In Northern Ireland the political establishment and art have had an interesting relationship. Publicly funded ventures are often imbibed with a special kind of significance: as evidence of progress, demonstrating smiles and fun and a visibly “new and improved” culture. There is a strange dichotomy of being seen as a kind of light relief whilst also an instigator and reflection of social change. Unfortunately, in the face of the country’s unbalanced budget, it makes for a particularly vulnerable investment.
2015 is not a promising year for publicly funded visual culture. It started in October 2014, with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment scrapping the Northern Ireland Tourist Board Events Fund, a £1,133k resource for events such as Culture Night Belfast and the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. In January there was a turnaround and the fund was reinstated to the lesser amount of £1 million – perhaps in small recompense for the larger cuts to follow.
NI Screen, a funding body for film organisations, had their resources cut from £1.9 million to £1 million. Interestingly this will not affect the filming of large budget productions such as Game of Thrones, but rather the film festivals, organisations and independent theatres of Northern Ireland, with inevitable closures ahead for some. With blockbuster filmmaking continuously hailed as an economic lifeline for the country, apparently there is little room for the internal support of film.
This is inclusive of – although disproportionate to – an overall cut in public funding from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, going from £100 million to £90 million. The Arts Council itself must cut 11.2% (1.38m), bringing funds back to the same level as 2005. With some funding streams suspended and others set to decline, at the time of writing artists, galleries and studio groups are left making vague plans to stay afloat, with some casualties again anticipated.
These comparatively small funds are a part of the 0.1% of public spending in Northern Ireland that goes towards the arts. In pursuit of a 0.01% saving to the overall budget, a visual culture finally gaining a stronger foothold is to be culled once more. Lights Out NI and 13p for the arts – so called as currently 13p is spent per week, per person on the arts in NI – are both campaigning against these cuts, generating support from thousands of people. With these new cuts, now there is just over eleven pence spent, per person per week, on the arts in the country.
Whilst these cuts are originally based on (although again disproportionate to) a reduction in the budget from Westminster, recently the NI Executive received an extra £2 billion in spending power from the UK government. This is to deliver agreements that remedy the apparently unworkable situation in Stormont.
The largest figure stated is £700 million for voluntary exit payments of public workers, investing in redundancy. Alongside this is £150 million is to be dedicated to dealing with the past. This could be an area where public funding for the arts could feature, even if in the overly prescriptive fashion that has been seen before. And yet it is not even implied, with the strained police service the only body specified in the financial annex, and an aural history archive the only proactive project specified in the agreement for actions dealing with the past. Having been synonymous with renewal for so long, one must wonder if it’s even recognised how art has contributed to exactly this, in less direct, and more nuanced and valuable ways.
As the changes pile up, the most recent and perhaps representative governmental adjustment to the arts has been its nominal removal from a Stormont restructuring. The department of Social Development, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and the rest of the department of Education and Learning will all be swallowed by a new faction – titled Department of Social Welfares and Sport. With no mention of art or culture even within the title, governmental priorities are clearly displayed – although, there was never really an attempt to hide them. Again a campaign, this time from Visual Artists Ireland, is needed to spell out that people do not want this gradual decline to out of sight, out of mind.