Variant issue 23    back to issue list

I don't have time for this
Most artists and arts administrators agree that the last thing they want to do is go to another meeting about future strategies for arts funding. There's so much 'public consultation' already, most of it performed by 'independent' third parties, who somehow never manage to 'consult' the most relevant people. We're a little worn out by it, and we seldom seem to see the benefits of it. The trouble is, the decisions that are about to be taken, in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, will affect the shape of arts provision for a generation. Fundamental questions are now being asked by central and devolved governments about how the arts should be funded. Tedious as it may seem, it's essential that practitioners and arts organisations involve themselves in addressing these questions; particularly because politicians may already have answers of their own in mind about what 'uses' culture might have.
In Northern Ireland, the Review of Public Administration (RPA) has just been published. It aims to cut the size of the public sector in the North, from the 26 District Councils to the various Executive Agencies and 'Executive Non-Departmental Bodies' such as the Pig Production Development Committee and, of course, our own dear Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The laudable plan is to pass as much responsibility as possible back from the many unaccountable quangos set up during twenty-five years of direct rule to the various departments of the new Executive.
The relevant passage of the RPA reads as follows: "The alternative to the existing executive public body would be to delegate most of the Arts Council's grant giving power to local government and to bring the remaining funding within DCAL [Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland] for direct support of regionally important projects."
The potential for political influence is clearly one problem with direct executive funding of the arts. This isn't some conspiracy theory, just an observation about politicians' priorities: if you can redirect arts funding towards so-called 'social regeneration', particularly the kind that's very visible in your own constituency, then why not? The various political parties in the North have not so far had any particular love for the arts. It's quite possible that after any resumption of the Executive, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists could be running DCAL. The DUP are more well known for picketing and censoring art forms they don't like than for supporting experimentation and innovation. As the RPA itself points out, " ... there is support for the long established principle that [arts funding] is best done at arm's length from government to avoid the suspicion of undue political influence in individual decisions and to protect Ministers from being directly answerable for the policies and performance of organisations or individuals in receipt of funding."
The principle of peer review and expertise is also at stake. Within the current Arts Council, imperfect as it undoubtedly is, there is an established system of evaluation of applications by panels of artists, and furthermore there's the many years of experience that arts officers have in assessing artforms. The politicians and civil servants don't have that. So why waste time duplicating, relearning, and so on, when the object is supposedly to save money? This is all very straightforward for (say) pig production, but cultural provision is not just about economic throughput and return. The return is largely – horror of horrors! – unquantifiable.
If grant-giving powers are devolved to the local authorities and DCAL, furthermore, then small arts organisations face yet more bureaucracy. Those not designated as 'regionally important' (probably this excludes most organisations that aren't the Ulster Orchestra or the Grand Opera House), but who routinely carry out arts activity in different council regions, will have to duplicate their funding applications to several authorities. They'll also have to work out which one will provide their core funding.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, having realised last year that their future could only be secured if they made common cause with their clients, are now organising a series of 'workshops' across the North to meet clients and concerned parties with regard to their response to the RPA, which has to be submitted by the end of September. It's in all our interests that this response makes as strong a case as possible against direct executive funding. We'd therefore urge all interested parties to get involved in the consultation process – the dates of the various discussions are shown in the ACNI's ad elsewhere in the magazine.
In case you think that the closure of the Arts Council is an unlikely option, bear in mind that this was precisely what the Welsh Assembly wanted to do to the Arts Council of Wales. Only at the last minute did practitioners manage to raise enough of a rumpus to scupper the Assembly's plans. Several 'regionally important' groups – theatres and orchestras again – were nonetheless 'topsliced' and are now funded not by the ACW but by the Assembly.

Meanwhile ...
Arts Council charm offensive hits first hurdle with return of literalist bureaucracy!
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland will have to work harder to convince practitioners that "we're all on the same side really". Applicants for this year's General Arts Awards to individuals who had also received an award under the same scheme last year were told that their applications could not be considered, since the rules state very clearly that only one award may be made in any twelve-month period. Most applicants probably felt that the 364 days that separated the 2004 and 2005 deadlines constituted twelve months: surely one was 'last year's award' and one was 'this year's'? Unfortunately the Arts Council did not feel the same. Public funds will now be wasted considering the inevitable appeals, and extra money may have to be found to subsidise applications for which there was no sane grounds for disqualification. Little misunderstandings such as this may not help the ACNI's new project of encouraging us to find common cause with them in their hour of need.


Dear Variant, 21/4/05
I read with great interest Leigh French's article on progress with producing a new visual-arts magazine for Scotland. It was good to see made so explicit how such a magazine has to negotiate a complex theoretical, political and cultural minefield if it is to be useful and successful.
There were a number of aspects of the article which touched on CIRCA, and I would like to add a few correctives:
(a) In 1996 the Scottish Arts Council gave CIRCA £2,000 towards researching a Scottish supplement to the magazine. The supplement itself was self-financing, through advertising (and because CIRCA covered the overheads). The Editorial Panel – Sam Ainsley, Malcolm Dickson, Judith Findlay, Neil Firth, Kevin Henderson and Eva Rothschild – determined the content. The British Council, because they were approached by us and because it was a one-off event, agreed to send the supplement to all British embassies.
(b) CIRCA did not tender for the new Scottish visual-arts magazine.
(c) We haven't decided to ditch the compact format of CIRCA – though we are in a process of redesign, and anything could happen.
(d) It's a bit of a stretch to describe CIRCA as "almost entirely publicly subsidised"; approximately 40% of our income comes in grants from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon.
If, as the article suggests, CIRCA is the model in some people's minds for how the new Scottish magazine might appear, then I can guess at one reason why progress has been slow: although it is a large sum, £200,000 over three years is probably completely inadequate. The key problem, as far as I can see, is that by the time advertising income is at a healthy level – after a year or two, say – production costs, salaries and overheads will have dug a very deep hole of debt from which it might be impossible to recover. Just a guess. In that respect, teaming up with The List does make sense, as some costs can be shared. As for only employing the editor two days a week – as the article suggests – and expecting the magazine to come together: I suspect the editor would spend the remaining five days of the week in therapy.
I really hope the new magazine does appear, and soon, whoever the publisher may be. There is so much good art, and so many good writers in Scotland, that such a magazine is long overdue.
Keep up the good work,
Peter FitzGerald
Editor, CIRCA Art Magazine
43 / 44 Temple Bar, Dublin 2, Ireland
Tel/fax: +353 1 6797388

Variant responds:

Dear Peter,
Thank you for clarifying that CIRCA did not tender for the Scottish Arts Council's new Visual Arts magazine - which narrows their 'selection' even more.
You may perceive the British Council support for the supplement in CIRCA as 'matter of fact', but inequitable use of institutional resources is just that, inequitable.
We can inform CIRCA that The Map was launched in Edinburgh in early February and is commercially published by The List group. Despite recently being further underpinned by a SAC subscriptions drive, this 'invisibility' neatly serves to illustrate the deficiencies in their imposed market 'solutions'.
Presenting the SAC's decision making processes as merely pragmatic is to negate their political complexity, and the negative impact such corporatist consolidations of market and institutional power have on 'cultural diversity' - to use their language.
There may well be 'many good writers in Scotland', but this is largely due to the support of self-organised networks, and this latest rebuttal is based on the market exploitation of their knowledge and circumstances.
You may consider that £200,000 is small fry to produce a magazine with salaried staff, even with privileged institutional co-operation, but we would like to take the opportunity to thank the SAC Literature Department in awarding Variant an annual project grant of £9,200 towards the production of three issues of Variant magazine and for their support of the independence of Variant's editorial.