After weeks of waiting, the word is out – and it is deeply discouraging. Arts organisations across Northern Ireland have suffered stringent reductions in their core funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, putting jobs in jeopardy and signalling inevitable closures. Almost half the region’s companies will be forced to absorb significant decreases, while seven will be cut in total.
Feelings are running particularly high within the independent theatre sector, the majority of whose members have been hit with reductions of between 5% and 8%. These come in the wake of companies having had to absorb in-year cuts of between 3% and 5% during 2017.
The biggest loser in the sector is the prolific and enterprising Bruiser, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday. It has taken a massive 85% cut and is due to receive the sum of £12,500, which will essentially only enable it to shut up shop. Ironically, its founder and artistic director Lisa May is currently directing a successful co-production of The Colleen Bawn at the Lyric Theatre.
The decisions have been made in the context of ACNI itself suffering a significant decrease in its paltry allocation from the Department of the Communities (less than 1% of the total budget for the region). While it is fully understood that tough times call for tough decisions, it is especially hard to compare the manner in which the cultural sector is treated in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK, where the creative industries are identified as a channel for economic growth and employment.
Concerns about respect and public perception are building among artists, who are feeling undervalued and under pressure to justify their existence. All they ask is that they be accorded similar recognition and work opportunities as any other highly trained professionals.
They look enviously at the way in which the arts are supported elsewhere in Europe. In France, for instance, a freelance performance artist working on irregular short-term contracts may register as an intermittent de spectacle, entitling him or her to unemployment benefits and a modest salary. The contrast is hard to swallow.
Over the past thirty years, a constant stream of energy and innovation has flowed from Northern Ireland’s independents, whose small, dedicated teams have battled a never-ending succession of creatively draining financial crises, which threaten the main artistic objective. Yet the standard of work has never been higher, an achievement which deserves to be lauded not undermined.
To take just two specific examples: in the past year, Prime Cut has won a string of major awards and, in tandem with Tinderbox, has just completed a triple bill of highly acclaimed plays about the pressing issue of male mental health. For their pains, the companies are contemplating respective cuts of 8.3% and 8%.
Meanwhile, Kabosh continues with its important post-conflict work, Replay with its carefully crafted performances for young people with profound and complex learning difficulties, Macha with its political issue-driven projects, Big Telly with its imaginative community engagement events in towns across the region. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Individually and under the umbrella of ArtsMatterNI, which has just embarked upon a parity of funding campaign, there is a determination to fight back, reiterating the reality that there is a limit to what can be accomplished on a dangerously thinning shoestring. As the political vacuum in Northern Ireland takes its toll on everyday life, the arts sector is in danger, yet again, of being the sacrificial lamb.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Stage on 18 April 2018.