Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Thursday, 25 June 2009

Inquiry into the Funding of the Arts in Northern Ireland

25 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Ms Heather Bulfin ) Belfast City Council
Ms Deidre Robb )

The Acting Chairperson (Mr P Ramsey):

Good morning. On behalf of the Committee I welcome the representatives of Belfast City Council, Ms Deirdre Robb and Ms Heather Bulfin, who are here to give evidence for our continuing inquiry into the funding of the arts in Northern Ireland. Please make your presentation, which should last no longer than 10 minutes, after which members will ask questions.

Ms Deirdre Robb ( Belfast City Council):

Belfast has a population of 300,000. As the capital city, it is the regional driver and is a gateway for visitors to Northern Ireland. It is home to a wide variety of internationally acclaimed and locally based arts organisations. It has a wealth of festivals as well as extensive community arts provision, the impacts of which are internationally recognised, and which contribute to a sophisticated layer of artistic activity and provision across Belfast.

To help to create and sustain a structure that harnesses the benefits of culture and arts, Belfast City Council, in partnership with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), has developed an integrated cultural strategy that will help to make Belfast a healthier, more creative and inclusive place in which to live, work and visit. As a local government council, we invest approximately £7 million in the arts each year, which has been boosted by a further £5·5 million investment in culture venues.

Belfast City Council invests in the arts to help to regenerate the city and to help to grow a dynamic, innovative and creative economy. The council has been proactive in developing opportunities for cultural and artistic engagement to enable greater levels of social inclusion, community development and inter-community contact work across Belfast. Those are being delivered through the development of specialised arts initiatives and funding programmes; community festivals development; training programmes; and heritage initiatives. The council aims to create safe and creative environments, and to provide platforms for discussions that promote empathy, with the objective of making our city a more inclusive place for all its citizens.

Public art has had a key role to play in the regeneration process and in community planning. There is evidence of both need and desire for communities, at a grass-roots level, to create visual landmarks that celebrate local identity as a way to address urban regeneration and to improve the physical environment. Belfast City Council has taken the opportunity to lead in responding to demand and to developing good practice in supporting communities and other interested groups.

In the past few years, more than 45 temporary and permanent public art pieces have been created and placed throughout the city. Our involvement with the Re-imaging Communities programme, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, has led to the removal of negative paramilitary murals and their replacement with community-driven and community-focused art pieces. We eagerly await the completion of the Rise sculpture at the Broadway roundabout, which is the result of another partnership initiative. That is due to be completed in October 2009. It will provide a striking landmark sculpture at a gateway to Belfast that will convey a message of hope and new beginnings.

(The Deputy Chairperson [Mr McNarry] in the Chair)

We will continue to promote and encourage access to participation, especially among those who live in the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities in Belfast, and we will expand to include art programmes for older people. We support audience development through research into barriers to access, targeted community programming and initiatives such as Test Drive the Arts. Through such programmes, approximately 7·5 million audiences and 500,000 participants have attended and supported events and have accessed the arts in the city.

Each year, Belfast City Council demonstrates its commitment to sustainability and funds a wide variety of arts organisations. Each of those organisations contributes to the quality of life, economic wealth and regeneration of the city — the greater the investment, the greater the return. Through the funding programmes, for every £1 that the council invests, it gets a return of £12.

A skilled workforce is a critical feature of a competitive city, and the arts have a role to play in that. Almost 700 jobs have been created in the council-funded organisations. In addition, 1,000 creative industry businesses are based in Belfast, providing employment to approximately 17,000 people, 97% of whom are in full-time employment. Indeed, the creative sector is the highest growth area in our economy.

At a broader level, the council acknowledges that the development of the cultural sector has been undermined by comparative underfunding of the arts. Per capita funding here lags behind the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and that has put the whole of Northern Ireland at a disadvantage. The economic downturn is likely to have an even more detrimental impact on the cultural sector, particularly for the provision of sponsorship for events and festivals and audience development, which provides much-needed income through box office sales. If the cultural industry is to gain the support of the private sector, it must be seen to be confidently supported through better public investment.

Much work has been carried out in developing the cultural infrastructure in Belfast over recent years. That work includes the redevelopment of, and investment in, venues such as the Ulster Hall, the Lyric Theatre, the Crescent Arts Centre and the creation of the new Metropolitan Arts Centre, which will help strengthen Belfast’s cultural infrastructure and enable the showcasing of Belfast throughout the world as a culture tourist destination. However, it is important that the investment in those venues continues with increased support for, and development of, the cultural product in the city. It is crucial that the excellence of Belfast’s venues is matched by the quality of the cultural product that will be showcased in those venues.

The establishment of a national gallery for Northern Ireland is another important part of the continuing cultural development of the region, and it is equally important that that gallery is located in Belfast. It is usual for national galleries to be situated in a country’s capital city, and as a regional driver, Belfast also has the largest population in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, Belfast has a rich visual arts tradition, but a relatively weak visual arts infrastructure, and although it has many small art collections and some medium-range art galleries, it lacks a major, dedicated arts exhibition space. Moreover, Belfast also has the advantage of accessibility for visitors, which is enhanced by the strong transport infrastructure. Belfast City Council’s commitment to the cultural tourism agenda will champion a gallery as a tourist attraction and as a centre of artistic excellence. Finally, a national gallery in Belfast will raise the profile of the many visual arts organisations that are located in the city, increase tourism, and provide new educational opportunities and inspiration for future generations of emerging artists.

Northern Ireland has an international reputation in the area of culture and arts, and many local artists have been critically acclaimed for their work. However, Northern Ireland also has experienced a cultural diaspora that must be stemmed if we are to create a real cultural legacy. It is important that the issues in the sector that have led to that diaspora are addressed so that Belfast can develop into an internationally recognised centre of cultural excellence with confident citizens.

Before we take questions from the Committee, I will highlight other specific areas that are in need of support. First, greater investment in our existing local arts organisations is required. That will lead to an increase in employment and greater outputs in artistic development. Secondly, greater encouragement for the development of new arts organisations is required, particularly in the areas in the sectors that are under-represented. Thirdly, ongoing and increased support for outreach and education is required to help develop audiences for the future that are arts literate and culturally aware. Fourthly, an increase in audience development and initiatives is needed to ensure that access to the arts becomes a right, rather than a privilege. Fifthly, increased support for artists through ongoing training is needed to increase the capacity of those arts. Finally, the way that arts organisations are funded through short-term funding has led to disillusionment and disappointment in the sector at large. Longer-term funding has been indicated as a way forward. All funding schemes currently allocated by Belfast City Council and the Arts Council are heavily oversubscribed. Where possible, supply should meet demand.

Greater investment in culture and the arts leads not only to increased cultural activity but creates increased wealth and employment across a variety of sectors. It also creates increased tourism for the city and a confident cultural sector that is not afraid to take risks, develop and create a legacy of cultural excellence, not just for the city of Belfast but for Northern Ireland as a whole. Thank you.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you. Before questions, I invite members to declare any relevant interests.

Mr P Ramsey:

I am an elected member of Derry City Council and a director of the Millennium Forum in Derry.

Mr McCarthy:

I am a member of Ards Borough Council.

Lord Browne:

I am a member of Belfast City Council.

Mr K Robinson:

I am a member of Newtownabbey Borough Council.

Mr Shannon:

I am a member of Ards Borough Council.

Mr McCausland:

I am a member of Belfast City Council.

The Deputy Chairperson:

There are too many councillors on this Committee, are there not?

Lord Browne:

I declared that I am a Belfast City councillor, so I will not be biased in my remarks. It has been indicated that Belfast City Council spends more than £7 million on the arts. What arguments have been used in the council to obtain that funding? What system does the council use to ensure that the money is fairly and equitably distributed among the arts throughout the city, particularly in areas of deprivation?

Ms Robb:

I indicated in my presentation that arts provide a vital resource to increase skills in communities and to develop our creative and cultural economy. That applies not only to engagement in arts but to participation in the process. Quite often, those skills are transferable.

Ms Heather Bulfin ( Belfast City Council):

I have a few statistics that we have used, because, as the member knows, every department is seeking an increase in its budget. On the contribution to tourism, the arts are responsible for an estimated 25,000 bed nights a year, every £1 spent on the arts leverages around £3·60 and the private sector sponsors visitors and spectators. Arts developments such as the Cathedral Quarter have helped urban regeneration in Belfast. Examples of the arts helping other towns’ economies by attracting visitors include the Alley Theatre in Strabane and the Braid in Ballymena. The arts also build an individual’s confidence and skills. We have used all those arguments to secure funding for the arts. Arts events such as Proms in the Park and Ballet in Botanic also cross different departments. They are lovely civic events that use the arts to entertain people.

A question was asked about monitoring and evaluation. Deirdre is one of the arts development officers.

Ms Robb:

We advertise openly through local media to ensure that all initiatives have open access to funding and that it is spread equally. We also look at where there is a low uptake on cultural activities and feed specialised programmes into those areas and organisations. All our funding is based on merit rather than geographical spread, but as members have seen from our presentation, it is distributed quite equally across the city.

Mr Brolly:

The Committee is used to applying a per capita figure when assessing financial commitment to the arts; do the witnesses have that figure?

Ms Robb:

Belfast City Council spends £45 per person on the arts.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Did you say £45 per person?

Ms Robb:

Yes. Apart from the culture and arts department, that includes events at venues such as the Waterfront Hall and the Ulster Hall as well as the arts across everything that is done by Belfast City Council.

Mr Brolly:

That is a considerable amount.

Mr K Robinson:

I thank the witnesses for attending. Some Committee members have recently been to Liverpool to see how it is trying to re-image and regenerate aspects of the city. I have a question and some observations. Is there still a perception in Belfast that arts funding is non-essential? Alternatively, does the wider community recognise the social cohesion, economic and regeneration benefits to certain communities that are delivered by the arts? If it has been accepted in that regard, how did you make the arguments to get such acceptance?

In Liverpool, I was struck — as were, I am sure, other members — by the level of enthusiasm from the Lord Mayor down through the council members, officials and groups and the desire to turn Liverpool around from its previous image to where it wanted to go. There was a reservation, perhaps, that it was not trickling down to disadvantaged communities. At the top, they will say that that is not true, but taxi drivers, for instance, give a slightly different view.

Your submission makes quite a play about the lack of a national gallery. May I say that you are somewhat previous in looking for 10,000 students from Newtownabbey to go into north Belfast? That is not allowed yet. From the national gallery point of view, you are concentrating on —

The Deputy Chairperson:

What council do you represent, Ken? [Laughter.]

Mr K Robinson:

You have missed a tremendous opportunity. Belfast is an industrial city. It is different from many others, and it is certainly different from Dublin and London. It may have similarities with Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. There is no representation of our industrial heritage or link into our maritime heritage. Why are we creating a national gallery or an art gallery, which can be seen in any large city, when we could create something unique to show where we have come from and how we have got to where we are?

The Deputy Chairperson:

There is a lot there. You have a minute and a half in which to answer. [Laughter.]

Ms Robb:

Will you repeat the first part, and I will take it point by point.

Mr K Robinson:

Is there still a perception that the arts are non-essential funding and that money could be better spent elsewhere?

Ms Robb:

The feeling is mixed across the board. The Invest in Inspiration campaign, in conjunction with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, started about two years ago. The Arts Council felt that there was a lack of understanding about the benefits and the value of the arts, and that feeling is rampant across the board. However, much work has been done. When the spend for the three years was rolled out, the response and level of engagement from the public and the arts sector was the highest so far, so it is increasing.

It would be unfair to say that everyone understands it. However, alongside the work that has been done and, especially, through the Development and Outreach initiative, which is a targeted initiative in the super output areas in our communities, the level of engagement and involvement of the participants and the audiences in the programmes and the showcases is increasing. The Re-imaging Communities programme, which I mentioned, has been successful in removing the paramilitary murals. In the context of that process, there is engagement: the communities are crying out and saying that they want more. Understanding is, therefore, growing.

The media has a lot of responsibility for that, and much work can be done. A lot of my time is used engaging with the media and trying to get it to be more representative. Much of the problem exists because art does not have a high public profile. We are in a post-conflict society, but the media tends to concentrate and focus on the negatives, and the culture of positive celebration —

Mr K Robinson:

Sorry, will you repeat that sentence; I did not catch it. “The media still tends to…”

Ms Robb:

The media still tends to focus on the negatives.

Mr K Robinson:

I think that that will come as some surprise to most members of the Committee.

Ms Bulfin:

Philip McDonagh from PricewaterhouseCoopers wrote a nice article about the benefits of the arts, which was published in a mainstream newspaper. It was useful, because a lot of people read that newspaper each morning. The article provided a lot of statistics to illustrate what the arts do.

Mr K Robinson:

So you want to accentuate the positives, as the song says.

Ms Bulfin:

Yes. It was a positive piece, which was refreshing to see. Ken Robinson made a good point about Belfast’s industrial past. We have an industrial heritage. My colleague is working on a display that will take place at the opening of Belfast City Hall in October. We are also involved in the Titanic Quarter, and, once it takes shape, we will ensure that tribute is paid there to Belfast’s industrial past. Recently, a lot of art works have been on the theme of the linen workers, and we have tried to highlight and accentuate the history of that area.

Mr K Robinson:

Bus loads of tourists come to Belfast everyday, and they want to see something that is unique to the area that they are arriving in.

Ms Bulfin:

Yes; to see what is different about it.

Mr McCausland:

Far be it from me to interpret what Ken was saying, but, perhaps, he was also highlighting the point that, in addition to attractions for people to go to see, such as the exhibition or the art pieces that you referred to, we could do more to help communities to explore and celebrate that heritage themselves and to get a sense of pride back through doing so.

Ms Robb:

We have engaged in a community archives programme, which is designed to do exactly that. It works in partnership with a number of other councils. What is the number —

The Deputy Chairperson:

Excuse me; you are our guests here, and you are not permitted to confer with anyone in the Public Gallery, nor are they permitted to confer with you.

Ms Robb:

I am sorry; I apologise for that.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I know that you did not know that, but do not do it again.

Ms Robb:

OK.

The community archives programme works with a number of councils. It is a Northern Ireland-wide project with which Belfast City Council has engaged this year. The output will be an online publication, which we expect to see in March 2010.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Being aware of time and bearing in mind our next two questioners, I ask that questions and answers are brief.

Mr P Ramsey:

I thought that I might be given a bit of grace, as these will be my last questions in this Committee.

You are very welcome. It is appropriate that Belfast City Council, which invests so much in the arts, is one of the final contributors to the Committee’s inquiry.

The difficulty that members have, and I am sure that most would concur, is that we were hoping that an inquiry would provide evidence that would enable us to convince the Executive, or even the Minister in waiting, of a strong rationale for investing in the arts. You made the point earlier about a £12 return on every £1 that Belfast City Council invests. How do you establish that evidence?

When you evaluate and process applications, what weighting is given to, for example, job creation, targeting social need and social regeneration? That is the evidence that the Committee needs to make its case. Your point that during the consultation on the Budget and comprehensive spending review more than 50% of people asked for increased funding for arts and culture was correct. However, unless the Committee has the evidence, it will be hard to convince the Executive or the new Minister of the rationale that, if extra money is spent per capita, the return is A, B, C and D. The Committee is finding it hard to get to that point. Can you elaborate on how you established your evidence?

Ms Robb:

We do not fund art for the art’s sake; it is not about pure artistic development. We use arts funding to regenerate the city. We do that in an equal spread over the following five areas: celebration and artistic engagement; leadership; economic return; good relations and social disadvantage; and management and governance, which is about how well the organisation operates as a business. Each of those areas receives 20%. Organisations must make an argument on that basis.

The £12 return for every £1 spent that I referred to relates to the funding programmes only. We do not yet have figures that relate to everything that we do. However, we count in leverage of other funding; value for money as regards what the council will get back; and volunteers and the use of local services and goods. All those areas contribute to the overall weighting and score. Our training programmes encourage organisations to look at that in a greater capacity.

The culture and arts unit links increasingly with tourism. The unit is becoming one for culture, arts and tourism. It is looking at the benefits for the tourist industry and the high impacts on return and investment, which is the language that people understand better. We are also engaging in a level of research into our terminology. I agree that even some of our local councillors do not understand because we do not have the hard facts and figures, but we are working to attain them. We are not quite there yet, but we are getting closer.

Mr P Ramsey:

If a member of your community is unemployed or alienated, or in particular social need, what value do they receive from the council’s investment in the arts?

Ms Robb:

Any kind of engagement with the arts has been proven to have a positive effect with a positive outcome —

The Deputy Chairperson:

I do not want to stop your flow, Deirdre, but you are getting quite cosy in that corner. This is a Committee meeting.

Ms Robb:

Sorry. Engagement with the arts helps to build the confidence and capacity of an individual or organisation. It is difficult to measure the building of confidence, but often people from disadvantaged communities do not want to engage in anything except sitting in front of the TV. Engagement with the arts gives them the confidence to do more. Direct engagement with a tutor on a one-to-one basis gives them skills that can be transferred into further employment along the line.

Ms Bulfin:

The organisations involved in targeted funding schemes, including the Development and Outreach initiative, work with groups of people with disabilities, or from the 50% most deprived areas in Belfast. That is a good way for them to work in partnership. The Creative Legacies programme that is available through Peace III funding is aimed at section 75 groups, so we are hoping that more people who are not normally involved in the arts will come on board.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you for coming along today. I congratulate you on the significant amount of money that Belfast City Council makes available to the arts. All of us in other councils are envious, but it is brilliant what you do.

Do you feel that the significant amount of money that has been spent and invested has reached the right people? Has it reached the communities, the areas of disadvantage, disabled people, and pressure groups, which are keen to develop their relationship with the arts?

Cultural tourism, in which I have an interest, has been mentioned. What has the council done about that issue? I asked that question before the Deputy Chairperson told me I could not ask another.

Ms Robb:

About five years ago, some research was carried out into Belfast City Council’s arts funding, which found that its arts programmes were mainly reaching “BT9ers”, for want of a better term. I think that that is what you were referring to. However, in the past five years, the council’s special programmes and initiatives have balanced out. Some 54% of arts programme funding goes to professional arts organisations, and 46% goes to community-driven schemes, which reach participants on the ground. Therefore, a good balance has been created.

A lot of the professional arts organisations also engage in outreach and educational work, but it is harder to measure that and to give a percentage. The new Creative Legacies programme, funded by Peace III, makes an extra £350,000 available directly to the communities in the next year. That will be evaluated and measured to ensure that it reaches the right people.

Ms Bulfin:

I will give a few examples of groups, which may make that clearer. Arts Care is a group that runs a lot of programmes, such as providing clown doctors in the children’s hospital. Kate Ingram, through Open Arts, runs an all abilities choir, which was recently featured on a television show. The disability organisations come to the council’s advice clinics and secure funding, as do ethnic minority groups. The Indian Community Centre, Arts Extra, the Chinese Welfare Association and the Polish Association are all involved in the Queen’s Film Theatre project. All those groups have benefited. Deirdre and another colleague operate advice clinics every time a funding scheme is opened. That helps groups that are not quite sure how to fill in the forms — they are able to talk through the process, and are given advice on what to highlight.

The Deputy Chairperson:

If I could interrupt you; did you say that you run an advice clinic?

Ms Bulfin:

We run five clinics, Monday to Friday.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Perhaps, if you have not done so already, you could forward some details of those clinics to the Committee.

Ms Bulfin:

Of course. They run in different parts of Belfast so that people can easily access them.

Mr McCarthy:

Thank you for the presentation, and congratulations on the work that you are doing around the Cathedral Quarter. Some of us spent two hours there yesterday morning. We saw the work going on and the enthusiasm of everyone involved, and it was fantastic. Well done and keep it up.

Your submission states that there has been cultural underfunding for older people. Has the Arts Council recognised that issue, and is it able to rectify it?

Mr Shannon:

Is Kieran declaring an interest?

Ms Bulfin:

I am not sure. Belfast City Council set up an older people’s working group last year, with involvement from the Arts Council and other organisations.

Ms Robb:

The Arts Council has recognised the need for new initiatives and programmes to be dedicated to older people.

The Deputy Chairperson:

How has the Arts Council recognised that?

Ms Robb:

It is engaging with Belfast City Council and seeking to develop programmes to counteract the problem.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Perhaps when that bears fruition, you might send the information to the Committee.

Ms Bulfin:

Yes, absolutely. I have seen posters on buses that encourage people over 60 years of age to get involved.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Kieran’s face is on those posters. Have you not seen it?

Mr McCartney:

Correction, Mr Deputy Chairperson: older people are new recognised as those over 50. There are more red faces than mine around.

Mr Shannon:

They do not get a state pension.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Will you give the Committee your council’s definition of community arts?

Ms Robb:

Community arts is about engaging with communities through participation in, and access to, arts activities. It is also about maximising the potential and the opportunity of creating a sense of authorship. In other words, the community being involved in the design of the art piece and having ownership means that they have a sense of buy-in with regard to a particular piece of art.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is a good answer. Thank you very much.

Ms Bulfin:

We apologise for conferring with our colleague earlier, we thought that he was on leave this week.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I will not be so difficult the next time. Thank you for your help. It has been of great assistance to the Committee.

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