The Arts Council is the official funding and development organisation for the arts in Northern Ireland. In this article, the Chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Liam Hannaway, explores the continual underfunding of the arts in Northern Ireland and urges caution to further cuts.
“Art encourages community cohesion and reduces isolation. It makes us aware of the world around us and how we influence and react to each other. The value of art in society is too great to quantify. It not only proves who we are, but it educates us about our past and where we are today as a species.” Ejaz Khan (2022)
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is delighted to learn that Arts Council Ireland/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, our counterpart on this island, has received an uplift of their annual budget to €134m (£115.7m). This is the largest amount awarded to date, following its budget increase in 2021, from €80m to €130m.
This is very welcome news for the arts. It sends out a strong signal of the Irish Government’s recognition and commitment to invest in one of its most important and internationally recognised attributes. The uplift will enable Arts Council Ireland to support more people to make excellent art and to enjoy all the benefits of being able to participate fully in Ireland’s artistic and cultural life.
To put the Irish Government’s investment in the arts into an island-wide context, it represents per capita spending of approximately £21.90, compared with Northern Ireland’s investment in the arts, which has fallen to £5.07 per person per year.
However, in the North, we have witnessed the opposite, a 5% cut in our budget from 2022/23 to £9.7m. This could not have come at a worse time. You could ask, “what’s special about the arts?” when everyone all around is struggling with tightened budgets, rising living costs and the enduring economic legacy of the pandemic? In this one very important respect, at least, the arts are different; we were already on our knees long before any of this started.
Decades of underinvestment has left this tiny but disproportionately impactful sector particularly susceptible to even the smallest of fluctuations in our precarious funding ecology. Government investment in the arts in Northern Ireland has fallen over the past decade from £14.1m in 2011 to £9.7m in 2023. This is just £5.07 per capita. In Wales, it is double that, at £10.51. The Irish government currently invests four times as much as their counterparts in the North, at £21.91. The gulf continues to widen with this announcement by the Southern Government.
And yet. In the last year alone, Northern Ireland’s arts have laid claim to an Oscar, ‘UK Theatre of the Year’, ‘Best Production’ Irish Times Theatre Award, the Feltrinelli Poetry Prize, and the Turner Prize. We continue to be international leaders in developing the health and well-being benefits associated with participating in the arts, particularly for younger people at risk and older people with dementia. We provide the lifeblood to those economic drivers of the Creative Industries, and we entertain and inspire as we create shared spaces and experiences so vital to the process of bringing Northern Ireland’s divided communities closer together.
None of this has happened by chance. It is the result of years of painstaking development, of careful and thoughtful investment of the Arts Council’s tiny budget. All of which makes these latest cuts all the more painful. It puts our work in jeopardy and increases the risk of further loss of our ‘brightest and best’ as our highly-skilled, highly-talented, highly-motivated creative workforce is forced to seek opportunity elsewhere. Government urgently needs to reverse the latest cuts and arrest the decline before it becomes terminal.
It must embark on a programme of sustained reinvestment, leading at the very least to a doubling of the Arts Council’s budget and parity with Wales. It should not have to be left to the imagination to think of the extraordinary heights Northern Ireland’s artists could reach with the level of support demonstrated everywhere else on these islands.
‘Without Art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable’ G.B.Shaw.