Belfast’s MAC received a grant from the Department of Communities last year

Funding cuts bring Northern Ireland’s sector ‘to its knees’

Rob Sharp, Issue 119/04, 01.04.2019
Arts council’s survey reveals that reduced funding and higher costs are hindering programming and outreach activities. By Rob Sharp
A senior arts figure in Northern Ireland has raised concerns about cuts after Arts Council Northern Ireland (ACNI) published its annual funding survey in February.

ACNI’s survey detailed fewer performances delivered in 2017-18, a rise in staff working part-time or on contracts, a fall in volunteer numbers for arts organisations and a drop in the number of outreach activities taking place.

“The arts sector in Northern Ireland is on its knees,” says Anne McReynolds, the chief executive at the MAC, an arts venue in Belfast that hosts exhibitions and live performances. “It has sustained a 40% real-terms cut, including inflation, between 2012 and 2017.”

Help needed

“The arts in Northern Ireland needs help. There are critical messages that have been heard and accepted in other parts of the British Isles that are clearly not being heard and understood by the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland.

“Northern Ireland is in a different position from Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland, in that funding for the arts has been serially decimated – and that’s because someone isn’t hearing that it is a critical growth area for the economy in Northern Ireland.”

The ACNI report did show that arts organisations had held more activities in 2017-18, including festivals and participatory events. The information was gathered from data supplied by 106 organisations.

Troubling financial climate

ACNI chief executive Roisin McDonough says: “While there are some positives to be found, overall the survey reflects a troubling financial climate. Our major arts organisations are facing reduced funding and rising core costs, which is impacting on their programming, and their ability to deliver outreach activities and to reach new audiences through publicity and marketing.”

In 2018, almost half the organisations funded by ACNI’s Annual Funding Programme had their funding cut or ended for the most recent financial year. The MAC received an increase in funding thanks to a grant from the Department for Communities, meaning it received £1.1m overall.

Margaret Henry, the chief executive of Thrive Audience Development, says: “The questions being asked have been the same for quite a few years. [The ACNI survey is] one set of data about the sector that has been collected. In the organisation in which I work, we have different experiences of data, including ticketing information from Northern Ireland. We’re seeing other patterns that wouldn’t emerge from ACNI’s data.

“There is increasingly a difference between what’s happening in Belfast, in terms of audience patterns, versus the regional venues. Though ACNI put money into those venues originally, they are now funded at a local government level.

“Belfast organisations are attracting a lot of one-off attenders but they are struggling to get people to come back, which is clearly because there is more competition. In the regions, they have a small, loyal core of audiences, but need to be developing new audiences. Because of the way austerity has been, the resources required to do that haven’t necessarily been available.”

A February report in Arts Professional revealed details of an internal ACNI report suggesting that between 2014 and 2017, audiences at ACNI’s portfolio of annually funded organisations dropped by a quarter, while exhibition visits fell by about 50%.

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