Verbal Chief Executive backs Arts Council '13P For The Arts' Campaign

In this opinion piece, Verbal Chief Executive James Kerr says we must fight to protect the arts

Picture for blog story Verbal Chief Executive backs Arts Council '13P For The Arts' Campaign

Conventional wisdom, my old friend...

What does it take to overturn conventional wisdom?  You know the type of wisdom that tells you, beauty is only skin deep or that stress is bad for you?  The type of wisdom that is irrefutable because you personally know it to be true even the dogs in the street know it to be true.

Reality is generally much more involved and complex than the truisms imply. Social patterns and behaviour frequently contradict the various wisdoms we embrace.  The problem with conventional wisdom is that most times it is faith masquerading as knowledge, which is a risky business. Beauty may well be only skin deep, but studies show physically attractive individuals fare better than those of average appearance. Stress can be detrimental to our health, yet in some instances it helps us be productive.

We all know that it can feel like a fool’s errand to present reality in the face of common sense’s grim tenacity; however, not to do so will inevitably lead us down a road where someone declares that the earth is really flat.

This brings us to the Department of Culture and Arts (DCAL) budget published last week in response to the Executive’s draft budget released at the start of November by the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton.  At 10 per cent DCAL was handed one of the largest cuts of all government departments despite being one of the smallest with its total expenditure representing only one per cent of total government spend.

Within the draft budget DCAL has acknowledged that libraried play a vital role within the community and must be afforded additional protection. This protection has consequences for other areas of DCAL responsibility specifically the arts which, it is proposed, should have its budget reduced by 11.2 per cent.

In real terms this means that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has to cut £1.38 million out of its funding and watch its budget shrink from £12.3m in 2014-15 to £10.9 in 2015-16 which takes arts funding back to below the levels for 2005-06.

So what’s the problem there are cuts to be implemented everywhere why should the arts be any different?

The problem is that at this point our old friend conventional wisdom comes racing in, and he has quite a loud voice when it comes to the arts.  Conventional wisdom on the arts says that they are only for a small section of the population, a privileged elite who spend their lives traipsing in and out of concert halls bedecked in their finery.

So we ask the question, why should we pay for them? Let them pay for it themselves public money should be spent on other more important things.

In 1895 Lord Kelvin, famous son of Belfast and then President of the Royal Society, incorrectly pronounced the conventional wisdom of the time that “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible!” He was obviously wrong then and we are wrong now.

Firstly who are the members of this elite in Northern Ireland - this select group of people who have control over a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power?

A cursory search of the internet will define members of the elite as those who recognize other members' mutual exalted position in society and as a rule, accept one another, understand one another, marry one another, tend to work and to think, if not together at least alike.

Reflect upon that when you are trying to imagine the elite in Northern Ireland.  I am convinced the first image that comes into your head won’t be any of the festivals, workshops, community outreach activities or events that take place every week.

The arts in Northern Ireland aren’t for the elite; and here I go on my fool’s errand.  

For anyone who has a sneaking suspicion that the Earth may be flat here are some statistics, 79 per cent of Arts Council investment goes to the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland.  That adds up to over £9.7 million and doesn’t leave a lot for the elite.

53 per cent of the work undertaken by the Arts Council’s core clients takes place in Neighbourhood Renewal areas

68 per cent of the work undertaken by the Arts Council’s core clients is delivered on a cross-community basis

55 per cent of the work undertaken by the Arts Council’s core clients takes place in hospitals, schools and with community organisations.

When you put all this together the arts work with a whole series of different groups from children and young people taking the first tentative steps in coming to terms with the limitless possibilities available through their imagination, to local communities engaged in exploring new and positive ways to express their community identity, to older people refusing to be limited by chronology intent on expressing the full potential of their lives.  

Practically everywhere across our society you will see artists and arts organisations working on a daily basis creating and enabling life affirming expressions of art and not, as conventional wisdom would have you believe, delivering an exclusive activity for the elite.

All of this work is produced from an investment of 13p per person per week in direct funding for the arts which equates to 0.1 per cent of total government spending.

Perhaps this is the opportunity that comes from a crisis, if all of us, together, recognise and declare that conventional wisdom when it comes to the arts is out of date and wrong.  That the arts touches the lives of many people in our society and that investing 0.1 per cent of total government spending is, in reality, very little and that now is the time when we say no to cuts and reject the proposal.

The DCAL budget is still in draft format and is presently out for public consultation. This is the chance to make your voice heard and tell the Minister and the Executive that you don’t support the cut.  

Visit the Arts Council website for more information.

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