The link between future-proofing arts and attracting foreign investment
“THE arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them.” So said Winston Churchill in 1938. And it's a truism the current Westminster government has recognised, announcing a rescue package of £1.57 billion for arts and culture.
The Stormont Assembly purse will benefit to the tune of £33 million from the pot. But will they follow UK plans to commit the full budget to protecting the arts infrastructure in Northern Ireland? There is no ring-fenced requirement for the Executive to do so, though it is in their gift to offer.
First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed the package saying it has been "a very difficult time for the sector" while Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín, acknowledging that it will be for the Executive to decide on how it would be spent, said “the argument for a comprehensive package of support to local musicians, freelancers, theatres, artists, museums and the heritage sector at a time when they are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be overstated.”
For many, the importance and impact of arts and culture on civil society have been brought into stark relief by Covid. As artist Olafur Eliasson, speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2016, put it: “Art helps us identify with one another and expands our notion of we – from the local to the global”.
Without being able to attend a concert, be that Pink or the Proms, without being able to sit amongst others to watch a play, listen to a live jazz, trad or rock band, stand in front of a sculpture or painting in a gallery or museum, we have recognised we are lesser. That is not to say we all make a direct and conscious connection between what we miss and why we are missing it, we do, however, feel the loss of it.
As arts organisations strive to make performances available to satisfy audiences and keep artists employed in these most difficult of times, the civic and economic purpose of arts and culture to a healthy, functioning, society is revealed to be more explicitly necessary than ever.
I am among those who drank down streamed offerings from the National Theatre and Belfast’s Lyric. I enjoyed the The Duncairn’s Virtual Cabaret. These outputs, amongt many others, demonstrated the sector’s capacity for innovation. But they are not enough. They are not sustainable. And they are not the ‘real life’ we hanker after.
As Belfast-based arts curator and producer Cian Smyth points out, “Covid-19 has exposed, more than ever, the two clear reasons a vibrant and vital arts sector requires support from government rather than relying on commercial activity alone. The civic need is paramount, but the economic impact of the arts is relentlessly questioned. This pandemic should prove the economic value of the arts beyond any doubt, by the threat of its absence.”
Wrapped up in this is not just the work of an artist and the satisfaction of the arts consumer but the development of the arts practitioner or worker. The entire eco-system of creativity, talent and innovation is one of fine balance.
In an era demanding greater diversity on our screens and stages, an industry itself worth billions; requires access to career paths only made available through myriad grass roots and community-focussed civic arts projects. Your sound and lighting engineer on a Game of Thrones, for example, comes from careers and training built in your local theatres and small gig venues.
More clearly cut from an economic perspective is arts and culture’s role in the physical development of an area or region. “You don’t have to look back very far in Belfast’s history to see the difference the sector can make economically,” says Smyth.
“Consider the Cathedral Quarter less than 15 years ago. The Black Box and The Mac became the ‘anchor tenants’ for an area which up ‘til that point boasted one bar and one restaurant. It is the arts venues developing areas of the city like these that drive footfall towards them. Without them there wouldn’t be The Merchant Hotel or The Spaniard making the Quarter, until the onslaught of Covid-19, a key commercial hub or the city centre as vibrant as it now is.”
Extrapolate that out and you begin to see why the arts are important to the wider economy.
“Only a society with a flourishing arts and cultural offering can attract the kind of multi-national businesses that Northern Ireland will need to see it move from being both dependent on government incentives to attract foreign direct investment and reliant on public sector jobs for employment” says Smyth. Put another way, in order to future proof Northern Ireland plc, we need to future proof the arts.
The fragility of the arts sector has only been underscored by Covid. I recall a Northern Ireland campaign a decade or so ago that called on government to raise the spend per head from £6 to £10. Latest figures available show that funding per head in Northern Ireland for the year 2016/17 was £6.06. This is less than half of what funding per head in Scotland, Wales and England.
These strange few months have led to something akin to a public awakening to the value of the arts, this, coupled with Westminster’s package, has created a real opportunity now in Northern Ireland for a resurgence of an arts sector that is more confident and able. Let’s not waste that.
Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken