'Actors are finishing high profile shows like Blue Lights and ending up working in bars and Tesco': Northern Ireland could become a 'cultural wilderness' due to chronic under-funding of arts

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Representatives for The Arts Council NI (ACNI) and Department for Communities (DfC) have dismissed councillors’ concerns of regional imbalances and warned that Northern Ireland could become a “cultural wilderness” due to a lack of funding.

It emerged during the presentation to Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Business and Culture Committee that arts funding per capita in the north is less than a quarter that of the south of Ireland.

At the presentation on Tuesday, ACNI Chairman, Liam Hannaway, said investment in the district’s arts sector was important, but it was “very hard to invest in it when you don’t have the money to invest”.

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“We saw our budget decline from roughly £14 million in 2013-2014 to £10 million the following year,” Mr Hannaway said. “That has been of extreme concern to us, because it’s very hard to keep all our organisations going.

2013: The Hofesh Shechter Political Mother Shortcuts performance at the Venue back in 2013 during Derry's City of Culture year. Arts Council funding was reduced the following year. (0903SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer2013: The Hofesh Shechter Political Mother Shortcuts performance at the Venue back in 2013 during Derry's City of Culture year. Arts Council funding was reduced the following year. (0903SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer
2013: The Hofesh Shechter Political Mother Shortcuts performance at the Venue back in 2013 during Derry's City of Culture year. Arts Council funding was reduced the following year. (0903SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer

“This is purely ‘standstill’ money as we have no further money to invest, and we only brought one new project onto our annually-funded programme last year.”

In regards to regional imbalance, Chief Executive, Roisin McDonough, said ACNI was a regional development agency for the whole of Northern Ireland and didn’t use “place-based criteria” when deciding funding allocations.

“We don’t allocate on a per capita basis for each council area, but recognise council partners as absolutely vital,” she said. “We are in a difficult situation with a year-on-year decline in capacity to deal with demand and inevitably get more applications from organisations in urban area, including Derry City.”

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Ms McDonough said ACNI’s budget allocation represents the “lowest per capita spend of any UK region”, with Northern Ireland receiving just £5.07 compared to Wales and the Republic of Ireland, who receive £9.45 and £21.68 respectively.

SDLP Colr. Rory Farrell.SDLP Colr. Rory Farrell.
SDLP Colr. Rory Farrell.

“This has affected the district in terms of our ability to provide funding for your arts organisations and there is also a disparity between urban and rural communities,” she added. “So we have tried programmes like the Rural Engagement Arts Programme and hope some of your areas have benefited from that.

“In comparison to Belfast, yes it does receive more funding. But urban areas tend to attract artist who want to network and access resources, organisations, larger audiences, and support. We’re not unique in that, and it’s a trend that’s elsewhere.

“Secondly, the fact that an organisation’s headquarters is in Belfast doesn’t mean they aren’t delivering beyond the city. Analysis says that 43 percent of activity delivered by Belfast organisations goes beyond that area.”

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SDLP councillor Rory Farrell said regional imbalance was a “burning issue”, with councillors having “serious concerns about how funding is allocated”.

“We’ve read your presentation and the key takeaway is that 72 percent of funding across the North goes to organisations in Belfast, even though it has 18 percent of the population.

“When we look at total funding, this area got £2.5 million whilst Belfast got over £15 million so the distribution of funding is not fair or balanced and Belfast organisations benefit massively from the current arrangement.

“ACNI has data that says Belfast organisations got 72 percent of the total funding, and in the equality impact assessment you chose to use different figures that said 45 percent of organisations who benefits are from Belfast.

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“Why, in an equality impact assessment, did you have two data sets and ignore the 72 percent one completely? My theory is that the 45 percent looked better: it was palatable and 72 percent looked awful.

“Additionally, the Department’s strategy has a key commitment about regional imbalance but it’s not included in the corresponding ACNI document.”

“So the Government department says they’re tackling imbalance but the ACNI doesn’t, and I don’t know how that aligns when the key funder says it’s a priority and the beneficiary doesn’t have the same priorities.”

Director of Culture at DfC, Iain Greenway, clarified that they had not yet developed an arts strategy, but were actively working on one focused on “need, benefits and levelling up” and any regional imbalances were discussed in a taskforce report “to the department and not from the department”.

He said the Arts Council takes applications “from where they come” and Derry and Strabane District applicants were “more statistically likely to be successful than a majority of districts.”

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Mr Hannaway reiterated that a number of organisations, such as Arts and Business, Theatre and Dance and YouthAction, have headquarters in Belfast but work across Northern Ireland and have “much more of a regional spread”.

Ms McDonough said the issue was one of urban and rural disparity and “not necessarily a North West/ East one”.

She said: “If you look at the lowest district councils, Derry and Strabane is way above anybody else and they could make the same argument.

“We rely on good applications, and the ones from this part of the World are good and strong and we fund them.”

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She argued there was no “inherent, logical contradiction” in saying 45 percent of funded organisations received 72 percent of the total funding, and the ACNI had been “open and transparent with information”.

“For reasons of scale some of [the Belfast organisations] are very large,” she added. “For example, the Ulster Orchestra would get £2.2 million but has been here in the Guildhall and citizens have benefited.”

Mr Hannaway said the ACNI’s ten-year Developing the Arts Strategy was launched in May this year and is “not based on a regional perspective, but based on art forms and accessibility right across the North”.

“It’s how we rebuild an arts sector that has been decimated for the last ten years,” he added. “Which is way out of kilter with any other nation across these islands and is seeing young people travelling to England for work and a reduction in training for music and arts.

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“Actors are finishing high profile shows like Blue Lights and ending up working in bars and Tesco. That’s the big issue here, because we need more money for the arts and until we do it’s going to decline whether it’s in Belfast or Derry.

“I’m passionate about the arts, and we’re going to become a cultural wilderness unless we can get more money."

“We recognise the greater Derry area and the importance and fantastic arts organisations there, but if we ain’t got the dough some organisations will have to be cut and it’s a terrible situation to be in.”

Andrew Balfour,

Local Democracy Reporter