will be informed accordingly."

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