I’m going to blog this response for two reasons, firstly and most importantly I have absolutely no faith in the process of ‘consultation’. It is almost without exception a box ticking exercise, so when you do what you were always going to do you can say that you had a consultation. This is what they say about the Waterfront extension, painting over the Teenage Dreams mural, the handing over of our built heritage to property developers. At least some of us have heard of this one.
The second reason for blogging is that I’m going to say what I really think here and not temper it for some civil servant who will doubtless see me as some extremist nut case. I think given that I don’t expect to be listened to anyway, I might as well just have at it…
But firstly a little context. This is a ten year plan, produced by a minister at the end of her 6 year term, who will be the last ever Arts Minister, (as it gets absorbed into the Dept of Communities) and who during her term has seen investment in the arts fall by 30% to what is now the lowest percentage of capita funding of the arts in the whole EU. What we need at this time is an ambitious rebuilding programme, targets to increase investment and most importantly a clear ideological manifesto outlining the importance of the arts. What we’ve got is a mess.
It’s a succession of vagaries and platitudes with everything is through the lens of ‘community’. Now as a lifelong advocate of community arts you’d think I’d be cock-a-hoop with this but I’m also a full time worker in the sector I can see that the document is a political side-swipe, a last and potentially devastating broadside to a sector from a minister who has failed at almost every turn to contribute to the advancement of my sector.
So here’s my response…
I am writing to respond, in an informal but impassioned way, to the ‘Strategy for Culture and Arts 2016 – 2026’. I am an arts professional of 20 years, freelance for the last five, and have been actively involved in a large number of key arts organisations throughout that entire time.
Firstly let’s take this diagram. This is the extent of the documents ambition for the arts.
Is this your experience of the arts? Or more tellingly does this represent the totality of how you think the arts should be developed?
Poverty, inequality, social exclusion – BOOO! All these things are bad.
Yes let’s use the arts to address these issues.
But is that your experience of the arts? I mean the totality of your experience of the arts?
Remember that time when you heard a poem, or heard a song, or saw a painting that made you cry? Or that time when you were dancing, laughing or gasping in awe in a room full of people and you looked in the eyes the strangers around you and you realised that we’re all part of one big mad crazy joyous universe? Or that time when you were just going about your grey boring daily grind and a splash of colour or a distant melody or a piece of amazing architecture pulled you out of the moment and made you think about how great it is to be alive? There’s none of that in this document.
Secondly there is no substantive mention of excellence in this strategy and no mention of exporting our culture overseas. Imagine if this lens was applied to sport. Imagine a sports development strategy that had no mention of international competition but was only concerned with bringing people together and health and well-being. Sport does these things obviously (although a single national stadium might have done it better) but it’s not just about that and neither is the arts.
This insular approach is also mirrored in what seems to be a lack of awareness of our relationship with the UK and Ireland both of whom have recently produced Cultural strategies that make this document feel like it’s written in crayon, (or maybe that’s the font – sorry I HAD to mention the font). Add to this that there’s not a single mention of how our artistic output represents Northern Ireland internationally, no sense of how organisations like Outburst or The BEAT Carnival are leaders in their field internationally. I mean of course they promote community cohesion, but that’s like saying parks are good for growing grass, let’s write a ten year strategy for the parks and tell them they need to grow grass. It’s. Not. That. Simple.
I make my living in the arts. I and my colleagues are part of the economy. I make work for other people. I drive business to the hospitality sector. I am a massively cost effective way to increase quality of life and build shared space for us all to live. AND I do the things in the strategy. I do them already. What I want to know is how the Dept of Communities is going to support me in doing these things they want me to do that I’m already doing.
Finally there are two of fundamental issues which are threatening to utterly destroy the arts sector in NI which have no mention at. The first is funding, which I’ve mentioned before and is very well articulated by the CAP response to the document which you can read here, (it’s excellent if you have the time). But the second, and one which I’ve been banging on about for years now, is the administrative burden being placed on organisations in receipt of funding. This is the other prong in the pincer movement that is driving arts professionals out of the sector or out of the country. It’s bad enough that budgets are being cut year after year but the level of bureaucracy being imposed on the sector is creating an additional unseen cut to services. Arts professionals spend so much time these days filling in forms and accounting for every single penny of expenditure, chasing three quotes for things when there’s only one supplier etc. This is a massive waste of resources and the irony is it only seems to apply to smaller organisations for whom this causes the most disruption. I expect, actually no I demand, more accountability for organisations receiving millions after millions of pounds in funding but a lighter touch for those organisations clearly delivering a massive impact for relatively small sums of money. It’s a basic case of risk management – the bigger the investment the more you should have to justify yourself. It’s not a one size fits all situation. And on a basic level the pendulum has swung way too far in favour of the bean counters, some common sense is needed.
In conclusion I, like most people I know who work in the sector, from all backgrounds and ideologies, believe that this is a massive missed opportunity. We should expect leadership and ambition from a ten year strategy and my professional opinion this is not only devoid of either it demonstrates a total lack of soul. It feels like the person who wrote this doesn’t get out much, hasn’t read much poetry, or even danced round the kitchen. There are plenty of us willing to give our time to help form a strategy and many did, but our voice is not in this document.
Frankly you need to rip it up and start again.