Belfast Telegraph

John Edmund: Government can provide support but artists need to find new sources of aid

By John Edmund

We would all agree that finding a way to ensure that artists earn (and keep on earning) at a level commensurate with their education, skills and creativity is something to which Northern Ireland should aspire.

That was the substance behind the call I made for the development of a new funding model last week, at the Arts & Business Awards.

It's also an issue around which I have some depth of experience - over 20 years to be precise, from working with local authorities on arts plans development through to running the Grand Opera House and then acting as its chairman, immediately prior to taking my current role at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I was heavily involved in much of the early thinking on the creative industries in Northern Ireland (as far back as 1996). That work alone was instrumental in the establishment of Northern Ireland Screen.

I've worked on the arts in rural areas, on community arts development, on arts infrastructure (including facilities for visual artists and the establishment of new arts centres).

I've worked on the development of cultural tourism, on Irish language arts and on engagement with and the development of the arts in Ulster-Scots communities.

I've carried out economic impact studies on major arts venues and on arts festivals, and I led the team that developed the plans that created Northern Ireland Opera.

As well as my long experience, I am passionate about the arts and the call to action that I made last week came from a deep-seated love of the arts coupled with 30 years as a professional management consultant.

My job, as chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), is to use my experience and expertise to find a way to make sure that the arts sector has the resources available to it to enable it to thrive.

This job is not made easy by the economic and political reality of Northern Ireland today but there is light at the end of the tunnel, if all the relevant players (artists, funders, promoters) are fully engaged and lead with honesty, transparency and professionalism.

The government just doesn't have the money to meet all the demands placed upon it and the priorities it has set are those that society cares deepest about - health, education, jobs, infrastructure, identity.

The fact that ACNI has been asked to plan for a range of possible reductions, should be proof enough of the financial pressures in the system. We all want to see more government funding for the arts but we have to be realistic and leverage the funding that is made available to secure support from new funding sources.

The views I expressed at the Arts and Business Awards last Wednesday evening were aimed at opening the conversation on the development of a new partnership model for arts funding that involves government, councils, the audience, business and trusts, and foundations.

Some of that engagement is happening already but there is no cohesion plan and little leadership.

For all of these sectors to get properly involved and stay involved, providing a proper level of funding support, there has to be a mutual benefit.

  • The night-time economy would be very much smaller; without the arts there would be fewer tourists, fewer businesses in the hospitality and leisure (restaurants, cafés, bars, venues) sector and for local authorities a very much lower rates base as a result. Recognising that, providing support for the arts would, with all likelihood, take on a new significance for those same local authorities.
  • The audience has to recognise that delivering arts programming costs and that if they want to have that opportunity they have to pay a proper price - our theatres and other arts venues will close if they can't make financial ends meet.
  • Business needs to be sold on the benefits that working with the arts sector bring them; benefits that will make a difference to their 'bottom line' through building the relationships they have with their customers and the community within which they work.
  • Trusts and Foundations, which will usually be based outside Northern Ireland, need to be informed about the good work the arts sector does in Northern Ireland and very definitely about its need for support.

The advent of the National Lottery in the 1990s was a massive boost to arts funding.

Unfortunately, Lottery income has fallen drastically in the last few years; unless more people participate in lottery games, the situation will not change and there's very little we can do about that.

Much has been made about ACNI's response to the budget consultation which calls for more funding for 2018-2019 and its apparent conflict with the views I have expressed.

In reality this does not conflict with what I said; ACNI was commenting on the immediate future, my focus is on the development of a sustainable sector in the long-term.

The arts needs more funding from government now and I support that call, but simple economics say that a reliance on government alone won't support that. And with the uncertainty over Brexit it would be naive in the extreme to think that is going to change in a way that will make a real difference to the arts.

If artists are to be remunerated properly for the long-term, if we are to create sustainable arts organisations, the funding model needs to change into one that is more sustainable.

Government will be part of that model and, with the right arguments made, a bigger funder than it is now - but it will be as a partner, sharing the load in a balanced way with local government, business, trusts and foundations, and the audience.

Building that model requires leadership; the recent sectoral meeting made it clear that that means working with the sector in an open and honest way.

ACNI is about to embark on a new five-year planning period. With its partners in government that planning will become 'outcomes' based; chief amongst those outcomes has to be a sustainable sector where all the available funding partners play a full part.

Belfast Telegraph

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