Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Thursday, 23 April 2009
Inquiry into the Funding of the Arts in Northern Ireland
23 April 2009
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Stephen Brown, Voluntary Arts Ireland
Miss Brenda Kent, Voluntary Arts Ireland
Mr Robin Simpson, Voluntary Arts Network
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
We now move on to an evidence session with Voluntary Arts Ireland. I refer members to the comprehensive written submission from Voluntary Arts Ireland and a list of suggested themes that you may wish to raise today. I invite the representatives to join us at the table. Good morning; how are you all doing?
Mr Stephen Brown (Voluntary Arts Ireland):
Thank you very much for inviting us to talk to you. I am the chairperson of Voluntary Arts Ireland, and with me are Brenda Kent, who is the chief officer of Voluntary Arts Ireland, and Robin Simpson, who is the chief executive of Voluntary Arts Network, the UK and Ireland parent body.
We tried to make the point in our written submission that, as regards the arts in general, there is no clear distinction between the voluntary, community and professional arts. There is a lot of overlap, with the big beasts of the jungle and the insects all totally reliant on each other. We feel that the voluntary arts play a vital role in the entire arts sector, even in the professional arts. We are delighted that the Committee has not left the voluntary arts out and has taken account of where they stand. It can be easy to leave them out because, although they represent themselves very well, they are generally not well represented, funded or resourced.
Voluntary Arts Ireland, which is a small group itself, tries to champion the voluntary arts in general. We work with lots of organisations, including community youth groups in Omagh, writers’ groups in Limavady and Derry, the Sticky Fingers children’s project in Warrenpoint, Deaf Arts in Belfast and our own project with youth groups in County Antrim.
It is important that the sector is not ignored for several reasons. We feel that it is where engagement first starts; it is where volunteers and people find themselves participating in the arts. The voluntary arts are the most accessible part of the arts; they are to be found in the community, local pubs, barns and wherever there happens to be a venue to hold a play, a film, a choir practice or a rehearsal of some sort. The voluntary arts contribute to arts careers. A lot of the current professionals started off in the voluntary arts. A well-known flautist used to play in the 39th Old Boys Flute Band. Actors and others have started their careers in amateur drama groups. The sector contributes directly to the economy and the infrastructure of communities. Many of the festivals and venues were born and have developed as a result of voluntary pressure and voluntary work — before the professionals ever got around to it.
We are working on the assumption that there are about 2,000-plus voluntary groups in the North of Ireland. It is hard to be certain, because a lot of them are under the radar and we do not know very much about them. However, although there are probably more groups, we have always worked on the basis of that figure. Because Northern Ireland has the lowest level of arts funding in the UK — indeed, in Ireland as well — we worry that whatever resources are made available will be a bit more centralised and that those folk will fall off the perch. We are keen that that should not happen as it would impact on the whole voluntary system.
We recommend that the arts budget in the North of Ireland should be increased so that the entire arts sector might benefit from expenditure equivalent to that enjoyed in the east and the south of this part of the world.
Mr Robin Simpson (Voluntary Arts Network):
I am the chief executive of the Voluntary Arts Network, so I am responsible for Voluntary Arts Ireland and its sister operations in England, Wales and Scotland. We are one of the six founder members of Amateo, a new European network for the amateur arts, which brings us into contact with similar organisations across Europe.
Another key point in our submission was the need for an overarching strategy and interdepartmental approach. The voluntary arts are important in two ways. As Stephen said, they are an integral part of the wider arts sector. The professional arts could not survive without amateurs. Many professionals start as amateurs and many amateur groups employ professionals. That is an important part of the arts ecology. That overview of the linkages between the voluntary arts and the whole sector is important — and it is important for the Department and the Arts Council.
The voluntary arts also make a key contribution to volunteering, the economy, lifelong learning, mental and physical health, regeneration, community cohesion, etc. Nobody joins an amateur arts group to make a contribution to regeneration or social cohesion. People join because they want to sing, act or dance. However, those community groups create a by-product that affects a lot of those other agendas, many of which pertain to other Departments. There is a lack of joining up of the potential of that quite large sector that reaches into communities throughout Northern Ireland. It is right and proper for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to take the lead and to work interdepartmentally to see what potential the voluntary arts have to affect health, regeneration, social development, and so on.
Voluntary Arts Ireland’s research shows that almost none of the small groups accesses funding from any Department or programme, and we believe that an interdepartmental approach would begin to lever more funding into the sector. The voluntary arts groups are a potential generator of more money for the arts sector from non-arts sources.
For years, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in England has had public service agreement targets to raise levels of arts participation, and for years it has singularly failed to meet those targets, largely because it works primarily through Arts Council England, which then charges its regularly funded organisations — about 800 arts institutions — with increasing participation. That is not where participation happens: it happens in small community groups that are not funded through any Government or Arts Council programme.
Recently, we have been pleased to note a growing realisation on the part of DCMS in London that there is a need to work with the voluntary arts sector if we are to really tackle issues around arts participation. Last year, DCMS commissioned a major piece of research in England called ‘Our Creative Talent: The Voluntary and Amateur Arts in England,’ which demonstrated the scale and scope of the voluntary arts sector for the first time. That paper had quite an impact on our work with the Arts Council in London, and around England in general, and on the council’s attitude to the sector and its potential. That has been a real turning point for us in England over the past year.
We have also been working in Westminster with the Office of the Third Sector at the Cabinet Office to look at the arts within volunteering, particularly the volunteering agenda around 2012 and the Olympic volunteering legacy. The arts provide a huge number of volunteers, many of whom go unrecognised in the wider volunteering world.
We have carried out a great deal of work with the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills at Westminster. That work has concentrated on John Denham’s informal learning agenda, which was the subject of a White Paper that came out a few weeks ago. We again looked at the role that the voluntary arts sector plays in allowing people to learn to develop skills and to engage in informal learning for its own sake. DCMS has played a key role in all that interdepartmental work, and its representatives have sat with us in meetings with some of the other Government Departments, which has been very useful.
We have also carried out similar work in Wales and Scotland. In Wales, we recently met the Welsh Assembly’s Deputy Minister for Regeneration to examine the role of arts and regeneration, and we have planned a project that will link to that Department. In Scotland, we work very closely with the Department that is equivalent to the Department for Social Development (DSD) here. In addition, we are working on a project with Voluntary Arts Wales to examine the effects of arts participation in rural and peripheral communities, which forms part of the Carnegie Commission for Rural Community Development.
Therefore, there is potential for the voluntary arts sector to become involved in many areas and from many angles, but we feel that those opportunities are not always being fully exploited. Therefore, our recommendation is that the Department should take the lead in commissioning research akin to that carried out in England to inform a strategy for action to maximise the potential of the sector. Furthermore, we recommend that the Department should take the lead in establishing an interdepartmental forum to examine the potential of other agendas and other Departments.
Miss Brenda Kent (Voluntary Arts Ireland):
I have met the Committee before. I run Voluntary Arts Ireland here, and it falls to me to talk about the money behind all of this.
At the outset, I want to state quite clearly that the issue is not so much about money as it is about sustainability. Money helps, but we know from research that we have carried out that volunteer-led groups have survived for four or more decades on average, despite funding difficulties. When we carried out our research six years ago, we found that one in three of those groups had received no grant aid and one fifth run on less than £100 per month. Those groups are sustainable because they have are built on community interest and have levered in vast quantities of volunteer time, and because they have raised most of what they have needed so far from sales and fees.
The Committee’s inquiry deals specifically with models of funding, and we suggest that voluntary arts groups are a sustainable model, provided that they have the backing of a support structure. Once those groups are supported, they thrive. They generate more activities, they lever in funding and human resources into the arts and become a catalyst for growth, rather than an ever-increasing drain on public arts funding.
However, those groups still need investment, and they need it now for three reasons. The first is that they face a combination of rising costs and a shrinking economy — even a £300 increase in insurance or the cost of hiring a hall can totally unbalance a budget and see arts activities vanish. The second reason is that there is a need for investment in skills as demands are rising and volunteers — not just in the voluntary arts sector, but across the arts as a whole — now need to know about issues such as constitutions, child protection and health and safety.
The third reason for increased investment in the arts is that we are not getting the very best out of the sector. There is no funding for groups to grow or, importantly, try new things or reach new audiences or participants. Those groups would love to grow, but they just cannot take the risks that bigger organisations can take without knowing that they have a little bit of money behind them.
Voluntary Arts Ireland works directly with perhaps 200 or more people a year, and that is as much as we can do with our present resources. I can provide the Committee with two recent examples of our work. The first concerns a woman from Downpatrick — where we are based — who wanted to expand the craft group that she had been running for over a year. She had engaged 50 people, aged between 20 and 80, and she had self-funded the group. However, she reached the stage whereby she could not afford to buy the willow required for basket making. She tried to obtain a local authority grant, but found that she was unable to receive one without a constitution. At that point, she came to us, and we are now helping her to develop a constitution and marketing plan to enable her to access approximately £2,000 to continue and expand her work.
In Belfast, the Arts Council put us in touch with a group of young people who use sign language. They were considering the best way for them to establish a group to engage in deaf arts and use sign language in the arts. They were able to contact us, and we have an expert in developing constitutions and guiding groups through that phase. The group is now on its way to establishing arts provision that will reach out to others.
In both cases, small amounts of money were sought. However, the other stumbling block was the ability to access support so that provision could be made or sustained. For such arts volunteers, having someone to turn to when starting out or facing challenges is a vital part of the investment structure. Hence, the recommendation in our submission is that additional funding be set aside to enable groups to develop participation and their ability to generate their own income. We also recommend that the Department grasp the opportunity presented by the review of public administration (RPA) to encourage local authority investment in local arts groups to enable volunteers to continue their current magnificent provision.
Mr R Simpson:
In summary, I have three brief conclusions.
First, the funding of the voluntary sector of the arts could be improved by recognising the sector. If the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure were to take the lead by mapping the sector and developing a strategy for its growth, involving the sector and other Departments in the process, that would be an important symbolic gesture. The voluntary arts sector craves recognition rather than funding; we want to be taken seriously as a part of the arts world.
Secondly, the sector is largely self-funding. Therefore, what is needed is not so much core funding as the specific provision of funding to develop the sector’s ability to increase participation and audiences, thereby generating its own income and becoming more sustainable.
Finally, additional funding must be directed to support services that can provide arts volunteers with the necessary skills to generate sales and sustain their provision. Our creative talent study in England last year, and the research that we carried out in Northern Ireland in 2003, identified issues affecting the sector: the complexity of grant application processes; the need to raise the sector’s profile and attract new members, and the need for advice and guidance on compliance with legislation. The voluntary arts sector is proud of its artistic activity, but would benefit from more support in fulfilling the administrative and logistical requirements of running a voluntary arts group, particularly at a time when compliance costs are rising.
Thank you very much for your attention. I am sure that you have plenty of questions, and we will be happy to answer them based on our experiences locally, and across the UK, Ireland and Europe.
Thank you very much for your presentation. The inquiry seeks to compare the per capita spend in Northern Ireland with that in other regions. Your submission draws attention to the fact that local authorities here contribute £4·11 per capita, which is almost double the amount of £2·22 spent in England and Wales. Is that in addition to the 2007 figure of £6·11 per capita that the Arts Council produced for Northern Ireland?
Those figures are not directly comparable: one is based on studies in England, and the other is drawn from here. As some local authorities here include the cost of venues in that figure, but others do not, the figures are not comparable. We would like more work to be done in that area. Most of the local authorities are active in making small grants, some of £100 or even £50. When we try to calculate a total, we find that the grants get muddled up with everything else, such as the cost of staff who run the theatres, and it becomes nearly impossible to disentangle the figures. The local authorities here are very active, but at a lower level of grant-making than those in England.
Mr P Ramsey:
You are welcome here today, and I note that you use some useful language.
Robin, you talked about a cross-departmental approach in other regions, and you called on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to create interaction by establishing an interdepartmental forum. Is there evidence that such an approach produces a financial dividend? You suggested, for example, that other Departments do not sufficiently buy into greater social development or education. Is there a greater level of buy-in because there is a cross-departmental approach in Wales, Scotland or England?
Mr R Simpson:
Yes. I can give two examples. For a long time in England, we have been pushing, through DCMS, for a better way of signposting people to opportunities to participate. Some sort of online database or portal would allow people to find an opportunity to become involved in lacemaking, dancing or acting in their local community. That is something for which DCMS has struggled to find funding in its small budget — likewise with the budget of Arts Council England. However, over the past six months, we have discussed with the Office of the Third Sector at the Cabinet Office how the work that it is doing to signpost people to volunteering opportunities might link in with our work and to the development of a single, online portal. The Cabinet Office Minister has recently committed £1 million to the project, and, as a result, we are about to launch a portal. That outcome came about by bringing the two Departments together, and it is one of the things for which we have been pushing DCMS for years.
The other example is the work that we have carried out at Westminster with the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills. It recognises that involvement in voluntary arts groups, such as singing in a choir or playing in a brass band, is informal learning, as much as sitting in a classroom with a teacher is. That has opened up to voluntary arts groups the new informal learning challenge fund, which John Denham has just launched. Voluntary arts group can now apply for funding from a £20 million pot from the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills — a pot that was not available before. We have other irons in the fire in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
It is not a magic answer, but, in most cases, the other Departments to which we talk have budgets that are enormous compared to the culture budget. To lever out a small part of such a budget is of benefit to the arts as a whole and to the work of the Culture Department.
Mr P Ramsey:
You called on the Department to carry out a mapping exercise of the sector across Northern Ireland. Presumably, that would be undertaken by the Department or by the Arts Council. Perhaps we can find that out at a later stage. Can you explain the benefit of such an exercise? What would the end product be? What would it achieve?
There was a mapping exercise; one of the first things that we did with funding from the lottery through the Arts Council was to research the sector here, and a copy of that research, ‘Facts, Figures and Futures’, is lodged in the Library. That study is now a little long in the tooth. It established that 12% of the population is engaged in such groups: thus, a participation level was established. Once one has such figures, one can get the ear of people. That figure shows that almost 200,000 people take part in the arts. Updating that mapping thoroughly would enable us to base any overarching strategy — which, currently, does not exist — on facts. That is important if we are to make policy decisions. It would also mean that we could discover what new groups have sprung up, and which have gone to the wall because of the pressures that they have been under.
Mr R Simpson:
When DCMS commissioned research in England last year, that had a very significant effect. It provided symbolic value. Many of the statistics that it produced were in line with what we expected and had known for years, but the symbolism of a Government Department commissioning a piece of research has caused a huge change in the attitude of Arts Council England and its approach to working with the amateur arts sector. There was much more co-operation and strategic planning as a result of the fact that the Department commissioned the research.
Mr K Robinson:
Thank you for three very concise and succinct presentations, which are very helpful to the Committee’s work. You expressed support for the devolution of the community festivals fund to local councils, which happened in April 2008. Those councils now provide matched funding. In your view, should DCAL consider devolving other arts streams to local councils to encourage them to spend more on the arts? That is the question. The conundrum is: if there is a greater involvement of local councils, do we strangle at birth ideas, expertise and enthusiasm with the dead hand of local council involvement? [Laughter.]
Mr S Brown:
That is a difficult one, of that there is no doubt. If we take Belfast City Council, the one council that will not change, we can see that it has experienced more and more difficulty in coping and dealing with the voluntary sector because of the level of administration that is required. Small councils are closer to the ground than big councils, but it is difficult to say what the best solution would be.
We are going out around the countryside. There is a commitment to move some funding responsibilities to the local authorities under RPA. DCAL asked me what I thought should move, and I told it to give me some time so that I could ask the sector. We have started that conversation, which is interesting because there is an awareness that if a scheme is started, local authorities will take a slightly bigger risk — in that they only spend a few hundred pounds because it is a smaller process and they may know the groups with whom they work — than if they approached a more remote Arts Council that is used to dealing with bigger grants. Even the smaller grants are fairly sizeable in this context. For start-ups, local authorities are very effective.
We also pick up the feeling that there are great difficulties with only having local-authority funding, in that touring cannot happen or becomes very difficult. Local authorities do not have the expertise in the art forms that the Arts Council has developed. They may not take such risks with art as opposed to local community activities. The answer is to look for something that has a balance and allows accessibility because of the location — which Stephen mentioned — but which does not drive down artistic excellence or the risk-taking that the Arts Council has developed expertise in supporting.
There are also other models. At one point, the Western Isles gave funding to umbrella bodies to distribute to their members because they knew them and were aware of the quality in that art form. It made the reporting a lot easier for the member groups, and yet the local authority still had accountability. Our submission refers to other models like that.
Mr K Robinson:
The reason why I put that sting in the tail was because I spoke to a young fellow over the weekend who has been involved in marching bands for many years. I happened to say that I had not seen him for a while. He said that he does not go because the band does not march — it performs sit-down concerts. It does that because the local authority gives it an amount of money every time it performs a concert in the local park. It does not get involved in the community in the way that it did in the past. He is a good drummer — he reads music rather than being someone who just bangs — but, having been involved with the band for many years, he has now stepped away from the art. By being helpful to one agency through the local council, we have driven participants away. There must be more people like that right across the range of arts.
There may be an opportunity for the Department, when looking at moving funding across to local authorities, to encourage them to match that and encourage some sort of continuity or consistency across the different local authorities, because it will vary. It can be quite random what is done in one area compared to another. Of course, there will be fewer local authorities, which may make it slightly easier. However, that is our point exactly: if a group’s funding — small though it may be — starts getting tied in with conditions, and we are talking about the equivalent of bums on seats, it cannot take risks. I am sure that that band would love to go and march, but it cannot do that if it will cost them an extra £200. Where will that money come from if the band has already taken all that it can from fees from its members and does not want to exclude people who cannot afford increased fees?
Mr R Simpson:
That relates to a key theme that runs throughout our submission: the difference between core funding and developmental support. It is dangerous for any voluntary arts group to get into too much of a stable core-funding relationship with anybody for those reasons. It could become so reliant on that funding that it plays that game and goes with those strings. It would be better for some of the funding to be predicated on developing the group and allowing it to do something new and ambitious, and to create its own sustainability so that if that money disappears in five years, the group is not finished — it has more ability to create its own funding elsewhere.
In your presentation, you referred to public service agreement (PSA) 9. In particular, you referred to arts participation and the hope that that will increase by 2%. You also stated that there are 160,000 adult participants in the volunteer-led arts sector. Do you feel that the funding balance is skewed in favour of the arts organisations that go for involvement with large audiences rather than with participants? I think that the 160,000 people to whom you referred are quite significant.
My second question follows on from the point that you made about the allocations across art forms. You mentioned Arts Council funding for band instruments over the past 10 years. I am aware of some of the figures that you quoted. The funding that bands can apply for amounts to £5,000, but it used to be closer to £20,000. There is no comparison with bands across the water. It is easier to start a flute band, because flutes are cheaper instruments. However, a brass band is much more expensive. What can be done to help bands? Funding is not just for instruments; it can be for officers to promote interest. People start off in bands and progress. One of the greatest musicians that we have in the Province is James Galway; he is an example of what can happen.
Underlying all of that is the fact that a cake can only be divided into so many pieces. Arts funding here, as we know, is lower than it is over the water. Therefore, we are always rearranging things; if that issue were to be addressed, there would be more money for bands and for all art forms. What underpins it all is the level of per capita spend.
You asked about the numbers of participants —
I was interested in your comments about PSA 9, which is to do with participation. You used the figure of 160,000 participants two or three times in your presentation. I wonder whether the funding balance is skewed in favour of funding for arts organisations that attract large audiences rather than actual participants.
Mr S Brown:
One would not want to get into a beauty contest about that. We recognise clearly that large organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra need to be funded and to be supported. We are trying to show today that the whole thing is interlinked. If a choir wants to put on a performance, it has to employ orchestra players and soloists who earn their living doing that.
It seems to me that the funding of big organisations is rather different from that of small ones. As Mr Simpson pointed out, there is a question of whether an organisation receives core funding or development funding. A big organisation needs core funding, and we recognise that. In the voluntary sector, we look for funding for development, education and informal learning — funding that, if it is lost next year or the year after, will not mean that the venture will collapse, but will allow its organisers to develop so that they are better able to look after themselves.
Our ambition is to get to a point at which the voluntary sector will not need any funding — not directly. However, we will never get to the point where it will not need any support funding and support from organisations such as ours, which provides support without necessarily providing direct funding. We try to look after each other, whether it is the Ulster Orchestra or a small choir in a rural community.
Miss Kent said that it is not always easy to compare arts spending in Northern Ireland with the UK mainland, which is well ahead of us. The allocation of moneys to bands in Northern Ireland is disproportionate by far to the funding that is available across the water. Even if funding there was twice the amount, the figures do not add up. Fifty thousand pounds against £5,000 is ten times more.
There are certain art forms that need large chunks of money — the purchase of musical instruments being one example. Orchestras, or groups that want to put on a fully-staged play, suddenly begin to need money for sets and costumes. That is what we were talking about: making money available for groups to take those financial risks. They may think that it will put more bottoms on seats, but it might take them a couple of years to establish themselves in a new form, or to get the money back. That type of funding, however, is not available.
Small grant schemes, such as Awards for All, have been very useful for that purpose. Its funding has largely been used as one-off grants to help groups make a step up. It does not answer the need for survival money when, for example, insurance premiums go up. It is difficult to know when funding is skew-whiff, because one orchestra’s needs have to be measured against a lot of £200 grants. It would be interesting to make a study of the number of grants being made rather than the amounts of money being allocated.
Ultimately, it is about accessibility: can those groups get hold of £500? Our research indicates that, at the moment, they cannot, unless it comes from their local authority. Few grant schemes do not go that low, and very few sponsors operate at that level.
Mr D Bradley:
We all agree that it is very important that public money awarded to voluntary and community organisations should be properly accounted for and audited. However, many voluntary and community organisations believe that the auditing process itself eats up a disproportionate amount of the actual award in relation to staff involvement, time and the actual finance. Do you agree that too much of the meagre resources available are used up in that way? Would a less cumbersome and expensive form of auditing benefit such organisations in the arts and elsewhere, thus directing more valuable resources to front-line activities?
Mr R Simpson:
The whole question of small grants is a perennial conundrum, and we did a great deal of work on it in our ‘Small Grants: Big Change’ report two years ago. There are two routes that offer solutions to the problem of the cost of administering a grant becoming more than the grant is worth in the first place, balanced with the absolute need for accountability of public money and ensuring that it is being used properly. The first of those is what we were discussing earlier about the devolving of grant-giving. That would mean giving the funding to a local authority or umbrella arts organisation that already had some knowledge and trust of the groups involved. The groups would then not need to start from scratch and prove that they exist and have a constitution and a bank account, because that would already be known.
I am particularly interested in the second route, which we have been looking at over the past few years. It involves looking at more innovative forms of monitoring and evaluation. There is a lot of academic work going on in this area through several international organisations. A Finnish study two years ago was set up with the aim of building on the micro-credit model in Bangladesh. It involves small amounts of money being given out on trust initially, with how people use that money and how they come back for more affecting their ability to receive a second tranche of money. There is some interesting academic work around that on how we could develop a trust-based system that has its own checks and balances but does not require one to fund an officer to go out and look at every project, instead involving forms of self-evaluation and peer evaluation to reduce costs.
Those are two ways to tackle it. It is a problem the world over, and we are aware of it.
Mr D Bradley:
Do you agree that within the context of this inquiry — especially in an atmosphere of worsening economic conditions — this is an area which the Committee could usefully give more attention to, and which would provide more funds to front-line activities?
It is worthy of examination, so long as it does not become a red herring that diverts attention away from the issue of how much money there is in the first place.
There have been improvements. For example, we receive funding from the Arts Council, and there have been notable simplifications in some of the reporting there. However, what has really made a difference with the larger groups has been a move to three-year funding, as you know where you are and can set up systems. Lottery funding has unfortunately reverted to a one-year funding model at the moment, but the three-year model has been applied in Scotland and in Sligo, with even the small groups receiving an indication of three-year funding. It is so much easier if you know what is coming and can then set up the systems to administer those funds.
Another option to consider is skilling the groups up to enable them to fill out a certain number of forms more effectively and efficiently. The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action is currently researching whether groups could share administration and accountants. That would be something else to look at, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time on administration. There are ways of gently improving the situation, and that is starting to happen. When groups have filled out the required forms, they can feed back more clearly on any difficulties with them.
The voluntary arts sector is an important part of the arts. Sometimes, the line drawn between the voluntary arts and community arts is somewhat artificial. Arbitrary decisions are made on what constitutes community arts as opposed to arts in the community. I find that rather bizarre.
Your report states that there are 1,400 voluntary groups in Northern Ireland and 160,000 participants. How did you calculate that figure of 160,000, and what are the larger groups?
The figure has increased; that report is six years old, and a new one is required. Given the increase in population, if 12% of people remain involved, that figure will have increased to over 200,000 now. At the time of our research, the predominant sector was the performing arts.
Are those people who are involved in the voluntary arts?
Millward Brown Ulster carried out the research for us and asked two questions: what people were doing and where. The first question was whether people took part, or had taken part, in any group led by volunteers — not by the local authority, professionals, local institutions or colleges — and the response of 12% of the adult population was that they participated.
Does that mean that 12% were participants, as opposed to members of the audience?
Yes, they were participants. We had a stab at measuring the audiences. With the available time and resources, which came through a one-off lottery grant that was generous but not at a level to allow proper research, our estimate was of over eight million attendances at events staged by groups led by volunteers.
How did you arrive at the figure of 1,400 groups?
That figure has also increased, and we are currently reviewing it. The figure of 1,400 came from asking local authorities about groups they knew, placing newspaper advertisements and our database.
How many of those groups are members of Voluntary Arts Ireland?
That is a hard question. We are not a membership organisation; we allow everyone and anyone to approach us. Rather than someone who may be thinking about starting up a new youth dance group having to become an organisation in order to join us, Voluntary Arts Ireland is a free service at the point of use. As a measure of the number of people who are regularly in contact with us, approximately 2,500 individuals subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter, but we have no formal signing on the line as members.
How is the organisation constituted?
Mr R Simpson:
It is a long story. We were set up as a network, and our primary purpose was to work with the existing representative organisations from particular arts forms: for example, the North of Ireland Bands Association, the Association of Irish Choirs, and so forth. Our primary constituency is the umbrella bodies of those art forms, in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK and Ireland.
We increasingly work with local groups individually, but the basis of our funding from the four UK arts councils has always been the free provision of services to any group that falls within the sector, rather than having a signed-up membership. Technically, we are a company limited by guarantee and, therefore, legally we have members. Those are a small number of national umbrella bodies of particular art forms who are our constitutional members, but that does not place any restriction on who we work with.
Mr S Brown:
We have a list of those who have directly and positively supported our work.
That is a couple of hundred people who have signed up to say that they support the work. However, we have no paid membership.
That renders irrelevant a number of questions that I was about to ask. I was assuming that an umbrella organisation would have members who would hold it accountable.
Mr R Simpson:
That is a long story; I will not go into it. We were set up by umbrella organisations, and they did not want to create another umbrella, but they did want a single focal point to represent art forms.
Which umbrella organisations in Northern Ireland were involved in setting it up?
That goes back to before I was involved. I will not be able to rhyme off all the umbrella organisations. It is like thanking people: you always leave out someone. Here are some of them: the North of Ireland Bands Association; the Pastel Society of Ireland, which is run by volunteers; other organisations representing particular sectors, such as the Arts and Disability Forum. The Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCE) works with us, or at least its Northern element. Name another art form.
Was Making Music involved?
Are those organisations represented on the committee?
Not all of them. The committee here is elected, and organisations can be nominated to it. The North of Ireland Bands Association and Making Music are on it, but that will change. Not every organisation is on it at once.
Is CCE a member?
It has not nominated to the committee.
I will leave it at that.
In your submission, you state that 31% of voluntary arts groups receive no grant aid whatsoever, and another 31% receive grant aid from one particular body. You refer to a misconception that the Arts Council does not fund the voluntary arts. How do you think it could reach out to groups that are not aware that money is available? Could DCAL make it easier for arts organisations to access funding from other Government bodies?
The Arts Council has a small grants scheme, and that will have an impact in connecting the Arts Council to smaller groups — the grants are still not minuscule, but they are small. In a previous round, the Arts Council had people engaged to talk with the groups, and it found that very beneficial in working out how to work with small groups. That is developing. Part of the difficulty is that perception that needs to be overcome. There should be a specific initiative to have smaller groups skilled up in answering the necessary questions to apply for a grant correctly and in understanding the language. The people running these groups work in banks and greengrocers; they do not have the arts jargon. Some upskilling of people to access the funding that is already there is necessary.
With respect to Departments, I have just come from a conference at Billy Hastings’s hotel, where Margaret Ritchie has announced an additional £130,000 in small grants to voluntary organisations. The total for next year is now £330,000. I guarantee that, unless we do something to enable small arts groups to access that money, it will not be accessed as well as it might be. Department talking unto Department would make a huge difference in making funding accessible.
Mr R Simpson:
That is a common problem across the UK. The criteria for funding from the Department for Social Development, the Department of Health or — to take a Westminster example — the Department of Communities and Local Government appear to fit arts groups absolutely. They seem to fulfil the criteria by contributing to community cohesion or whatever. In practice, when they try to apply for those funds, they are often turned back at the first point of entry and told that, as an arts organisation, they must speak to the Arts Council. However, the Arts Council has a limited amount of money in each case and, with the costs involved in administering small grants, struggles to devolve it. Those schemes, which are set up precisely for community groups, do not always benefit arts groups as much as they could.
As a result of the research it commissioned last year, our work in London with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has created a series of meetings with other Government Departments to ensure that arts groups get access to those pots of money. That is a very specific action within that plan. The Department could give a lead here to help open up schemes that, on the surface, appear to be accessible to arts groups. In practice, people just see the word “arts” and send the groups back to the Arts Council.
The amateur drama sector was mentioned earlier. It was said that voluntary arts crave recognition more than funding. Is anything happening to assist that sector to get more recognition and funding?
I never cease to be amazed at the success of local drama festivals. Recently, I attended two nights of the Mid Ulster Drama Festival, and, on the closing night, there was an amazing buzz when the Omagh Players did ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Such festivals provide very good value for money, and, whatever limited funding they get, they seem to reach the communities.
Mr S Brown:
I am not sure how much funding they get, but you are quite right to say that they are very busy and very active. There are schemes linking them with professional groups, in which the professional groups will sometimes apply for the money and bring in an amateur group as part of the production.
There are umbrella bodies, such as the Ulster Association of Drama Festivals. The Drama League of Ireland, although based in the South, also supplies training and skills for everyone. The Amateur Drama Council of Ireland also provides support. The Ulster Association of Youth Drama is another such body. Through the Association of Irish Musical Societies, that area of the arts has a fairly strong infrastructure of support bodies, compared with many other art forms that do not enjoy that.
Mr R Simpson:
Amateur theatre is fiercely networked the world over. The International Amateur Theatre Association is one of the most organised bodies that we deal with. Amateur theatre is really interesting; over 30 years on, it still suffers in the eyes of most members of the public from the view of Penelope Keith in ‘The Good Life’ practising for ‘The Sound of Music’. There is a perennial view of amateur drama as somehow being “amateur” in the worst sense of the word. That is really unfortunate, because you are right to say that there is some very high-quality work making some quite complex and interesting plays accessible in local communities around the country.
Two breakthroughs have been made recently. First, amateur theatre has always suffered in comparison with music in that there is a complete divide between amateur theatre and the profession. In music, it has always been the norm that a choir will employ a professional conductor or professional soloists. In amateur theatre, because of the stance of Equity, for many years the amateurs and the professionals were not allowed to mix and there was no go-between.
That barrier is breaking down now, and there are new Equity rules about community casts and the involvement of amateurs in professional productions, which, as Mr Brown said, are beginning to make distinct breakthroughs. Over the past few years, I have seen some great things at my local theatre in Northampton that have involved amateurs within a professional production.
The second breakthrough, on which we have been working and which is in its relatively early stages, is the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, which is part of the Cultural Olympiad and is being organised by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Michael Boyd, the director of the RSC, made a public announcement last year that he was keen to involve the amateur drama sector in the festival. We phoned him immediately to ask him how that would be done, and we have now had a series of meetings with the RSC to look at amateur involvement in that festival and, importantly, how the festival can be spread across the UK so that is not limited to the two Stratfords.
In October, we are having a consultative weekend at which we will bring together around 25 amateur umbrella bodies with staff and actors from the RSC to look at how we will collaborate on that festival. There are signs of the beginnings of a breakdown in the barrier between professional and amateur theatre, and that is really exciting.
You mentioned the additional £130,000 of small grants from the Department for Social Development (DSD). Is that going to arts groups, as well as to other groups?
An announcement was made on that about an hour ago. My researcher phoned the voluntary community unit at DSD, which had not heard of it. Perhaps we did not get the right person. Margaret Ritchie has just made the announcement and had to run back up here, so you may ask her when you see her.
I am unclear about the nature of your body. There are other band associations as well as the North of Ireland Bands Association. Are any of them members?
They have not nominated people to the committee, but the North of Ireland Bands Association is an umbrella above the Brass Band League. When we started, the Ulster Bands Association was on the steering group briefly when Iain was there. As you know, he has moved on and they have not engaged again. We still communicate with those groups, although we cannot force them to nominate to our committee.
Nelson, questions have to concern the inquiry’s terms of reference.
I thank Stephen, Robin and Brenda for coming along to represent Voluntary Arts Ireland this morning.
Mr S Brown:
Thank you very much for listening and for giving us your time.
Mr D Bradley:
My point about the amount of grants that are spent on auditing could inform part of the inquiry’s recommendations. Do members think that it would be appropriate for us to have a short research paper on the percentage of grants and awards that are spent on auditing and monitoring? The paper could also look at potential means of reducing that percentage figure — while remaining accountable to the granting agency — and estimate savings that the arts bodies could make through the process.
Do members agree that we should request such a paper to be drawn up?
Members indicated assent.