Funding cuts in the arts: opportunity knocks?

An interesting article by Mick Heaney appeared in the Sunday Times on Jan 25th, calling on arts organisations to become more creative in their approaches to funding in a climate of recession (apologies, no link seems to be available!). While I would agree with some of the article, especially his suggestion that arts organisations need to diversify their income in order to better weather recessions, I would take issue with some of his points:


First is his use of statistics to highlight areas of the arts sector worst hit by the Arts Council recent budget cuts: when it comes to numbers and percentages, it’s easy to arrive at a multitude of conclusions to suit one’s own argument. Heaney asserts that theatre suffered the largest cutback (-12.7%), but he is including in his numbers The Abbey’s funding (which distorts the picture, as they are on a separately-assessed funding track)– whereas Deirdre Falvey in the Irish Times in December had come up with dance as the worst hit (-11%), followed by literature (-9.5%, a significant part of this owing to the axing of the Irish Writer’s Centre annual grant), and finally theatre, less the Abbey’s data (-8.37%). Although this is perhaps a minor point, it’s easy for such numbers to be manipulated, and such figures should be reported carefully. I also frequently see articles on the arts making claims using absolute statistical data, rather than adjusting numbers for inflation to arrive at their real equivalent– not so much an issue when the gap is a year or two, but significant when discussing growth/decline over a decade.


Second is his statement (which reads as a criticism):

The most obvious legacy of the boom years is the stratum of administrators who run the sector. While such professional expertise may be necessary to run companies efficiently, their support role has increasingly been placed at the heart of the arts sector: few organisations are contemplating laying off the backroom staff; the need to preserve professional experience is a mantra that pops ups repeatedly.

The problems with this are threefold: one, what basis is there for stating that managers’ support role has increasingly been situated  ‘at the heart’ of the arts sector? Again this seems a subjective claim; I might equally counter with the argument that the Arts Council has increasingly swung back towards grants for individual artists (as Heaney himself points out), the culture of arts managerialism is far less developed here than in the UK or the US, and if arts managers in the past few years have seemed more numerous, that’s probably due to the growth of the arts sector overall in the country, not their displacement of creative folks within organisations. Also, Heaney makes quite clear in the article that he supports the diversification of organisational income, to lessen reliance on government funding– and yet, this is the type of goal only achievable by the addition of managerial staff with expertise in marketing, development etc. Finally, as someone who manages an arts jobs webpage and has close contact with people entering the Irish arts workforce, I would suggest that while layoffs do not yet seem to be happening, there is a definite slowdown of new hires and staff turnover.


Third is his claim that ‘the increase in funding has not brought a similar upsurge of quality art (…) well-crafted but generic work… has dominated Ireland’s well-funded art sector’, and that the recession may offer ideal conditions for artistic innovation. Yet all of his examples are drawn from theatre– obviously the art form he knows best, but not a claim I would dare to make about the arts sector as a whole, let alone theatre (any views out there in agreement, or to the contrary?) What would Theatre Forum think? (WWTFT?)

However I do think it’s useful that the article contributes to the discussions happening now in response to cutbacks, as the Arts Council is forced to make tough choices. The responses for-and-against cuts to the Irish Writers Centre in particular (see Jan 13, Jan 15, Jan 17 and Jan 24 in the Irish Times) and the elimination for funding for Cork Opera 2005 (see 24 Jan and 27 Jan) can obscure the view that I share with Heaney: there shouldn’t be room for complacency in the arts sector, and those organisations, companies and artists who excel at what they do will survive and indeed flourish in spite of the downturn.