How cuts are crippling Northern Ireland theatre
With funding slashed over the past decade, Michael Quinn looks at the consequences for Northern Irish arts organisations, from companies feeling the strain to workers losing their homes
A fortnight ago, Northern Ireland’s arts organisations entered their second decade of successive annual funding cuts. The region now spends less than 11p per person per week on the arts.
The sustained attrition on funding has brought many of its arts organisations to the brink of potential disaster. They had been facing the even more calamitous prospect of funding running out at the end of September. With domestic politics paralysed by the collapse of the legislative Assembly in January, emergency half-year funding had been issued in April with the grim warning that money for the remainder of the year was not guaranteed.
There had been hopes of a standstill budget, though few were holding their breath. Now, the de facto cut has become a real cut and companies must adjust to the chilling notion of business as usual: the sustained, systematic draining of arts funding, about which many feel powerless or, caught in the glaring headlights of fast-approaching oblivion, too stupefied to act.
The tarnished silver lining in the gathering clouds heralded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s announcement on June 13 of cuts of up to 4% is that its 107 annually funded clients at least now know the scale of the challenge that faces them in the year ahead.
But as one prominent arts figure, who didn’t wish to be identified, told The Stage: “This isn’t just salami slicing, it’s huge chunks being torn off the arts budget.”
The mounting crisis stems from the breakdown of the power-sharing coalition between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein in January. The collapse neutered the Assembly’s spending powers and left Northern Ireland without a budget.
A distinct lack of optimism about the prospects of the Assembly reconvening any time soon – exacerbated by Theresa May’s forewarned “coalition of chaos” manifesting itself in the unexpected guise of a putative alliance with the DUP – is also fuelling anxiety and uncertainty.
In the region’s largest daily newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph, playwright and co-founder of the Community Arts Forum, Martin Lynch (whose Chronicles of Long Kesh won The Stage’s best ensemble award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe) recently complained: “A banana republic wouldn’t have these sorts of problems. It’s crazy.”
No one in Northern Ireland can be certain that chronic underinvestment hasn’t already inflicted irreparable damage on its arts sector. One, ironically, in seemingly rude artistic good health despite a decade’s worth and more of funding cuts that have slashed many companies’ budgets by more than a third.
There is mounting concern, too, about how the Arts Council – caught unenviably between a rock and a hard place – will fare now that the former Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been subsumed within the new and larger Department for Communities, which has a remit that embraces housing, benefits, pensions, legislation and much else besides.
Over the past three years, the Arts Council’s allocation from the public purse has reduced by more than a quarter, shrinking per capita spend on the arts to 10.8p per week – the lowest for any of the UK’s national regions. It is also in stark contrast to the Republic of Ireland, where the newly installed taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar has promised increased spending on the arts and culture.
It is symptomatic of the current crisis – though no one openly describes it as such – that more than a third (35.8%) of the newly announced funding of £13.1 million has been drawn from National Lottery funds. So much for John Major’s much-vaunted guarantee of “additionality”.
Arts Council clients that have received funding increases in recent years are the exception to the rule. Most have received standstill budgets. Announcing the latest tranche of cuts, Arts Council chief executive Roisin McDonough said they “represent, overall, a 2-4% cut in annual funding for the overwhelming number of our arts organisations”.
For Niamh Flanagan, executive director of industry body TheatreNI – formed in 2015 when the Northern Ireland Theatre Association merged with the Ulster Association of Youth Drama – the future looks decidedly bleak.
“Now you are looking, potentially, at reduced delivery, reduced participation and access, at job losses and even closure of companies.”
Even before the latest cuts, Flanagan says some of her members were experiencing hardships brought about by what former Arts Council chair Bob Collins ruefully described as “10 years of disinvestment by government in the arts in Northern Ireland”.
Flanagan adds: “Funding isn’t adequate in the first instance. For freelances, particularly, the reality is that they are doing two or three jobs outside the arts, or working at low pay scales within it, just to survive and continue working. We have members who have remortgaged or lost their houses. It’s utterly unsustainable.”
At a standstill since 2013, Belfast-based Prime Cut Productions has seen its funding cut by 3.1%. Artistic director Emma Jordan, recipient of a prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation grant in 2014, points to the inclement irony of diminishing funding at a time of unparalleled growth.
“Theatre in Northern Ireland is enjoying one of its most exciting periods, with lots of young talent coming through. But the good news story is also a bad news story in an environment in which falling investment is leading to a diminishment of ambition and of heart.”
The most internationally focused of Northern Ireland’s arts companies, Prime Cut has recently performed in Australia, Sweden and the UK. This summer, its production of Stacey Gregg’s Scorch will be revived for a British Council-sponsored showcase during the Edinburgh Fringe before visiting London’s Soho Theatre for a two-week run in August.
“The difficulty for a company like ours – in an upward trajectory in terms of international profile and at a pivotal time for us to expand and grow – is that we don’t have the financial support to be able to guarantee that happening.”
And, she adds, there is a demonstrable consequence to funding levels that have remained unchanged for her company since 2013 and have now been cut.
“We’ve been reduced to doing smaller shows. It’s difficult for us to look at a play that requires a cast of three or four; impossible to think about work on a larger scale.”
In a region where the arts have been the fiefdom of the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties since 1999 (only one arts minister, Sinn Fein’s Caral Ni Chuilin, has come from the nationalist community) the arts have been serially neglected and ‘culture’ – the most loaded word in Northern Ireland’s political lexicon – bent to tribal ends.
Northern Ireland’s most recent arts minister, Democratic Unionist Paul Givan, didn’t reply to a request for a comment from The Stage.
His predecessor, Ni Chuilin, offered this observation: “Too many pay lip service to the power of culture and arts [and their] impact on individuals, but also the impact on the entire community for health and well-being.”
Flanagan argues that “most politicians have a lack of knowledge and understanding about what the arts have been doing – and a lack of engagement”.
“The arts have the potential for a huge economic impact, not least in terms of cultural tourism. Look at any successful cities across the UK and you will see that an arts and cultural offering is at the heart of their development,” she adds.
Ian Wilson, chief executive of Belfast’s Grand Opera House, Northern Ireland’s leading receiving venue, takes a more sanguine view.
“I always firmly believe in remaining positive until knowing otherwise. Beyond the financial return, we don’t place enough emphasis on the positive impact of the arts on day-to-day life here.”
With visitor numbers to the region at a historic high, Wilson is clearer than his Assembly paymasters about the benefits of adequate funding for the arts. And about their failure to acknowledge the contribution the arts – and the theatre sector in particular – make.
“I’m thinking positively about the future because I’ve got to. The arts are part of the infrastructure that benefits us all. It’s up to all of us in the arts sector to make sure our voice is heard, and to shout louder in many cases so that politicians can see the benefit.”
That’s a call broadened to directly address Assembly members (even in somnambulant suspension) in a statement issued by Ciaran McAuley, chief operating officer of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.
“We would encourage the elected Members of the Legislative Assembly and other parties to the current talks to secure a resolution as early as possible, to agree a budget and provide clarity around our funding for the year.”
It’s telling, however, that Jordan can recall only one politician attending a Prime Cut production in the 17 years she has led the company.
For Flanagan, well-placed to judge the effects of chronic underfunding on her members, the current situation is “so short-sighted”.
“There’s huge financial potential in the arts, never mind that they deliver across-policy objectives in health, tourism, social development, cohesion and integration. I don’t understand why politicians can’t see that,” she says.
Whether a new dispensation in the Assembly when – if – it reconvenes will herald a change in the perception and profile of theatre and the arts in Northern Ireland remains to be seen. Only one thing is certain at the moment: time is fast running out.
Arts council of Northern Ireland spending on four major theatre clients, 2013-18
Grand Opera House, Belfast
• 2013-14: £594,610
• 2014-15: £594,610
• 2015-16: £494,610
• 2016–17: £494,610
• 2017-18: £480,880
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
• 2013-14: £1.02 million
• 2014-15: £1.02 million
• 2015-16: £968,500
• 2016-17: £968,500
• 2017-18: £968,500
The Mac, Belfast
• 2013-14: £1 million
• 2014-15: £1 million
• 2015-16: £950,000
• 2016-17: £950,000
• 2017-18: £922,500
Prime Cut Productions
• 2013-14: £155,249
• 2014-15: £155,249
• 2015–16: £155,249
• 2016-17: £155,249
• 2017-18: £150,362