Cuts to the arts and cultural services hit the people who need it hardest- nowhere is this more-so the case than in Northern Ireland. As we come into the second half of a decade defined by austerity, the future of the arts and the quality of cultural life in Britain and Northern Ireland seem more in peril than ever. Perhaps in the UK we’ve become accustomed to having our cultural services treading water; but the question now is whether we’re prepared to watch them sink and, if not, whether we are prepared to take action?
Stretched local council budgets are set to have harsh implications on the arts. One council member, Ian Stephens, has said that the prospect of a £2.6bn social care funding gap by 2020 will mean that councils will have to “divert more money from other local services, including cultural services, to try and plug growing social care funding gaps.” This is a sobering reality for advocates of the arts—when services like social care are struggling to stay afloat, spending millions on a new classical music opera hall in London is a tough pitch.
Yet herein lies a part of the problem; the amount of funding allocated to the arts in London is still disproportionate compared to the rest of the UK, leading to a Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee warning that a “better regional balance” is what’s needed, considering that London has more opportunity to generate revenue through the Arts. This imbalance has meant that libraries are closing their doors early, art galleries are fighting to stay open, and, according to one survey last year, one in five regional museums has either closed or is facing imminent closure.
The social impact here goes beyond a mere lack of entertainment; there are major implications for social mobility. In Oxford University alone it isn’t a coincidence that every other person you know happens to be from London. If there isn’t a local concert hall for an orchestra to play in or a museum or gallery to host a new exhibition, then where’s the inspiration for state school students to pursue an arts degree in Oxford?
In Northern Ireland the imbalance in culture funding has been fuelled more so by sectarianism than regional bias. DUP Communities Minister Paul Given has cut £50,000 from an Irish language school bursary aimed at disadvantaged families. PBP MLA Gerry Carrol defended this scheme as it “helps underprivileged children, from all communities and backgrounds” and called on the DUP to “stop playing sectarian games.”
However, this new anger is the reopening of an old wound. Throughout the power- sharing executive’s history, culture and arts funding have been the victim of a political tug-of-war. Not only has this prohibited the celebration of our diverse culture, but it has also deepened the divide in our cultural identity by forcing one to compete against the other for survival. This has created a cultural battleground in Northern Ireland where one culture must have predominance over the other—neither ends up the victor.
The reaction of local communities in Northern Ireland to these cuts is comparable to that of regional communities in England who suffered similar austerity, for example the 25 per cent cuts to the Walsall New Art Gallery which have sentenced it to closure. In both cases, a wave of outrage proved to be transient and amounted to nothing
If, when cultural services are threatened in this way we lose out, why is no one suggesting innovative fundraising as the solution? Would it be so hard to get creative for the sake of culture?
In small doses across the UK this is already happening: the Bury Art museum coordinated a tour of British art in China and made £100,000 in the process whereas ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ schemes have proved effective elsewhere. Surely we can get behind crucial services which benefit our local communities through fundraising.
In turn, the arts sector needs to be more innovative when it comes to generating revenue. Presently the only alternative option is to be the audience who watch culture and the arts walk the plank singing and dancing. Maybe we’d better get out of our seats and do something.