Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 05 June 2008

Briefing from Voluntary Arts Ireland

5 June 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson

Mr Stephen Brown ) Voluntary Arts Ireland
Mr William Clements )
Miss Brenda Kent )

Mr Stephen Brown (Voluntary Arts Ireland):
Good morning Chairman and members; thank you very much for the opportunity to brief you on the subject of the voluntary arts sector. I am Stephen Brown, chair of Voluntary Arts Ireland, and I am joined by our chief officer Brenda Kent, and by Bill Clements who is a member of our committee.

We want to talk to you about a sector where more than one in 10 of our population takes part in art activities for reasons other than profit or because it is their career. Every year more than 1,400 groups provide about 8,000,000 individual opportunities for art participation. Those art forms cover every town and every community; they are held in community and parish halls, in barns, in pubs, even in people’s front rooms. It gives people the opportunity to attend and enjoy arts events in their local area; it is accessible art; it is people’s art and that is what the voluntary arts sector represents.

Why should we care about that sector? Well, apart from the fact that 160,000 of your friends and mine enjoy it and have 160,000 reasons for doing so, I will give you three reasons. First, there are the benefits that it brings.

The Programme for Government sets targets in relation to quality of life, well-being, active citizenship, creative industries and cultural tourism. Think of the voluntary dance, drama, arts festivals or music groups in your own constituencies which demonstrate that those groups contribute to the quality of life.

The fact that more than 10% of adults volunteer to help arts groups demonstrates the impact that those groups have on active citizenship. On the economic front, creative industries do not just spring up ready-made from nowhere; creative people need to gain an interest and hone their talents, and, often, they do that in the voluntary sector.

As to cultural tourism, traditional Irish and Ulster-Scots arts would not survive without the voluntary arts groups. Lace-making, drama festivals, Feiseanna, silver bands, choirs etc, are all voluntary, and all provide the unique culture and crack that local people and tourists enjoy.

Secondly, we care because the voluntary arts sector provides participants with an outlet that might not otherwise exist. Bands, dance clubs and drama clubs engage young men and women; crafts clubs bring out the elderly, perhaps out of isolation; music societies take performances to rural areas; sewing clubs ensure that skills are passed between generations. It is not the art of the élite, it is art participation by and for the community.

Thirdly, we think that that sector is vital to attaining DCAL targets. PSA 9 sets targets for increasing arts participation and audiences by 2%. The voluntary arts group is therefore a cultural asset. The sheer volume of participation and size of audiences mean that even a small percentage increase in the voluntary arts sector would make a major contribution to attaining the targets. Indeed, we suggest that DCAL cannot deliver PSA targets for the arts without including the voluntary arts sector, because that is where most participation takes place.

Our first request is that the Committee encourage and monitor the Department’s connection to the voluntary arts and cultural sector.

Miss Brenda Kent (Voluntary Arts Ireland):
Voluntary Arts Ireland’s avowed aim is to promote participation in the arts and crafts. We focus on the voluntary sector because, as Stephen said, that is where most participation takes place. We give advice and support on how to run a group. We also conduct research and provide a voice for the voluntary arts sector. We cover all of Northern Ireland, using seven — mainly part-time — workers, and provide support at times and in places that suit volunteers. Owing to the research that we have conducted and our overview, Voluntary Arts Ireland knows what is going on, and is increasingly concerned on two fronts: support and funding.

Voluntary arts organisations must meet various regulations on compliance, insurance, child-protection checks, charity law constitution, accounting, licensing, and health and safety. An individual cannot get up in the morning and set up a youth music club. All that that individual may want to do is to make and share their art; however, a host of things must be done before anyone sings a note. Last year, Voluntary Arts Ireland gave advice and support to over 200 groups, and many more used our online guides and printed briefings. Demand for our services increases as regulations increase. However, we employ the equivalent of just three and a quarter full-time workers, who are half-funded by a lottery grant that ends this year. How does DCAL plan to increase participation without ensuring support for the community activists who can deliver it?

Voluntary Arts Ireland’s other area of concern is funding. Some members of the Committee attended the Minister’s launch of our ‘Small Grants: Big Change’ report in the Long Gallery last September. That report found that voluntary arts groups successfully generate their own income, raise local support and contribute volunteer time to the value of £33 million a year. However, it also revealed that rising costs have upset the financial balance. Volunteers in wealthy communities may be able to absorb those extra costs; however, arts participation should not be limited to the rich. Therefore, volunteer groups need access to small grants to help them adjust and grow.

There are only two genuine sources of funding: Awards for All and local authorities. Awards for All gives grants to about 7% of voluntary arts groups each year; those tend to be one-off grants. Since the maximum award doubled, grants have generally been larger but less common. That threatens the availability of grants to groups that may only need a few hundred pounds.

Local authorities grant aid to about one in three voluntary groups each year. Those grants are usually just a few hundred pounds and vary from area to area, making participation something of a postcode lottery. There is also genuine concern that — under the review of public administration — larger councils will give bigger grants to bigger arts organisations. When that is combined with the trend towards service contracting, there is a real danger that small groups and those people who want to provide arts to the community will be left behind. Eva Tinnefeld points out that problem in the ‘Small Grants: big Change’ report.

We do not suggest that the Assembly deliberately seeks to shut down self-organising arts groups. However, DCAL’s lack of connection with the voluntary arts sector means that it cannot spot the consequences of decisions, which — by default rather than design — combine to leave voluntary arts out in the cold.

Therefore, our second request is that the Committee protects the voluntary arts sector by ensuring that the Department makes appropriate provision for policy consultation, support and funding.

I shall hand over to Bill Clements, who will sum up and suggest some concrete action points.

Mr William Clements (Voluntary Arts Ireland):
We ask for the Committee’s help to ensure that DCAL both connects and protects voluntary arts organisations. The voluntary arts do not fit neatly or entirely into the arts system: they concern culture and enabling people to practise that culture, and are about offering arts activities as a leisure pursuit to those who, otherwise, might not take part.

Voluntary Arts Ireland represents a sector that cuts across culture, arts and leisure. It works with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, local authorities and the Forum for Local Government and the Arts. Moreover, it is represented on the board of Audiences Northern Ireland, the DSD volunteering strategy steering group and the Creative and Cultural Skills panel.

However, there is no single platform on which to raise the concerns of the people who provide cultural, arts and leisure activities on a voluntary basis. Therefore, this vast sector has no more natural home than the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which is why we ask the Committee to encourage DCAL to connect and protect.

What might that mean in practice? There are two easy ways to connect. First, find out about the sector. Research driven by DCAL to map and monitor participation in the sector is essential to connecting with it and to delivering on PSA 9, and Voluntary Arts Ireland would be willing research partners.

Secondly, talk to the sector. Ten years ago, under the Partners for Change strategy, DCAL committed to regular meetings with the voluntary sector. A voluntary-arts-sector summit would be one way to act on that commitment, and one in which the sector could begin to engage with DCAL in the delivery of participation and audience targets.

There are two proposals for protecting voluntary arts. First, look at the arrangements for providing advice and support to the sector. Positive Steps proposed long-term funding and output agreements with the voluntary sector, and we would like to see that recommendation implemented.

Compared to other support bodies, Voluntary Arts Ireland receives a modest grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; however, relying on temporary lottery funding is inappropriate for supporting sustained growth in a sector that is crucial to delivering PSA targets. A model of departmental funding of regional support bodies might be explored.

Secondly, a small grants fund might be considered to help voluntary arts groups weather change and grow participation. We propose a fund managed by an existing grant-making body and financed by private contributions that are encouraged by matching Government funds. Such funds might be found, for example, among the unclaimed assets money that is soon to be released, some of which must be secured for arts and culture. In November, we submitted a paper to DCAL and to DSD, seeking £4,000 from each to conduct a feasibility study into setting up such a fund. Perhaps the Committee will encourage a considered departmental response to that.

We ask the Committee to ensure that DCAL connects with the voluntary arts sector, through research and a summit, and protects it by helping to ensure adequate support and small grants. We do not expect DCAL to do all the work. The sector is extremely good at working for itself. However, I hope that we have made clear its needs. The sector requires action by DCAL to help it to play its full role in delivering arts participation and audience growth across Northern Ireland. Thank you.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. Several members have indicated that they wish to ask questions.

Mr McCausland:
I agree entirely that the voluntary arts sector is a very important — perhaps underestimated and undervalued — sector in the arts community. In the past, it has not been as assertive as other sectors perhaps. That is why organisations such as Voluntary Arts Ireland has a particular part to play, and I value that.

I would like you to clarify one point. In your written submission it says:
“The sector has a poorly funded infrastructure leading to low visibility … DCAL has not actively pursued engaging with the sector through the Compact (Partners for Change) and there is no voluntary arts representation on the Joint Forum.”

I am aware of a joint forum between NICVA and the DSD voluntary community unit. Are you referring to that joint forum, or is there another?

Miss Kent:
Indeed. That joint forum is meant to cover the whole Government — it predates the Assembly —and there was originally a representative on it from — at that time — the Community Arts Forum. We agreed, because we cover similar, but very distinct, areas, that Voluntary Arts Ireland would put itself forward for it this time. No one at all from the arts community is on it at present, and that is worrying because there is a large overlap in the delivery of the commitment to the voluntary sector, of which we are part.

Mr McCausland:
That issue must be taken up with NICVA.

Miss Kent:
It is an issue in which departmental, or this Committee’s, lobbying or gentle persuasion would be advantageous.

Mr McCausland:
Yes. However, the Committee should use its influence on NICVA, as it is the body that oversees the process.

Apart from that, is there value in having a parallel arrangement, specifically with DCAL, whereby several arts and culture sectors might participate in a joint forum? Although some policy issues — for example, funding issues — and general Government issues could be dealt with through the joint forum, is there not merit in having something specific that focuses on DCAL, since it is the primary supporter of, and is responsible for funding, arts and culture?

The Chairperson:
Is that in accordance with Bill’s point about connecting? I find the statement that DCAL is not talking to the community arts sector amazing.

Mr Clements:
In my experience, in general, a lot of arts funding has been delegated to the Arts Council. In the earlier days, the Arts Council steered towards what would be known as high art. It was criticised for that, and it now seems to have jumped to targeting such community arts projects as, for example, the community circus. However, in between those two extremes, there is a vast body of voluntary arts groups, bands, choirs and drama groups, which operate right across the community. Such groups have operated for, perhaps, hundreds of years with virtually no support. They receive occasional grants to assist with one-off projects, while hundreds of thousands of pounds are given to newer festivals and various community projects, and millions of pounds are given to running things like the Ulster Orchestra. Voluntary Arts Ireland has fallen into that gap.

Mr McCausland:
Is there a consensus supporting the idea of a joint forum dealing with DCAL and the Arts Council? The Arts Council is ultimately answerable to DCAL, and such a forum would allow people to concentrate on issues relating to culture and arts.

Miss Kent:
I think you have identified something there. All Government Departments are meant to be represented on the joint forum, therefore DCAL attends it, but there is no one on it representing the voluntary arts sector. Direct communication with DCAL, rather than just communicating through the joint forum, is a fine idea. On occasions, that should involve the Arts Council, however, other groups may also need to be involved in that, because we do all not fit under the category of art.

Mr S Brown:
It is important that you do not get the impression that we are criticising the Arts Council or any other body. We are trying to say that the Arts Council has its own specific role, as do other community arts groups. We represent the voluntary arts sector, and we do not know who else might help us.

Mr McCausland:
If there were a joint forum with DCAL and the Arts Council, groups from the community arts, voluntary arts, professional arts and cultural traditions sectors would be represented on it. The Arts Council and DCAL would therefore have to listen to all of the voices in the sector, not just the very loud ones.

Mr P Ramsey:
Nelson has made a valid point. Last week the Committee was told of how the museums services were lacking strategic vision, and that can be related to today’s discussion.

I accept that, to some extent, responsibility for arts will be devolved to local government under RPA; however, we must consider how that relates to your organisation and how it can be improved. The Committee will be considering the terms of reference for an enquiry into art, and that issue should be considered during that process.

Recently, the Minister of Social Development hosted an event to acknowledge the contribution that is made by the voluntary sector. That is something that we should examine — perhaps not so much in this Committee, but, as part of the RPA, the effectiveness, efficiency and delivery of voluntary services should be considered. So many people dedicate their lives to this sector. I often see that in Derry.

As part of the review of public administration we should be looking at effectiveness and efficiency of delivery from your perspective, and considering how the review can relate to your work. I agree with Nelson that a forum should be established, so that groups such as yours are not marginalised as a result of RPA. I am concerned that the small grants, which provide the lifeblood for so many small organisations, could be lost under RPA. I take your point that the bigger groups who say more and appear more will get more funding.

In a previous meeting, we discussed the information about the existing grant allocation from local authorities. We did not get that information — perhaps the Committee Clerk will obtain it for us. However, we should examine the points that have been made about joined-up thinking, protecting the sector and about other levels of consultation. We should examine that in the round.

In considering arts underfunding, what avenues should we explore and what should we do to provide the economic argument and the qualitative evidence that art makes a difference in communities?

Mr Clements:
You should, for instance, survey the events on the ground. Many of them go on unnoticed; however, the figures add up to the involvement of a large percentage of the population, and it can be seen that they attract large audiences. Nelson McCausland made a good suggestion — the people who matter, such as DCAL, the Arts Council and groups from the voluntary sector, should be brought together to see what they can produce.

Mr S Brown:
Research has been carried out on that. I did not pluck the figure 1,400 out of the air — those organisations do exist. In fact, it is an underestimate, because many organisations are not formally organised and, therefore, carry on unnoticed. Most of them have a very small budget and survive by raising, say, 90% of their funds. All we are ever looking for, therefore, is approximately 10%, and 10% of a £5,000 budget is not a lot of money.

Voluntary Arts Ireland is worried about the small grants situation. We have seen the change since the one large local authority in Northern Ireland became very large. It no longer gives any small grants; it has abandoned those. We are concerned, therefore, that as another group of local authorities becomes large, a similar situation will occur. We are worried about that.

Mr D Bradley:
Your constituent members and the individuals in the various groups make a huge contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland. I understand that James Galway and other famous people rose through the ranks. That is good, but the engagement of ordinary people in the arts throughout their lives is the most important thing.

If the Committee were to contact DCAL about your concerns, it would probably be told that it is the job of the Arts Council to deal with the funding of the organisations represented by Voluntary Arts Ireland. Do you have a mentor on the board of the Arts Council? Do you have someone to voice your concerns at that level? If not, would it be useful to have someone who understands your work and your members’ concerns — not necessarily a member of any of your committees — in that position to express your concerns and make a case for what you want?

Miss Kent:
One of us was interviewed for the Arts Council, but does not sit on it — and we have tried each time an appointment process has arisen. [Laughter.] We contact members of the Arts Council’s council and brief them. It would be good to have a champion there. However, it does not get round the issue that the voluntary arts sector is larger than the Arts Council. The Arts Council can support art and artists. Whether it is the appropriate place to support the support bodies, such as ourselves, who do not do the art and who talk a language that is more strategic, is another issue. Furthermore, whether it can find a means to dole out the many small grants that people need — so that they know that their insurance is paid for the year, for instance, and that they are in a position to volunteer — is a question of operational efficiency. Hence, the proposal, that has been used elsewhere, of a separate fund for those areas, which is operated by someone else who already makes small grants. There are, therefore, huge efficiencies there.

We are not convinced that the Arts Council is the only match for the sector, and that is our message today. There needs also to be some sort of departmental contact.

The Chairperson:
Yesterday, I sent an email to DCAL asking them how support for a young artist could be advanced. They responded by advising me to tell the young artist to contact the Arts Council. I sent back another email asking them to give me a name and direct line phone number of the relevant person in the Arts Council. There was lack of engagement in the advice that I was given. The Arts Council is based in a big building called MacNeice House. Am I expected to throw a dart at it? How are people expected to speak to anybody there?

Mr McCartney:
In the presentation, you spoke about 1,400 groups. Do you have a core membership, or are you a point of contact for lobbying and giving advice?

Mr S Brown:
We do not have members; we have a core group of about 100 supporters who act as our electorate, voting for committee members. Mostly, however, we contact the sector via our website, by sending emails to those people we know, and by more informal processes.

Mr McCartney:
Do you have a list of those 1,400 groups, or is that just a figure that you know from your working experience?

Mr S Brown:
That is an extrapolated figure.

Miss Kent:
We have a database that covers the whole of Ireland, and which is very useful when one wants, for example, to put groups in contact with one another. The database had 4,500 groups on it at the last count. The figure of 1,400 was based on the 900 groups for which we had names and addresses in Northern Ireland when we did the research five years ago, since when the figure has grown.

In addition, Larne’s first arts officer, on appointment, said that there were no arts groups in the area. We did some work and found five groups. We then did research, asking locals what was going on. We came away with 69 groups at the first attempt. Therefore, we know that for every five groups in some areas, there are another 64 groups hiding somewhere. Perhaps Larne is an unusual example, because the town had not had an arts officer for groups to contact. However, we know that there are heaps of these groups that operate under the radar. They are run by people who stack shelves, bank tellers and bank managers, who have no clue about the Arts Council or how to contact it. So, yes, we have a list, but it does date quickly as chairpeople change.

Mr McCartney:
Your funding stream is all Northern-based from the Lottery and the Arts Council. Does Dublin contribute in any way, or have you asked?

Miss Kent:
We currently have a £60,000 annual grant from the Arts Council, plus the Lottery grants that allow us to have people out there. The Republic of Ireland gave us money a while ago to do a mapping study similar to the one that we carried out in the North. That happened three years ago, since when we have politely asked and talked to them every year about opening a funding stream, but that has not happened. At the moment we operate on a voluntary basis in the Republic of Ireland, but we maintain our contacts there on the grounds that it is a huge benefit to people in Northern Ireland. We often have people saying that they would love to do an exchange tour with, say, Kerry. We can also draw good examples of how local authorities, which are larger in the Republic of Ireland, work with the voluntary arts sector.

Mr S Brown:
None of the grant that we receive from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland is spent in the Irish Republic. The support for the Irish Republic is from the Voluntary Arts Network in England, which wants to keep at least in contact with the Irish Republic. Therefore, we have to make sure that our Arts Council grant does not go towards that work.

The Chairperson:
Does anyone have any concluding comments?

Mr S Brown:
The Voluntary Arts Sector is where arts participation happens in this country, involving one in 10 people, of all abilities and backgrounds, from cities to rural settlements. This is the people’s art, culture and leisure, and it is an essential part of who we are and what we do.

We simply ask the Committee to encourage the Department to take action to connect with us, and to protect the voluntary arts sector, not only because it can contribute hugely to meeting PSA 9 targets, but because it is part of the fabric of our society, and I hope that we demonstrated that. The voluntary arts sector is a large slice of the Northern Ireland social culture; and, if it disappeared, we would all be poorer.

Thank you for your time and attention. You have received supporting papers, and if there is anything about which you want to contact us, or if you want to put anyone in contact with us, please use the contact points in the documents.

The Chairperson:
You are certainly helping to concentrate our minds ahead of our inquiry. Thank you.

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