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 Richard Croxford )
Mr Dan Gordon ) Lyric Theatre
Mr Ciaran McAuley )
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
We now move to an evidence session with representatives of the Lyric Theatre. Their written submission and a list of themes that members may want to raise are contained in members’ packs. I invite the Lyric Theatre representatives, Ciarán McAuley, Richard Croxford and Dan Gordon, to join us at the table. I do not know what guise Dan will come here under today.
Mr K Robinson:
That is what I was thinking. [Laughter.]
JJ Murphy is in the Public Gallery, but he is not allowed to speak.
Mr P Ramsey:
Do not encourage him.
He is banned from speaking. [Laughter.]
Good morning. It is still morning; we have not reached the afternoon yet, but we are not far away. I formally welcome the three representatives of the Lyric Theatre: Ciarán McAuley, executive director, Richard Croxford, artistic director, and Dan Gordon, board member, among other things.
Mr Ciarán McAuley (Lyric Theatre):
I thank the Chairperson and Committee members for inviting us here to provide evidence to your inquiry. Our presentation will be in three parts, and we will stick within our time limit.
I have a background as a chartered accountant, so I will provide some data that supports the case for arts funding to be increased. I will then hand over to my colleague Richard who will talk about what we believe we could do with greater funding and about the opportunities for developing as a society in Northern Ireland through increased arts funding. Finally, Dan will tell some stories about what is happening on the ground and how that changes people’s lives. We will focus on theatre, because it is our background and also because it is the mother art form that involves other creative areas. Theatre essentially incorporates everyone in the arts industry: musicians, set designers, writers, people who work in lighting or multimedia, and so on.
I apologise in advance for repeating information that you have already received. You are probably tired of being given statistical data on arts funding and being told that the arts in Northern Ireland is heavily underfunded. You will not be surprised to hear me make that argument or point out that Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland in that regard, with only £7·58 per capita spent on arts here.
There is a very strong case for increasing arts funding. KPMG and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland carried out economic studies on both the Lyric Theatre and the Grand Opera House. There is evidence to suggest that every £1 of funding that the Arts Council invests in the Lyric Theatre generates £3·25 in the local economy. That is a significant economic driver. The Grand Opera House is an economic generator, because it contributes more than £5 to the local economy for every pound that it receives in public subsidies.
The 2004 Shellard Report conservatively estimated that professional theatre alone contributes £2·6 billion to the UK economy. That makes a strong case that arts is a key economic contributor to society.
Of Northern Ireland’s population, 4·6% — about 33,000 people — are currently employed in the creative industries, which puts them on a par with agriculture. That compares with the average of 6·8% for the rest of the UK. In an Assembly debate on 9 October 2007, the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, reported that emulation of what was occurring in the rest of the UK could potentially generate the substantial figure of a further 11,000 new jobs in the creative industries in Northern Ireland. It may be difficult to do so in the current economic climate, but that is a figure on which to home in.
Northern Ireland is undoubtedly becoming a key tourist attraction. Cultural tourism is growing faster than any other tourist sector, and engages 39% of the visitors to Northern Ireland every year, which equates to about 224,000 people. Any Committee members who have been to other cities will realise that the cultural infrastructure of a city is attractive to tourists — from players of Mozart in a Prague church to the Louvre in Paris. Visitors want to go to a city’s cultural venues and experience the cultural products. Our objective is to create a vibrant tourist destination in Belfast with a cultural product that is both bought in and can compete with the west end in other cities and with an indigenous product that people will not get anywhere else.
Business leaders cite the presence of a rich cultural environment as one of the major incentives for locating their businesses in a city. We welcome the significant investment in Northern Ireland’s capital infrastructure over the past few years. However, we believe that without a significant increase in revenue funding to support activities in our theatres and arts spaces, there is a real risk of being unable to realise the full potential of our arts and education products. That is particularly true in a market in which competition for the leisure pound is becoming stronger and more varied.
Northern Ireland is already a significant national and international exporter of artistic talent. It has already produced people whose names we all know, such as Liam Neeson, Jimmy Nesbitt, Stephen Rea, Adrian Dunbar, Marie Jones, Stewart Parker, Ken Branagh, Graham Reid, Geraldine Hughes, Zara Turner, Bronagh Gallagher, Christina Reid, Martin Lynch, Jennifer Johnston and Ciarán Hinds — who acted in the HBO series ‘ Rome’. Those people all work at a national and international level. If we can do that with the funding that we have had to date, just imagine what could be achieved with more funding. I will hand over to my colleague Richard who will talk more about that.
Mr Richard Croxford (Lyric Theatre):
With greater levels of funding, our vision is to build upon the Lyric’s established role as a centre of regional excellence and position it as an international-class theatre based in Northern Ireland. The Lyric has the potential to draw people not just locally, but from around the world. For the creative energy that it produces, and artistry of life that it induces, the Lyric will have the greatest reputation for producing the finest in theatre through a year-round programme of activities.
The new building will consist of a 394-seat main auditorium, a 150-seat studio, a rehearsal room and an education room. It will be a source of great pride for local people and a must-visit tourist attraction. Audiences will be able to see a much broader range of shows — classical, modern, comedy, tragedy and musical genres. They will see the boundaries of theatre stretched and their lives reflected, explored and celebrated through theatrical ingenuity. Local artists will be supported and developed into the stars of tomorrow, like those about whom Ciarán talked, and that will help the image of Northern Ireland, not just here but beyond these shores.
The dedicated education spaces in the new theatre will enable the Lyric Theatre to provide significantly enhanced opportunities for children from all areas and social backgrounds to have access to the arts, to develop socialisation and communication skills and to interact outside their traditional community boundaries, all within a safe, supportive and professionally regulated environment.
The Lyric Theatre’s vastly improved facilities will also help us to reach out to communities that we have not previously been able to. As well as enhancing those communities’ artistic skills, work on dynamic arts projects will explore issues that are relevant to those communities. The Lyric Theatre will give them a voice and the opportunity to share with other communities.
Therefore, 2011 will see a major watershed in the development of professional drama in Northern Ireland through the Lyric Theatre. After decades of poor infrastructure and sectoral underdevelopment, Belfast will experience the impact of having the quality and scale of facilities that have long been enjoyed by similar-sized cities — or will it? The impact that I have described will not be possible without substantial investment of public and private funding in the development of infrastructure and the annual programme of cultural projects and events.
The Government’s investment in arts infrastructure has already provided new arts spaces in Northern Ireland. However, what good are spaces if we have nothing to put into them? Do Northern Irish theatre audiences not deserve better than a few small-scale productions? Greater resources enable more productions of a higher standard and on a larger scale. Writers and companies are frequently reduced to writing for small cast plays. Consequently, the spectacle element of theatre — which is one way to attract new audiences — is lost. Moreover, local artists will obtain less work, and the creative drain of talent from Northern Ireland will continue.
Given that many work and leisure pursuits now occur with individuals sitting at computers, we need the arts now more than ever. Shared cultural experiences build communities, and that is exactly what theatre provides. The Assembly has the power to be proactive and recognise the benefits of the arts. Investment in the arts is an investment in all our futures, because the arts have the potential to help to create more rounded human beings who are not only capable of being a positive attribute in society, but are keen to do so.
Mr Dan Gordon (Lyric Theatre):
I have not prepared a major speech. As a practitioner in the industry, I will approach the issue from an anecdotal angle. When people ask me what I do for a living, I usually tell them that I am a painter and decorator. If I tell them that I am an actor, they say: “Well, I have never seen you in anything”. I feel a wee bit bad about that. People who recognise me are usually complimentary. The profession has been undervalued for many years, and the concept of actors being rogues and vagabonds has existed since theatre’s inception.
We achieve a lot, but our achievements are difficult to put down on paper. Nowadays, people require facts and figures. They want to know how many people watched a play, but one cannot make value judgements about how effective a play is or how it affected those who viewed it. I have been associated with the Lyric Theatre for about 30 years, and the first show that I saw was a play called the ‘The Colleen Bawn’ starring Liam Neeson. I still remember the cast, and what I took from the play. It was a very moving and exciting experience. However, it is impossible to describe exactly what effect it had on me.
The gentlemen who are with me, and previous visitors to the Committee, will have outlined the well-rehearsed argument about how theatre can generate finance and profile. It has always been a hand-to-mouth existence. In the late 1980s, I made a decision to stay in this country and work on plays about here for people here, because that excited me. I say that with due respect to other actors who can go and play Banquo, Macbeth, and so on in Musselburgh, Plymouth or Exeter. I had my time doing that. Not everybody can do what we do. For example, not everybody can use a particular pronunciation of the letter h and make 1,000 people laugh. Those people understand the intricacies of our cultural existence, and I enjoy that strength and the ability to do that in a theatre.
We are in the business of making plays. I make no excuse for that. All my life in this country has been about searching for identity and trying to determine who I am, where I am, where I am going to and where I am coming from. Many people here struggle with those questions. Over the years, the use of drama and the arts to find an expression has been magnificent. However, it has been a hand-to-mouth existence; we are always worrying about the next play and about how many actors we can afford.
The gentlemen who are with me mentioned a centre of excellence. I like that description very much, and we are, to a degree, the only game in town. The Lyric Theatre is the only remaining producing theatre that has a company of people who can be used to produce plays regularly. We have lost people such as Michelle Fairley, who has lived in London for a long time and who will play George Best’s mother in a drama on BBC2 on Sunday night. Actresses such as Zara Turner from ‘Sliding Doors’ and the bigger names such as Neeson, Nesbitt and Dunbar have had to seek work elsewhere.
We have many very good actors, technicians and writers who want to be creative here. If we do not invest in that, those numbers will drop. We need to be able to walk before we can run, too. We must produce work here for our own audiences and our own people. Of course, I want to make productions for the rest of Ireland, the UK, the States and Europe. I would love to do that. However, I want to do that for people here first of all, because that is where I am from. That is what interests and excites me about the Lyric Theatre.
I will quickly describe a group of people that I worked with in a youth theatre called the Lyric drama studio, which we have relaunched. It has re-emerged a number of times over the years. I was involved with the studio in 1980-81, and included in that group of people who spawned from the Lyric Theatre were Bill Neely, the ITN correspondent, Emer Gillespie, who is now a children’s novelist, and Wallace McDowell, who is a theatre practitioner and lecturer at the University of Warwick. There were also Dermot Boyd, who has directed ‘Ballykissangel’ and worked with Gielgud and Richardson when they were alive, and Stephen Spence, who is the assistant general secretary of Equity. That was just one group of people who were involved with the Lyric Theatre at that time. I could go on for hours listing other groups and talking about what can be achieved exponentially, but I will not.
All of the people in the theatre community throughout the Province, and well beyond, have come through or been involved with the Lyric Theatre at some stage. They have either appeared on the stage or have seen a production there that has moved them and given them the drive to get involved in the business.
An outreach and education programme has also spawned from the theatre’s work. There has been a resurgence. We are working with the Ulster-Scots Agency on a number of schools projects. Prior to that, we visited 30 primary schools at the beginning of the year in an attempt to reach out and build our audiences. We want to get children into the theatre, not just to see pantomimes and Christmas shows — although that is very often their first experience — but to see real plays, something that is very exciting and more immediate than just watching a film or playing a Playstation game.
That is all I want to say for now, because I think we need to start the question-and-answer session. Thank you very much for listening.
Mr D Bradley:
Thank you very much. I think the last play that I saw you in was ‘The Hypochondriac-t’.
No, I directed it.
Was Stephen Nolan not in that show? [Laughter.]
Mr D Bradley:
He certainly should have been. Congratulations, it was very enjoyable. I am very appreciative of the work done by the Lyric Theatre through the years. I have seen many good shows, the latest of which was ‘Pumpgirl’, which was on tour. It was an excellent production, and I congratulate the playwright, Abbie Spallen. I see that she recently received one of the Stewart Parker awards. Perhaps, Chairman, we could consider writing to congratulate her on that.
One of the most surprising things that I heard in your presentation was your assertion that the creative industries were on a par with the agriculture industry. I was taken aback by that, because we all know that the agriculture industry is one of the mainstays of the economy here. Few of us would have imagined that the creative arts industries were on a par with that industry, and I do not think that the general population in Northern Ireland is aware of that. If the general public and the political classes realised that, perhaps they would place more value on the work that you do, and you would be in a stronger position to attract more funding and support.
How do you think that you can promote that particular statistic and ensure that your industry is to the forefront of the minds of the public and the politicians here when it comes to consideration of the economy?
There is a lack of understanding among the general population as to what the arts are and what they can be. That is no reflection on the general population; we are all guilty of that. There is a perception that the arts are highbrow, and that they exist in a theatre and in buildings in which some people do not consider themselves as either belonging or feeling comfortable. We need to break down that perceptual barrier and show that the arts are not that; they are something much greater than that. Everybody who watches a soap opera on TV is watching something that has been generated by the arts. Every one of those actors, technicians, producers and directors has come from an artistic background, whether they have been working in a theatre or in other arts projects.
We have to get the message across to the general population that the creative industries are much wider than just a theatre, stage or play, and we must make people realise that the arts have much closer links with people on the ground than they might perceive. What we have to do, as a theatre and as an arts community, is not only get that message out, but continue to break down the perceptual barriers to enable people to feel comfortable crossing the threshold of a theatre.
I have found that some people feel uncomfortable coming to a show for the first time, because they do not know what to do during the interval, whether they need to wear a black tie and suit, whether they have to clap at a certain time or whether they can get up and go to the toilet. For us, the experience is probably second nature, but for many people who have never been to a theatre before, it is quite terrifying. Therefore, we need to find ways of bringing people into the theatre, other than to see a theatrical production. We need to introduce them to the building, the people and the concepts, so that they feel comfortable the next time that they come. That can be done through education projects or through a musical recital, or by introducing kids to workshops at a young age. We have to find a way of doing that. The mission for us is to find those routes. We are already working very hard on that, but, again, with greater funding, the opportunities would be much wider.
The media also has a large part to play. The media in Northern Ireland has not been particularly supportive of the theatre in general. Dan now writes a column for the ‘Sunday Life’, but we need more coverage of the arts. Such coverage seems to be getting cut back further and further, and that is not helping at all. Messages from the Government, the Arts Council and public bodies are hugely helpful. When we are looking for extra financial support, we find that if people know that we have the backing of DCAL and the Arts Council, it makes a considerable difference, and it helps to get the message across to people about the benefits of the arts.
Mr D Bradley:
I take your point about the need to widen the appeal of the arts and to break down the perceptions that it is the fur-coat brigade who attend theatres. The point that I was getting at was that the economic significance of the arts is much greater than people realise, and it is a message that we need to bring home to the general public and to the Government. That, in itself, makes a very strong case for greater support and greater promotion from the point of view of finances and resources.
It is better when other people say those things for us, because, if we say such things, it just sounds like we are banging our own drum. These types of sessions are helpful.
Mr D Bradley:
Farmers are not afraid to bang their own drums, Dan.
We do bang our own drum, but, if people in authority point out the facts and say that they accept them as such, we have a much better chance of promoting our message.
I want to develop the issue a bit further. We are obviously living in very difficult financial times, and the creative industries are just as important as the financial industry. That is something that we should look at. These are very exciting times with the opening of the new Lyric Theatre. Are you providing any opportunities for creative apprenticeships for young people who are coming out of secondary or tertiary education? Do you have any programme for bringing them into the creative industries, which, as I said, are as important as the financial industry?
What is the private sector’s involvement in your new projects, and are you happy with the contribution that it makes to the arts? Do you believe that the Department could help you to access private funding? Do you think that the Department has played the role that it should have in promoting the arts?
With regard to the opportunities for young people, just before Easter we had performances at the Lyric drama studio, which has just been restarted. It is purely for young people from the ages of 18 to 22. Every week they meet to get tuition from local facilitators, as well as facilitators of international renown. Since January, they have been working on text, and they did a performance just before Easter.
We are keen to carry on with work. The participants come from different backgrounds and all walks of life. They come from Belfast, County Down, Warrenpoint, Donaghmore, Donegal, London and the USA. There was even a girl from the Czech Republic; she is now based in Belarus but is living in Belfast at the moment. So, there is a broad range of people. We also have the Lyric summer schemes, in which we work with children and young people. We hope to expand those schemes, and they are aimed at developing artistic skills as well.
I saw a very fine performance by Cregagh Primary School about the shipyard, and it compared very favourably with most professional productions. It is encouraging to see young people of that age being encouraged take part in local drama.
We have a number of education projects, and that one was aimed at primary schools. We go into schools as a professional organisation. We show them how a professional organisation produces a piece of theatre and how to develop it so that they will get the best from it. As you said, the results spoke volumes.
We have also been doing education projects with secondary schools. We did a production of ‘The Home Place’ recently, and we took that into secondary schools. Again, the children were from all over the place, although mainly from Belfast — Ashfield Girls’ High School, St Joseph’s College, Lagan College, St Louise’s Comprehensive College, Hunterhouse College, St Malachy’s College, Victoria College, Belfast Metropolitan College and a school in Edinburgh. That project took elements of ‘The Home Place’ and explored the theatrical dimensions. There were also social issues as a result of the production; it was not just about the theatrical elements.
Mr K Robinson:
Thank you very much for your presentation. Could I major on Dan this morning? Dan, I congratulate you on establishing my identity for me. I have listened to you talking on the radio about the Markethill band parade — something that I have never attended but hope to, having heard your very objective commentary on what was happening and your interview with the people there. You gave an insight into the east Belfast community around the demolition of the houses around the Oval at Dee Street, and so forth. Again, you let the people say who they were.
You work with primary schools, which have a lot of potential. As a former primary school principal, I was horrified to find four clergymen’s daughters cavorting in tights in their school production of ‘Cabaret’. I also watched your programme on young offenders, which I thought was tremendous. Your patience was also tremendous — saintly, in fact. However, you got the end product and you brought those young people with you.
You have made a breakthrough and the Lyric Theatre is now on the cusp of a new era. In the past, the Lyric Theatre did not represent me or my community. You described my experience completely: the last time I went there I felt totally uncomfortable and out of place. That was several years ago. You must break that mould. I will mention the elephant in the room. One community is very involved in the arts; it is its bread and butter; its meat and drink. However, my community is somewhat stilted in its approach to the arts. We are not quite sure whether it is us, and when we do go to see productions, they sometimes do not really reflect us as we feel we are.
That is why I wanted to turn to you first. You have made that breakthrough, and the Lyric Theatre now has the potential to break through into the Protestant/unionist community in a way that was never possible before. I congratulate you on what you are trying to do, and I bring those matters to your attention.
I will now ask you the question that I was told to ask you. What actions do you think the Department or the Arts Council could take to promote and develop investment in theatre here to the levels that we see across the water and down South?
To go back to what Richard said earlier, there is the idea that there is a very vocal presence. Also, to go back to the agriculture argument; agriculture is always at the forefront of press statements in the news, the media and the in stories that go out into the public forum. The arts are not like that. They are always the poor cousin, and they hit the news or press statements only if something significant happens. Change must be driven by Government, by the media and by us on the ground. We need to create a larger presence to put the arts up there and represent them as a significant player in people’s social lives and the economy. If we can raise the platform of the arts and the importance that they play in society, relationships, education and the economy, we will then be able to use that to leverage greater funding out of organisations, trusts and foundations.
The Arts Council, the Government and the media need to find a combined approach, through joined-up thinking, and develop a strategy to increase the profile of the arts throughout society. They need to help people to realise how it affects them on every level.
Mr K Robinson:
Dan, you made a comment about our uniqueness, and that is great for local audiences. However, we, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, are interested in attracting visitors to Northern Ireland. What can the new theatre — with its new facilities, plays and actors — offer a visitor to Belfast? How can the theatre provide for them? How can you attract visitors to the theatre? How will you make the theatre relevant to, I hope, a growing tourism industry?
It is about representing our identity on stage. Visitors come here to see us. We could bring them here and show them ‘Blood Brothers’ or ‘Hello, Dolly!’, but people can see that anywhere.
With respect, and digressing slightly, you mentioned that our community has not been represented to the extent that it might have been. Many playwrights — from Stewart Parker to Graham Reid and Christina Reid — have represented our cultural identity on stage, but that has not been recognised as such because of some people’s attitude of fear about going to the theatre, which I also grew up with. We are trying to open the theatre up to those people.
Much of the work that I have done through the Lyric has happened behind the scenes. We are not terribly good at advertising events, because we are busy preparing for them. We have not got the people to encourage investment and lobby for planning down the line. We are firefighting as we go along.
We are very conscious that we are Belfast-centric. Do not get me wrong, I love Belfast, but we really want to get out of it. The advent of the new arts centres all around the Province is fantastic. However, if we do not continue to invest in people and theatres such as the Lyric — which allows us to take our product out and about — unfortunately, art centres, through no fault of their own, will be hosting wrestling events, which has already happened in several arts centres. There is a place for that, but I hope that we can give more than that. It is about allowing investment. Unfortunately, it comes down to investment, because money allows us to take plays on tour, which we are willing to do.
If we could show plays that are written by local playwrights we would, but playwrights cannot just sit down and write a play such as ‘Pumpgirl’. It takes a long time to develop a script. Really, we rush scripts out, because often we have got only six months to do it when really we would like a year or a year and a half. Some scripts need to be done immediately because they are relevant and “now”. However, in order to make a really good script, development is needed, and that takes money and time.
For example, in the past five years the Abbey Theatre has commissioned 27 playwrights, or was that in the past year?
That is just this year.
How many playwrights have we commissioned?
Mr K Robinson:
I rest my case.
You referred to the positive impact of the establishment of a national theatre in Scotland. In November 2008, the Lyric Theatre attended a round-table meeting that the Committee organised to discuss the possibility of a similar theatre being built in Northern Ireland. Can you tell us what progress the various stakeholders have made since that meeting? Have any formal proposals been put to the Department?
No formal proposals have been put to the Department. I know that the Northern Ireland Theatre Association held a meeting on Monday, but, unfortunately, I was not able to attend, because I was at another meeting in Dublin. I have yet to see the minutes of that meeting. However, I know that Drew McFarland from Equity was going to put the idea forward.
We support the proposal of building a national theatre like Scotland’s. However, that would be a separate organisation from the Lyric; it would be over and above what we do. We see ourselves as a centre of excellence. The concept of a national theatre may open a can of worms that we do not want to open. We just want to do plays. We do not want to create the identity of a new organisation. Other people want to do that and are equipped to so. We raised £4 million from private sources to rebuild the theatre; our energies have been confined to that. The Northern Ireland theatre initiative is slightly higher up from us.
Having spoken to people who are involved in a number of other theatre companies, I am aware that views were expressed that were similar to those that came up in the round-table discussion. We need to put money into the existing infrastructure. We are not ready. In Scotland, it was the perfect time for developing a national theatre. We are not that far along yet; we do not have the infrastructure in place to even consider it. We must get the infrastructure right for the theatre companies that are here already, and then we can look at developing a national theatre.
You want to concentrate on what we have at the moment.
Mr K Robinson:
My question follows on from what Dominic Bradley said about the media. You want to write plays and be a centre for excellence. You need a shop window, which you have in the theatre and the studio facility. What help, encouragement or practical shop-window experience do you get from the local media — the BBC or UTV?
We did a lot of work to get media coverage for ‘The Home Place’, and we were quite successful. However, we were fortunate that we had a very good cast, and that Brian Friel’s eightieth birthday celebrations were happening around the same time. The Lyric had not been at the Grand Opera House for a long time, and we had Conleth Hill. There were lots of exciting things for the media to latch on to, but it did take a lot of man-hours and resources that we do not have a lot of.
Mr K Robinson:
Do you have to approach media outlets, rather than them seeking you out?
Yes. Occasionally they come to us, but most of the time it is us doing the pushing.
Mr K Robinson:
That is what I suspected.
Mr P Ramsey:
In your submission you made reference to the dependency of arts organisations on public money, and you recommended that there should be a three-year funding stream rather than a one-year arrangement. What is your understanding of the Arts Council’s perspective? Why does it not go with a three-year funding stream? I imagine that three-year funding would reduce or curtail new thinking and creativity to an extent. Is that the rationale? What is the justification from your perspective for three-year rolling funding?
As Mr Gordon said, an arts project takes a significant length of time to produce from idea to fruition. It does not happen within a year; three-year funding allows an element of risk to be introduced to the production of the work. If there is no risk, creativity is limited. In a one-year funding window, risk has to be reduced; scripts and production have to be rushed in order to get the work completed within the year, because the funding is assured in that year. A three-year funding assurance means that risks can be taken and creativity can be encouraged.
We are part of a three-year funding programme with the Arts Council, but it is three-year funding in name only, because the Arts Council is wholly reliant on funding from the Department that is provided on a yearly basis. Although the Arts Council commits to providing some three-year funding, it cannot tell us from year to year what level of funding that will be until it hears from the Department. That element of risk is still there, and it curtails the artistic product that we have.
The new Lyric Theatre is supposed to open in 2011. At the moment, I am in discussions with people in order to pull together a programme of work for 2011-12 that will be amazing and worthy of Northern Ireland’s finest. I want to bring in high-calibre people such as Liam Neeson, and I need to be talking to them now. However, I do not have a clue what the budget will be. The original strategy for drama led us to believe that the Lyric should have a core budget of £1·5 million, but at the moment we are on £650,000. There is obviously a huge difference there, but I need to know what the budget will be so that I can plan that far ahead. It is very straightforward.
I have three questions. First, you mentioned a programme that you were doing with the secondary schools. How was that funded? I am aware of the primary-school programme, but I wonder about the secondary schools.
The secondary-school project was funded from money we received from the Arts Council to further our education work.
This is an observation more than a question, and it relates to what Ken said earlier. A community and a culture feel valued and validated when they are represented in the schools and in the media. If that community and culture is on television, in the newspapers or in the classroom, it is valid and valued. Therefore, things like the Markethill parade have a particular importance. When a community sees itself reflected in the theatre, in drama or on television programmes, and it is not constantly portrayed in a negative way, it is good for that community and for society in general.
In trying to create a shared future, the key issue is for people to feel comfortable in their community. Therefore, there is a huge opportunity when the new theatre opens for you all to reach out to the community, and I encourage you all to do that, because as Ken said earlier there is not the same affinity with the arts in that community as there might be in other communities.
In relation to funding decisions made by the Arts Council, you have stated in your submission that:
“Special monitoring mechanisms are required to ensure that autonomy does not result in irresponsibility.”
Does that indicate that you have concerns about how funding is currently being allocated by the Arts Council? Do you think that the necessary monitoring mechanisms are currently in place?
Sorry Nelson, which section of our submission is that in?
I have got the quote here, but I do not know what section it is taken from. In relation to funding decisions made by the Arts Council, you say that:
“Special monitoring mechanisms are required to ensure that autonomy does not result in irresponsibility.”
While we are talking about this, the Clerk will obviously have no difficulty in finding exactly the relevant line, which is more than I can do. [Laughter.]
I think that we are very well monitored. When we have to fill in any forms, or deal directly with the Arts Council, a liaison person is present. Indeed, we run ideas past the council before submitting particular projects, and if they feel that those projects will not fly then we do not put them in. Therefore, there is a fairly high degree of monitoring. I would say — because I do not do it — that there is too much monitoring.
At which point the Chairperson has now got the line in your submission that I was referring to.
Yes. It is at paragraph 6.3 on page 9 of the submission.
That point is set against the argument that perhaps funding should be taken away from the Arts Council and transferred to local councils. We would be concerned about that, because we feel that the arm’s-length position of the Arts Council, and other funding organisations, is beneficial as there is peer-to-peer assessment of funding and the organisations that are being funded.
That is our preference. However, one must also realise the possible negativity of granting the power to one organisation to make those decisions; you still need someone on the other side to ensure that the decisions are proper and correct. It is about not giving too much power to one organisation to make decisions free of any interventions or monitoring.
How do you monitor?
We are the recipient —
You said that you could give too much power to one organisation.
What mechanism would you use to ensure that that power was not misused or used carelessly?
It is an interesting question that I do not necessarily have the answer to.
It is the question that you have raised. I am looking for an answer.
It might be a rhetorical question.
Never raise a question unless you know the answer to it. [Laughter.]
The point is that it needs to be monitored. However, we do not necessarily have the answer as to who should monitor it and what the best mechanism for that monitoring would be. I hope that that sort of answers your question.
Are there issues arising at the moment that indicate a need for that?
No. We do not have any concerns at the moment. It is an overall principle that we would like to see followed.
There is a concern — not just with reporting to the Arts Council, but with any funding organisation, including Belfast City Council — is that a great deal of the determination is based on the numbers of audiences, and none of it is about the actual quality of the experience. Some of it is, but quality and benefits are such difficult things to measure, like how a child in one of the primary schools that we have been working in has improved their artistic and social skills.
For instance, we did the ‘Wizard of Oz’ a couple of years back to close the Lyric. There was a little boy in that production who was one of the munchkins. He had not spoken for two years, and he came to audition. He was very nervous and hardly spoke. Through that experience, however, he developed, and he was given the announcement to do at the start of the show with a microphone, and he was amazed at hearing his own voice going round the whole theatre.
That is a real benefit, and how does one measure it? It is very hard to retrieve such information, as opposed to saying that there were 439 people in the audience. That needs to be taken into consideration.
How does the Lyric Theatre work with, or share its skills with, the amateur and community arts sector, including beyond Belfast?
Mr K Robinson:
That would not be west of the Bann, would it?
No, but it would include that.
As far away as that?
I liken education and outreach to golfing. There are amateur golfers and professional golfers, and there is not a lot of interaction there in many ways other than going to see them and how they perform. However, in education and outreach, we have had ―
The Lyric would say that the professional arts make an enormous contribution to the sustainable development of community.
That is the point that you are making.
Yes, that would be the point. We did not mention, for example, ‘Be My Baby’, a play set in the 1960s about teenage pregnancies that toured schools recently and had a vast influence on the older children who saw it.
We have a relationship with a lot of the major amateur companies in Belfast. They can come to us — and we have had others — and borrow the plant from ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ or borrow a lot of props and costumes. We have a very good interaction with them and, for a small outlay for administration and cleaning the stuff, they borrow gear from us. We have loaned them lights and such things. For ‘The Boat Factory’, for example, we loaned lights and things to schools because we were not using them.
However, there are difficulties when it comes to physical things because of insurance, transportation, and — particularly with electrical equipment — with regard to who will be handling it. In that sense, it is difficult. For a period, we had the Ulster amateur drama finals in the Lyric, but we do not have a building now, so that has dropped away. However, just a couple of weeks ago we were discussing re-instigating that. They did it in the Opera House for a while, but that was too big, and they found a very comfortable home for that week or two in the Lyric. That is one way that we are working towards the amateur companies. A lot of the amateurs come along and sit and watch me, and say that they could do a lot better.
I see supporting amateur companies as providing the professional expertise that guides them through the processes.
We have an opportunity with this inquiry, and we are at a point on the road where we can make a decision that the arts make a significant contribution to society in Northern Ireland, economically and socially. The best analogy that I can use for the arts at the moment is that it is a sick patient. We are existing hand to mouth. We are restricted in what we can do. We are a creative industry with so many ideas to get out there and change people’s lives, even breaking down barriers.
I heard Dan Gordon’s piece on the bands on the radio. I thought that that was incredible and a part of culture to which I had never been exposed. I found that an incredible piece. Going to ‘The Boat Factory’ in Cregagh Primary School and hearing bits of Ulster Scots in the story about the boatyards, I found it interesting as someone who does not know about elements of that community.
We have an opportunity now to look at investing in the arts and really making it a body that can significantly change, and contribute to, our society ― and significantly contribute to bringing people into our society and putting us on an international stage and showing them that Northern Ireland really is a place to be reckoned with.
OK. Thanks very much to the Lyric Theatre for coming along for the engagement.
I have some literature that I will leave for the Committee, if that is OK. If I may also draw your attention to the Lyric website, where we have been filming and editing a lot of stuff by children with whom we have been working in the outreach programme. Some of it is up now, and some, which I only edited last night, will be up by Monday. If you get a chance to have a wee look at our website, you might get more information there.