Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Thursday, 02 April 2009

Inquiry into the Funding of the Arts in Northern Ireland

2 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Ms Noelle McAlinden )
Mr Malcolm Murchison ) Forum for Local Government and the Arts
Mr Mac Pollock

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

Good afternoon. You were originally scheduled to be here in the morning, but we have overrun slightly. Please can you introduce your team, and then give your 10-minute presentation. We will have to insist on it being 10 minutes, because we want to devote 20 minutes to questions.

Ms Noelle McAlinden (Forum for Local Government and the Arts):

Good afternoon. Thank you for the opportunity to make a presentation to the Committee. Mac Pollock, the vice-chairperson of the Forum for Local Government and the Arts (FLGA), is with me, as is Malcolm Murchison, who is a member of our executive committee. We are here to represent all of the executive committee, and Mr Murchison is also the chairperson of the arts managers’ group for Northern Ireland. We feel very privileged to be in such company, including the members, so thank you.

Members will have received a paper which outlines who we are; what we want to do in the presentation is to say a little bit about who we are, what we do, how we do it, and what contribution we feel we are making in promoting arts, culture and creativity across the Province. We have a long history of working with arts practitioners, arts managers and local elected representatives. You can see from our pen pictures that all three of us, individually and collectively, have a very personal and passionate commitment to the arts, creativity and culture across the Province, in both our personal and professional capacities, and in where and how we work.

I currently work as the creative expression adviser for the Western Education and Library Board. I am chairperson of the FLGA, a practicing artist, and also an arts activist as a member of the arts advisory committee for Fermanagh District Council. I also am on the board of directors of the creative learning centre in Derry — the Nerve Centre — and I also have been involved as a member of the advisory panel for Children in Need for six years.

Through working with the FLGA, I feel that I am much better at my job, certainly in developing the partnerships and accessing resources and expertise. I have found that this is the best way of working.

I want to mention one particular case study as chairperson of Creative Youth Partnerships, which is an excellent example of how we work across the Province. We work with locally elected representatives, education and library boards, and, again, with arts activists to attract the resources and expertise that we need, and also develop and promote, not just the creative industries, but the arts and their contributions in terms of health and well-being to the economy as a whole, and to our future.

The FLGA is committed and passionate about what it does. We have a genuine contribution to make — particularly at this time — in identifying, harnessing and networking, and creating strategic partnerships to support the Committee, the Department and others in working together for the benefit of the region, and on behalf of us all. Our submission shows what we are committed to: advocacy, networking, building capacity within the sector and developing resources. The paper considers the future of the FLGA, particularly in the light of the review of public administration. We need to be creative and resourceful and to operate strategically in the management and delivery of all our services. Creative Youth Partnerships is an example of how we do that.

I have copies of the publication for all of you. It cites examples from across the Province of district councils working very closely with a number of agencies. My colleagues will reinforce that with case studies, from their particular contexts, of how they have benefited from and can see the potential of this type of work.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. I want to ask about local government’s role in promoting the arts under the FLGA banner. Among some members, there is a sense that there is a disparity in approach between councils, and there may be a cultural reason for that. What are the issues that face local councils in deciding how much of their budgets should be devoted to the arts and what to spend it on? What considerations would a council take on board?

Mr Malcolm Murchison (Forum for Local Government and the Arts):

That will be a difficult question to answer; there are 26 local authorities, each of which operates in a different way. Some councils have had a long history of supporting the arts, and they have built confidence over the years. Those members who came to the meeting at Flowerfield saw the first arts centre in Northern Ireland. It was opened in 1980, and I started there in 1982. Over the years, it has increased in strength. Some councils do not place as high a value on the arts. I cannot speak for them, but that is an area of concern for all of us and for the Committee.

There is a range of expenditure. Some £20 million of expenditure is directed to the arts across Northern Ireland. Belfast contributes the largest share. Per capita spend ranges from £30 down to 37p in certain areas. The range is colossal. The FLGA works to support partnership working and looking at the benefits of the arts in various areas. When we go round to meet in different areas and see the activities, that is one of the things that we attempt to do.

The Chairperson:

What does the forum do to encourage those low-spending councils to do far more? Is that your role?

Ms McAlinden:

It is a part of our role. We try to disseminate good practice, share expertise and look at new models of working. At our recent conference, Growing Creative Communities, we looked at models outside Northern Ireland and sharing expertise with them. It is very significant to share practice across the Province and highlight the rural focus as well as the urban. There are many activists working in a keen, proactive and professional way — Mac Pollock is one of them — to raise that profile. We need to disseminate a lot of existing practice and show strategic working at a local level and the impact on the regional level as well.

Mr Mac Pollock (Forum for Local Government and the Arts):

I am the chairman of Ballymoney arts committee. This year we have operated on a budget of £15,000. I am told that the council has decided to reduce our budget next year by one third, and we must operate with £10,000. That will impinge on our programme of music, exhibitions and funding of individuals and local groups in the area. That is compounded by the fact that a number of those events would have received financial support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which is not forthcoming. It is a double-edged sword: we receive a cut from our council and also from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

I am aware that many members sitting round the table are councillors. How do councils decide how to pare down their budgets? How do they share out the cake? If I could sit down with our councillors, I would tell them that 99% of the cake should go to the arts and that they can keep 1%. I am not sure how the local councillors divvy that up in their discussions.

The Chairperson:

I am fairly sure that I know how they would respond to that suggestion.

Mr McCarthy:

Do you think that your organisation is, or the councils are, actively working to ensure that the people who, traditionally, would have found it difficult to access funding are being properly targeted?

Mr D Bradley:

Mostly, the councils share their arts spend between community arts groups and professional arts groups. In Northern Ireland, roughly what percentage is spent on community arts groups and what percentage is spent on professional arts groups? Do you think that the balance is correct?

Ms McAlinden:

I do not have that information at the moment. I know that our arts managers, in co-operation with us, are working very hard to address and target social need. We look at the importance of supporting the amateur and the activist, as well as the more professional arts activities. Certainly, some of our best practice can be cited from rural and isolated areas. Those communities have had to be particularly creative and resourceful in accessing expertise and funding. There are some really good examples of the networks that we have built and the good practices that we have shared. Those case studies show how people, with very limited budgets, have become involved in training and networking activities and in the dissemination of good practice. They have shown how models of work can be transferred across the Province.

Historically, if you look, for example, at festivals and the art of regeneration, a lot of sound work has been done that has an economic payoff and highlights tourism within the region. In Fermanagh, I am part of the arts advisory panel and have been involved in two recent arts festivals there. Those festivals played a huge part in bringing the community arts tradition together with the more professional arts groups. Opportunities were identified for both sectors to work together, along with funders and those that have access to expertise, to raise everybody’s aspirations.

Mr Pollock:

On Saturday, three local drama festivals will have their final nights. As you know, there is the Mid Ulster Drama Festival in Carrickmore; I was at one of its performances on Tuesday night.

The Chairperson:

I was there too.

Mr Pollock:

The 11 drama festivals in Northern Ireland are organised by amateurs. However, they are professional in their approach and their organisational skills. In the present climate, it is difficult to attract sponsorship from local businesses. Indeed, some local councils do not give any financial support.

You asked about the split between professionals and amateurs. Every year, from the drama festival finals, we provide scholarships for four or five people to attend places such as the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Gormanston, etc. Liam Neeson started his career in the Slemish Players in Ballymena; James Nesbitt started as part of a youth group that was attached to the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, along with his colleague, Mark Carruthers. Look at the opportunity that that gave them. Although there is a distinction between amateur and professional, you have to remember that a lot of amateur work leads to professional work. Those professionals then come back to perform in local theatres.

That leads me on to the issue of whether or not the regional theatres will survive given that all Arts Council and lottery funding has been withdrawn. Drama festivals are suffering; in the future, with higher charges for theatres, will amateurs be able to hire them?

Mr McCartney:

My question follows on from the last question. Ms McAlinden, I see that you describe yourself as an arts activist. That is the first time that I had heard that term, and I heard it again in your presentation. The inquiry has taken evidence from representatives of the arts, and Mr Pollock talked about professional arts and amateur arts. Some people also talk about community-based arts. What is the definition of “community arts”?

Mr McCausland:

You mentioned the huge variation in spend, from £30 to 37p. Is there a correlation between certain councils and low spend? There is a perception among some of us that there tends to be a lower spend in unionist-controlled councils and a higher spend in nationalist-controlled councils, but that is not a universal rule. Do your figures support that? If so, what can be done about it?

You said that you were concerned about the low spend in some areas. I appreciate that, but what practically can be done to make it clear to councillors that there is a benefit in supporting the arts? Why do they not support them?

Ms McAlinden:

We recognise that arts and cultural activity are suffering a dire funding crisis at the moment, and we are committed and passionate about the fact that we need to address that. However, more importantly, we recognise that your role in influencing other Departments is crucial, because we have already seen, through a number of case studies, that the impact on health and well-being of the employability and the promotion of the creative industries is key to what we do, and that needs to be shared with other councils. We have made some inroads there, but we recognise that the funding pot is limited.

The take-up and nature of the creative activity needs to be reviewed. We are actively involved in promoting what we do, through our lobbying and advocacy roles, as well as in our arts activists’ roles, and we are conscious that we have to change the hearts and minds of people who do not necessarily see the value in that type of activity, or perhaps have never experienced that type of activity. Therefore, that is what we are trying to address, and we have tried to do it from a schools perspective, from a community perspective and from a voluntary perspective.

There is a lot to be done to influence the people who have the power and the control, and part of our lobbying and showcasing involves letting elected representatives see the nature, scale and scope of what we do, from the very rural setting of the little church hall, to the school assembly hall, to the highbrow fully designated arts centre. We pride ourselves in trying to address areas where we feel there is inactivity, and we realise that there is a lot of work to be done there.

With regard to the question in relation to activists, there are three crucial strands in the make-up of the FLGA. First, there is the arts managers’ group, which plays a crucial part in working and connecting community artists and the arts with elected representatives. Secondly, there are the elected councillors, and, thirdly, there are the arts activists. Mr Pollock and I are arts activists, in that we are actively engaged in a voluntary capacity, supporting what we do, but we are also committed in our professional lives. An arts activist can be someone who gives their time to support arts activity in their area.

Community arts also have a huge impact on health and well-being. We can provide you with other examples, but I am conscious of the time.

Mr Murchison:

I do not recognise a political division between the big spenders and the low spenders. However, it is notable that the larger councils are often in a position to spend more, and, sometimes, the more rural and very small councils struggle to spend very much at all.

Mr McCausland:

What are the figures per head?

Mr Murchison:

The Arts Council collects figures every two years. I will happily pass a copy of those figures to the Committee, as they reveal the spending per council, per capita, etc.

Mr McCausland:

What are the six lowest councils per capita?

Mr Murchison:

In 2006-07, the six lowest councils, working from the lowest council up, were Magherafelt, Castlereagh, Larne, Carrickfergus, Limavady and Banbridge.

Mr McCarthy:

Where is Ards Borough Council on that list?

Mr Murchison:

Ards Borough Council is eighth on the list.

Mr Pollock:

The other question that we are looking at is the difference in spend among local councils. I would like to highlight the fact that, in Northern Ireland, per capita spend on the arts for 2008-09 was £7·58, compared with Scotland’s £14·04. Perhaps we need to look at how per capita spend here can become more equal with that of other countries.

I have a feeling — particularly given what happened at Ballymoney Borough Council’s arts committee, on which I sit — that instead of becoming more equal, the differences in per capita spend will grow. Consider the European Union and our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, where per capita spend on the arts is €17·92. There is quite a job of work to be done, not only at council level but throughout the Province.

Mr Brolly:

A witness who contributed previously to the Committee’s inquiry pointed out that the economic value of the arts is not a visible thing and that that is something that should be researched more. The reason that it might be important for you to do something about this is that, fundamentally, local councils look at the greater economy and the functional things. Obviously, they have the difficult job of striking an annual rate. It is quite likely that they will not appreciate the value of artistic things; they are likely to leave the arts to the tail end of their spending.

Mr Pollock:

There is an opportunity and a possibility for the arts and tourism to work well together. I again refer to my involvement in amateur dramatics. In July, the British Final Festival of One Act Plays will come to Enniskillen. Representative groups from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be there for the weekend. It is a great opportunity to sell that particular part of Northern Ireland and to encourage people to see the scenery. It is an opportunity for the arts and tourism to work together.

I hope that Fermanagh District Council will recognise that and give us a bit of financial support. On the business side, one of the sponsors which usually supports us when the festival comes here once every four years has said that it cannot give us the £1,000 sponsorship that it normally would. Therefore, that is an opportunity for local councils to get something out of the arts.

Mr Brolly:

I appreciate what you are saying. However, the problem is that councils only respond to a specific event that might make a few pounds. For example, Limavady Borough Council gave money to an event that was held recently in Ballykelly and to another event for Eoghan Quigg. You should persuade councils to constantly and consistently spend money on the arts, so that there is a pool of money, even for the smaller things.

Ms McAlinden:

As regards the creative industries, I know that Mr Murchison made some references to the growth and impact —

Mr Brolly:

I am aware of Flowerfield arts centre, and I am sure that Mr Murchison would like to be able to charge much less for the services that are provided there and to have much more subsidy from Coleraine Borough Council. Do you agree with that?

Mr Murchison:

We in the FLGA are all passionate about the arts. We are all pushing for increased spend on the arts. The worry is that there appears to be a downward trend. The figures that the Arts Council collected from the Department of the Environment show that between 2005-06 and 2006-07 there was a 14% decrease in spending by local authorities.

Due to financial pressures, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has given local authorities a low priority. Essentially, grants that we have got in previous years are gone. Typically, we used to get approximately £18,000 per annum, but that money is not available any more. Some £10,000 for a festival was cut from Flowerfield’s budget.

Our funding has been cut by approximately £30,000. Typically, we engage artists at a cost of £150 a day, so that is equivalent to 200 fewer days per annum when those artists can go out and engage with communities, young people and children. A few days ago, we had workshops in Flowerfield with a couple of primary schools, and we were told that the curriculum in those schools does not involve any art in the classroom. The schoolchildren had a wonderful experience with us, and they met artists who were able to show them practices that could not possibly be delivered in a school situation.

We are very concerned about the current financial situation. There are wonderful opportunities out there, and we need every assistance in pushing to have the spend on arts increased across the sector.

Lord Browne:

I am sure that you recognise that, given the current economic environment, we are facing very difficult times. What is the forum’s view on how the Arts Council distributes its funding?

My second question may be more difficult to answer and a bit unfair to ask. Is there any way in which you could quantify the monetary value of the arts in the Northern Ireland economy? I am particularly interested in how you regard the actual distribution of the funding from the Arts Council.

Mr Murchison:

There is always good and bad. Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from Arts Council support and funding, with the new arts facilities that have opened in recent years. Obviously, when an organisation is successful in an application, it is pleased; when it is not successful in an application, it may not be so pleased. That is the way of it.

I notice that the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has said that the creative industries are predicted to be a major high-growth contributor to the UK economy in the next five years. That information was published on 9 March, so its facts are up to date. That organisation says that, on average, creative industries are set to grow by 4%, which is more than double the rate of the rest of the economy. By 2013, the number of creative businesses is likely to have risen from 157,000 to 180,000, with employment of 1·3 million people, thus outstripping the financial sector. We strongly believe in the importance of the creative sector; it is an area that needs investment.

Ms McAlinden:

We are working across different education sectors, with bodies such as universities, and we are also working with the district councils. With the help of the Department, the Arts Council, the education and library boards and the district councils, in the last four years we have collectively ensured that over 70,000 young people have been involved in creative and culturally rich arts and educationally stimulating activity.

We have given employment to over 180 artists who are on our database and who are living and working in Northern Ireland. Without a strategic vision, collective commitment, consensus and acknowledgement of the sort of work that we do and the economic and health benefits of that, we will end up losing our most creative and resourceful people. That will have an impact on our education system, including universities and teacher training, as well as other opportunities. We simply will not have the environment to grow and attract the people who we need, particularly at this time when we need colour and vibrancy, and not in a superficial way. I am referring to scientists and entrepreneurs; that is, creative, highly intellectual property that we need to harness, develop and grow.

The Chairperson:

Does the forum have a formal view on how the Arts Council disburses its funding? Does the forum have any critical views of it, or is it content?

Ms McAlinden:

We have worked very closely in partnership with the Arts Council and have been informed by its policy-making. The FLGA originally came out of a regional committee that was set up by the Arts Council so that it could liaise with the district councils. However, we are very much aware that Arts Council funding has a huge impact on our local councils, almost to a crippling extent.

For example, we know that jobs will be lost; there is absolutely no doubt about that. The work of the Arts Council has an impact on the contribution of the arts to education and on the growth of our creative industries, yet the people in those sectors are the key people that we should be focusing on. We need new ideas and innovation, particularly as this is the year of creativity and innovation.

In the past, the Department has played a strategic role in looking at ways that we can work together. There is great opportunity now to revisit the Unlocking Creativity strategy that four Government Departments — Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Employment and Learning; Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Education — signed up to, so that we can look at other ways of working. Really sound, substantial and robust partnerships have developed and evolved from that strategy, and I know that, individually and collectively, the groups and organisations that we work with are all the stronger for that commitment and collaboration. It is the only way forward.

The Chairperson:

I thank the representatives from the Forum for Local Government and the Arts for their submissions — written and oral — and for allowing members to ask their questions.

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