ArtBeat: Our arts organisations remain chronically underfunded

As cuts are announced in England, it's important to remember that the arts in Northern Ireland remain chronically underfunded, says Jane Hardy

Cameron Menzies of NI Opera points out that the arts in Northern Ireland "remain chronically underfunded", with the per capita spend less than half that in Britain. Picture by James Ward, Lost Lens Caps
Jane Hardy

THIS week's column should really be wearing a black armband. That's because the Arts Council in England (ACE), under pressure from the government, has just made swingeing cuts in opera funding.

As the fightback begins, with Sir Bryn Terfel funding a petition to save the English National Opera, Cameron Menzies, CEO and artistic director of NI Opera, said it was "very disappointing to see the significant cuts made by ACE to so many key organisations, including but not limited to opera".

"The arts spend per head in Northern Ireland is £5.31, less than half the current arts spend in England, Scotland or Wales. Arts organisations here remain chronically underfunded," he said.

Jimmy Fay, artistic director of the Lyric Theatre, which has accommodated hits such as NI Opera's Into the Woods and Conor Mitchell's Abomination: A DUP Opera, agrees. "We appreciate these are difficult decisions and are glad ACE is supporting more amazing arts organisations in a way that seems more diverse, inclusive," he says.

"But it's really disappointing for some of our arts organisations that have lost some or all of their funding.

"While some theatres have a range of funding streams, we at the Lyric rely heavily on Arts Council funding which provides a third of our income."

The knock-on effect on performers is disastrous. Northern Irish mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin, formerly an associate artist with Welsh Opera, says: "I'm sure with the 33 per cent cut to their budget, drastic changes will have to be made.

"I got the chance to work alongside world class singers, have access to the best coaches and sing in Cardiff's beautiful Millennium Theatre. We toured world class productions... I hope they find a way through this tough time."

Dobbin also worked with the ENO. "I was in a few amazing productions at the Coliseum in London and the company predominantly employed and supported UK-based singers. It gave UK singers a platform to be heard. I don't know the solution but by taking away funding, you're leaving a world class, loyal chorus and orchestra in a precarious position."

Will the axe fall here? The Arts Council of Northern Ireland couldn't comment directly, but issued a press release sympathetic to the sector and its cash crisis. "Many arts organisations will feel they're on a precipice," it says, estimating it needs another £16.6 million to support artists.

This matters. As composer Neil Martin puts it: "Humanity more than ever needs the balm and challenge of the arts and the offer of other ways of seeing things. Reducing funding deprives us all of a glimmer of hope." Listen to Neil Martin's arrangement for Ruth McGinley on piano of Danny Boy on their disc Aura and you get the point.