Belfast Telegraph

It is culture and the common good that drives arts... not profit

By Conor Shields

Just a few short days after a powerful and uplifting event in the Ulster Hall conferring the Freedom of the City on Sir Kenneth Branagh, the arts sector is once again having to justify itself.

Sir Kenneth, this celebrated son of Belfast, instead chose to pay tribute and to give credit to the support he had from others and despaired about this funding crisis we are faced with.

He began his career in those dark days that cast a long shadow here but he is now recognised as one of the greatest in his profession, emblematic of the persistent talent that we nurture here in our wee corner of the world.

The week previous we listened with intense disappointment as chair of the Arts Council John Edmund, at the Allianz Arts and Business Awards event, offered no challenge to the funding cuts, and instead stated that the business acumen of the arts sector didn't match that of others and that we were too dependent on funding.

But that claim that the arts sector is over-reliant on public money just doesn't add up. We receive less than half that which is spent per person annually in Wales, Scotland, England and indeed the Republic of Ireland - yet we support and engage communities, audiences and participants in every nook and cranny of this region, almost nine in every 10 people in fact.

We are punching well above our weight and are constantly battling cuts and setbacks year on year. Like so many in our community, we know only too well the challenges of life here. We work in schools, residential homes, in community centres with people who experience the toughest of times in our society. We share their concerns and we fight hard to help.

"Arts funding is not a cost but an investment. It cannot be vulnerable to short-term thinking, and like the long-term value it creates, it too must be seen as a fundamental, strategic and 'bullet proofed' investment. We can only hope that sense will prevail and that when the decisions are finally taken, funding is at least at 2017 levels, or better still, is increased in line with the value it develops."

This wasn't the impassioned plea of an arts practitioner. It came from the CEO of an international insurance company that sponsored the event at which Mr Edmund spoke. Does this sound like business not getting it? Sean McGrath, the CEO in question, totally understands. His company supports the current model and has been sponsoring for years. So have a host of other commercially savvy employers.

What they all recognise is that the arts sector requires the stability of public funding, the sure foundation on which to build other income and make that investment grow.

Last year, across all 107 annually funded organisations, on average 24% of turnover came from Arts Council funding. That means on average every organisation was generating £3 for every £1 it received from ACNI, with a further 6% from local councils, 8% from other public sources, 8% again from other programmes like Tourism NI, and were averaging almost 50% in earnings and contributions.

So, this is a true "cocktail of funding" - and this model has been operating for the last 20 years. For some of the larger organisations, they are generating over 60% of their turnover in earnings and contributions, with Mr Edmund's so called "dependency" on Arts Council investment falling to 21%. So, it is a fallacy to suggest that a partnership funding model is anything new; as is saying that organisations are over-reliant on funding from the Arts Council. Make no mistake, we do rely on that core key investment every year, and that is why we are fighting so hard to maintain that public funding because that is the springboard from which all our work and fundraising takes its momentum.

Reducing it, as the briefing from government suggests, to just a penny a day for every person here could see the struggle to support those who benefit from our work to maintain arts provision begin to falter, and perhaps disappear.

It's a shame that only after what passes for our government closed its consultation on next year's budget (last Friday) that the chair of the Arts Council chooses to offer his ideas, not to government officials, or directly to the arts sector, or indeed his publicly appointed colleagues on the board, but, with the greatest of respect, to you, the readers of the Belfast Telegraph.

Had he asked us, of course we would point out to him what I have spelled out to you - that this sector is made up of thrifty, well run businesses whose profit is only to serve the public good, this community with its many needs and growing demands, and to support and nurture our shared artistic and creative future. If we are to have one? The chair has a role enshrined in the governance code, the memorandum (MSFM), Section 3.5, to "represent the views of the board to the public".

Perhaps, given eight out of 10 board members do not share his views, as stated yesterday, we might query this?

As a sector we have been hit by deep cuts over of 40% in real terms over the past few years and we are fighting hard to still provide as much benefit to the public as possible. We don't appreciate being damned by faint praise - we want to be championed, especially by the person who claims it's his "job" to enable the arts sector to "thrive".

Sticking up for our funding needs to government would have served us far better than pointing to our failings.

If creativity and intellectual property are to fuel the global economy of 21st century, then the prospectors of our future wealth are those within our creative sector - artists, creative producers and the myriad of creative jobs not yet dreamed of in a fantastically diverse digital future.

We are at the forefront of attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, supporting education and skills development, improving health and wellbeing, contributing to the local and national economy and the evening economy, attracting investment, tourists and talent, and delivering time and again for those most in need. We need support.

The arts are not here to profit - we are here to offer something noble, supporting and fundamental to our lives and indeed to our future prosperity. We work long hours, with artists struggling to earn often little more than minimum wages, so that the arts can be enjoyed by all and not only by those with the higher earnings, educational advantage or through family tradition.

The arts matter here. We champion and fight for the fundamental right to participate in the cultural life of our community and help creativity thrive across in every town and village, city and townland, community centre and venue in the country. Please support our campaign.

Conor Shields is chief executive of the Community Arts Partnership

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