“Across the arts council as a whole, optimism is in short supply. In fact, in 16 years we’ve never known morale so low with so many arts organisations facing closure or on the brink of collapse.” These are the first deflating words you will read if you happen to pick up a copy of the programme for The 16th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
Although CQAF was able to retain its original funding, many upstanding organisations such as The Lyric Theatre and The Grand Opera House trust have had their funding cut substantially. Worse yet, six organisations including Blackstaff Press have had their funding cut entirely. Despite the fact that 23,000 people wrote to the Northern Ireland Executive voicing their aversion to the proposed cuts of £1.38 million, this has failed to make any kind of impact upon the decision.
It is easy to connect with the arts, that is what makes them so essential to life itself. Film, literature, and music are just some of the ways in which we connect with the arts on a daily basis. They enhance our well being, and our connection with others, not to mention how they promote growth to the economy and to tourism.
What is not easy to connect with however, is the impersonal, and bureaucratic government of Stormont ministers, who at the top decide where funding is meant to go and where it isn’t. This has an effect that trickles down into the now bleak prospects for the arts in Northern Ireland. In 2014, through campaigns such as the ’13p For The Arts’, awareness in anticipation of upcoming cuts was striven to be spread of the extent to which cuts were already affecting organisations. Arts Council Chief Executive Roisin McDonough has outlined how “The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) is one of the smallest departments, representing only 1% of total government expenditure, yet it is set to sustain one of the largest cuts in the NI budget 2015-16.”
In such a corporate world, the arts have a narrow reputation of appearing frivolous. This is being reflected through the decision to make cuts to a sector that has been proven to promote an enormous amount of growth with McDonough further pointing out how “The arts have become one of Northern Ireland’s main sources of job creation, wealth and competitive strength, feeding the creative industries, which employ 40,000 people and generate annually £714m Gross Value Added to the local economy. That’s bigger than agriculture.” Indeed, in a 2014 press release from Gov.uk their statistics found that for the UK more broadly, creative industries generate 8 million an hour to UK economy. Therefore, we must question to what extent are these cuts to an industry that was already struggling in terms of funding, in line with what is best for society and what society actually wants, when 23,000 contesting voices went ignored.
It is the mindset of political figures such as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, that are harmful to the reputation of the arts. In November 2014 she said that “The subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects” STEM degrees are undoubtedly highly prized, but the mindset that they are the only route to a successful career is one that is harmful to society and the fate of the arts sector on the whole.
While it is disheartening to see that such narrow mindedness and undervaluing of the arts appears to be permeating into governmental logic at Stormont, perhaps the ramifications soon to be felt will be the catalyst to recognise what has become so unappreciated and fragmented in Northern Ireland. Maybe in recognising what is being lost, will the worth be realised and come to the surface.
Things like cuts have a way of falling through the cracks unnoticed. To remedy this, show your support for the arts, attend shows at a local festival such as CQAF or a local theatre show. A march for the arts and against the cuts is also being held in Belfast City Centre on May 2nd alongside the May Day Parade.