'My blood is boiling': Hundreds of NI artists protest proposed £1.3m funding cuts

The arts industry in Northern Ireland has raised its voice against the proposed 10 per cent funding reduction for a sector already struggling.

Trade union for artists, Equity, represents members including singers, actors, writers, painters, poets, puppeteers and dancers, and some 200 members attended a rally at Belfast's Black Box on Tuesday for an event to raise concerns about potential cuts of £1.3m.

NI's arts sector is already behind neighbouring jurisdictions - £4.72 is currently allocated per head of the population, compared to £10.51 in Wales and £22.50 in the Republic.

The Department for Communities funding makes its way to recipients via the Arts Council.

Speaking at the event, local actor Rachel Tucker, visiting to film series three of BBC drama Hope Street, said the news made her "blood boil," and that she was absolutely "furious" over the thought that young actors might not be afforded the same opportunities she was from the age of nine.

The protest against the potential slashing of monies destined for the arts locally comes at a time with pay disputes ongoing in multiple other sectors.

"The arts enhances good health, enhances good mental health, enhances community cohesion," said Alice Adams Lemon from Equity.

"It is an absolutely vital part of education services as well. So whilst all of our brothers and sisters in the trade union movement are fighting for their jobs and for their professions and for the for the council to help them, we are part of that picture as well.

"So cutting the arts also contributes to further cuts to health and education as well."

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson was among those in attendance in the Cathedral Quarter.

"The younger people will definitely lose out. And my generation, all generations, it affects every single one from every single background and age.

"We're going to stop the cuts. Whatever we can do, we will deliver that message.

"And we're all united because we see the power of the arts, we all know what it can do for us and what it can do for the population."

Isabella Koban works at the venue and runs exhibitions.

"It would make a huge impact on everyone's life here, not only creatively, but the arts is kind of a lifeline for people who don't have anything else... Creativity is so important to expression," she said.

Illustrator Elly Makem said the funding deficit is not for want of talent.

"It doesn't feel like there's a lot of listening going on. We have such a huge, condensed, creative talent here in Northern Ireland, and yet we are the most underfunded country in the UK," she said.

"And even with the cost of living crisis, even with everything that's going on, even with the amount of art that we're producing, the amount of prizes that we're winning, the amount of celebrated musicians we're producing, it's not being reflected in the funding."

The Arts Council responded to UTV's questions with a strongly worded statement.

A statement said the body is "deeply concerned" about the impact of proposed cuts to its annual budget, and that they continue to "make the case against the cuts".

"The impact of year-on-year decreases to public funding for the arts over the last decade have left us with a fragile arts ecosystem, made worse by the current cost-of-living crisis.

"The impact of yet further cuts of 10% this year is even more detrimental and may irreversibly damage the whole sector, not least as artists and creatives leave NI to make a living elsewhere.

"Pre-pandemic, the arts sector in NI represented 910 permanent staff, 5,419 freelancers and 2,803 volunteers and that workforce had already declined by 2022 to 33%, with 20% of creative workers paid below the poverty line.

The statement went on to say that a reminder of recent successes of the local industry is "pertinent".

"Array Studios winning the coveted Turner Prize, James Martin’s Oscar, Owen McCafferty’s play Agreement at the Lyric, the Lyric Theatre’s Good Vibrations going to New York and our award-winning NI Opera in Australia with Into the Woods, to name but a few.

"That success does not happen accidentally, it happens because of careful investment of relatively small amounts of public funding, while offering huge returns for NI.

"The risks of cuts and continued underinvestment in the arts will inevitably undo successes achieved over the years to promote equality, diversity and inclusion, to build personal health and wellbeing in communities across NI, and to improve access to great art for all," the spokesperson said.

"To prevent further damage, we need to reverse any proposed cuts before year-end and encourage real public investment in the arts infrastructure as soon as possible."

With a protest outside the Department for Communities now planned for later this week, a department spokesperson said: “We are currently in a period of uncertainty as our budget for the current 2023/24 financial year has not yet been confirmed.

“The Department understands the impact on all our arms-length bodies and delivery partners and have been engaging fully with them.

“We recognise and appreciate the contribution of our arts and creative industries to our community and the economic, health and education benefits a thriving sector brings.

“We remain committed to our strategic priorities and hope that we will be a position to finalise departmental budget planning soon.”

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