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TheatreNI response to Arts Council Northern Ireland ‘five-year strategic framework for developing the arts 2019-2024’, March 2019

TheatreNI is the support organisation for the theatre and performing arts sector in Northern Ireland. We welcome the opportunity to respond to the draft strategic framework document which will guide the work of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) over the next five years.

We believe ACNI have broadly succeeded in reflecting in the document, many of the conversations and submissions that took place over the consultation period and look forward to continued and greater dialogue and collaboration between the arm’s length body, the sector and the broader ‘creative ecology’ in realising the ambitions of the strategy.

Brexit

The uncertainties and complexities facing the future relationships of the UK within the EU remain. There are specific concerns arising for Northern Ireland, it being the only part of the UK to share a border with an EU Member State. Key issues and risks around Brexit and agreement on actions to be addressed during this period of uncertainty are contained in a statement issued following a Brexit Discussion Day organised in November 2018 by some leading organisations in the cultural sector, including TheatreNI. The statement[1] was compiled following panel discussions involving key speakers from the creative and cultural industries, the voluntary sector[2] and round table discussions at the event. It provides a useful summary of possible actions which might be reflected in the strategy. The document has been included with the present response. (see footnote below)

Creating the conditions in which work of excellence is made

We welcome the intention to ‘create the conditions in which work of excellence is made’. The sector has continued, despite years of difficulties in several contexts and conditions, to create work of excellence.

Making the case for ‘a better resourced arts sector’ and growing ‘public investment in the arts’ is essential to create the conditions for excellence in its broadest sense. So too is the investment in a strong and sustainable infrastructure. Our organisations and practitioners who create and enable work to be created, have been doing so within the context of almost 40% reduction in government investment in the arts when inflation is considered and significant reductions in funding from the National Lottery[3].  Working in these conditions do not support the creative process[4] and our members often report on the negative impacts that this reduced investment has had on both their physical and mental health.

The infrastructure thus requires significant increased multi-annual investment, a commitment to the health and well-being of the people producing and enabling work to be created and an environment which allows longer term strategic thinking around business planning, and audience development. Further cuts to the sector will be counterproductive and will cause ‘damage to long term sustainability’.[5]

Smaller organisations are currently excluded from participating in the Resilience programme but would benefit from a support programme to help them build capacity and become more sustainable. These organisations are an essential part of the ‘Creative ecology’. They can often work more flexibly and collaboratively and often have extensive knowledge of the sector, a locality or a region. They can assist in facilitating further partnership working, fostering learning among networks, creating connections and linkages at local and regional levels and with larger organisations in the sector. A commitment to working strategically with smaller organisations and supporting their participation in a support programme would help bridge gaps in the infrastructure, support artistic development and the creation of excellent work and help raise the public’s awareness of the role of the arts in public life, while creating new opportunities for more diverse communities to engage.

Creating excellent work is impossible if artists do not receive fair and equitable payment and continue to work in unsatisfactory working conditions. Specific characteristics of the creative sector work environment including ‘irregular work (including contracts, financial security, irregular hours, and working outside the sector), the perceived lack of value placed on their work and the inadequate financial rewards for the work’, were reported as contributing to the likelihood of developing mental health problems in a report produced by wellbeing charity Inspire and the Ulster University in March 2018.[6]  TheatreNI set up our Members Assistance Programme[7] in February 2018, with financial assistance from ACNI, to respond to the increasing levels and evidence of mental ill health and distress of our independent practitioners. The Ulster University report about the mental health of people working in the creative sector found that people working in the creative industries were ‘three times more likely to suffer from mental ill health than the general population and 60% were analysed to have a ‘probable’ mental health condition. This contrasts with 17% for the general population. The Performing Arts sector is the most vulnerable of all at 63.3%.’[8]. Responding to the motivation, behind the research, CEO, Inspire, Peter McBride said:

‘There might be a popular image of the struggling artist but that becomes a much less romantic notion when it crosses a line into making people mentally unwell. Attracting skilled, creative people is a key element of Northern Ireland’s economic strategy and work artists and creatives produce is an important pillar of our tourism offer.  At Inspire we specialise in workplace wellbeing and so we were interested in learning more about what it’s like to work in the creative industries in NI and identify and possible areas of concern that may need attention and intervention.’[9]

We would thus like to see a stronger emphasis and earlier retesting of the ‘Living & Working Conditions of Artists survey’ and subsequent actions to help support better working conditions for our artists.

Young people’s engagement both as audience members, participants and future practitioners should be further emphasised and prioritised in the strategy.  The commitment to working with schools is welcome but the engagement with schools and the broader education sector needs to be at a strategic level to ensure that the future of the arts and the broader creative sector workforce, skills, talent and leadership is not jeopardised.

Within the concepts of excellence, innovation, experimentation and risk-taking, there should also be a further and stronger commitment to diversity in its broadest sense. Diversity can support greater innovation in culture and the arts and create the conditions for excellent work to be made. Excellence is not simply a matter of quality.  To be excellent, work must be relevant and reflective of the society which produces and experiences it.  Many of our organisations do sterling work in providing pathways for talented young people of all backgrounds into the cultural and arts sector, but it is vital that the framework includes support and actions for people of all ages, religions, cultures, sexualities, and socio-economic backgrounds from across Northern Ireland.

To fully create the conditions for excellent work to be made, and given, revelations last year about the abuse of power in the industry in Northern Ireland, across the UK and elsewhere, there is a need to continue to work to change behaviours.

This means at its most basic level, that all members of our workforce are treated fairly, with dignity and respect and are protected from harassment, bullying and victimisation. We acknowledge that ACNI has already conditions and policies and procedures requiring all those in receipt of funding to comply with equality, diversity, harassment and bullying, disciplinary, grievance and whistle-blowing, equal opportunities laws.

TheatreNI would like to see ACNI go further, publishing a strong ‘dignity at work’ statement to support the ongoing work to eliminate harassment, bullying and victimisation in our sector and to support organisations to further address these issues. TheatreNI issued guidelines in February 2018 and delivered training in partnership with Ulster University and the Equality Commission. We intend to continue this work in partnership with our sector and other stakeholders.[10] A strong ‘dignity at work’ statement will highlight the ACNI as an active proponent supporting positive change and will assist in the collaborative effort and commitment to ensuring our sector is safe and inclusive, which will benefit all in the future and help create the conditions for excellence.

Support for Touring

Excellent work is being created here in Northern Ireland and showcasing and sharing that talent and ambition with audiences internationally is rightly a priority. With the decimation of investment in the arts in Northern Ireland, the turmoil created by Brexit and the absence of a functioning Executive, the need to support ‘artists and arts organisations to present their work internationally’, is even more acute.  The actions to strengthen ‘our cultural ro­le and global reputation’ and sustain ‘residencies and showcasing opportunities to enhance the global reputation of artists from Northern Ireland’ and the support for ‘international touring through funding programmes’, are very necessary.

However, a commitment to the development of a collaborative, robust and strategic international strategy in partnership with the sector, British Council NI, and other stakeholders is required that also includes greater opportunities to increase the capacity of the sector to present and work internationally, to network to enable cross cultural fertilisation and to explore international research and development possibilities.

Moreover, commitment to support, resource and connect artists and organisations to showcase and tour, network, exchange, and present locally, regionally, across the UK and the island of Ireland – our sector’s closest markets and potential new audiences, is also essential.

Unfortunately, as a direct result of funding cuts it is now the case that very few northern Irish producing companies have the capacity or available resources to produce work that is designed for mid-scale spaces which has had a deleterious effect on the ability of northern venues to retain and grow audiences.

Touring was perceived by the majority of contributors to TheatreNI A Report on Sustainability in the Theatre and Performing Arts, Northern Ireland, (2018) as having ‘the potential to improve sustainability, particularly through reaching wider audiences and generating income’. Local and regional venues and theatres across the island depend on good quality touring product to present and programme a varied, challenging and balanced annual programme.

The venues and producers are dependent on each other: venues need quality local product and artists need the venues.

The support and importance of touring theatre from Northern Ireland in the Republic of Ireland is also important and is highlighted below:

 ‘An Grianán Theatre’s close proximity to the border with Northern Ireland means that geographically and culturally we have very close links with our colleagues in the NI theatre sector. The work produced by the independent theatre companies from Northern Ireland fills an important niche in our year-round programming for adults and children alike. It would be a huge loss to the quality and richness of our programme if the NI theatre companies are not able to continue producing work and touring in the future.’ Patricia McBride, An Grianán, Letterkenny

‘It is critical that there is a strong exchange of theatre between North and South that can be available for touring.’ Orla Flanagan, Artistic Director, Glór, Ennis

‘Independent theatre is the lifeblood of any programme. It is the mechanism for new and important voices to be developed and heard. For new, exciting and established artists to come together to create new work. It is the lifeblood of touring and therefore the stimulus for so much engagement, enjoyment, entertainment conversation and change throughout the centres and areas it tours to.’ Mark O’Brien, Axis Theatre, Ballymun

Project is delighted to be the Dublin home for so many independent artists from Northern Ireland and I look forward to continuing these relationships into the future.’ Cian O’Brien, Project Arts Centre, Dublin[11]

A commitment to reviewing touring locally and of the North South touring initiative and support for TheatreNI and Theatre Forum’s Tourbook initiative[12], would be welcomed in the strategy.

Develop good practice guidelines with the sector for self-assessment of creative work

The action to ‘develop good practice guidelines with the sector for self-assessment of creative work’ is to be welcomed. TheatreNI and Dance Resource Base delivered training in Critical Response Process for theatre and dance practitioners with Liz Lerman, the internationally acclaimed choreographer and theatre maker in 2017[13]. Follow-up training was delivered to a cohort in February 2019 in Belfast by Christine Hamilton, Scotland.  The inclusion of the learning from this training and contributions from the practitioners based in Northern Ireland in the development of the guidelines would be useful.

Climate Change

A landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[14] in October 2018, has advised that we have twelve years to make urgent change to limit potentially catastrophic climate change. ACNI and the organisations and artists it supports have a vital role in addressing this issue, through raising awareness and taking positive action.  Actions for the sector, should include a commitment by ACNI to the production of an updated environmental policy and further support for organisations and the sector to actively reduce their carbon emissions and increase their environmental sustainability. Climate change was a key issue represented in both programming and actions at our annual All Island Performing Arts Conference (APAC) at the Lyric Theatre, 2018. Useful models for engagement and action with the sector on this issue were explored with contributions from Ben Twist, Creative Carbon Scotland[15]; Catriona Fallon, former CEO Siamsa Tíre[16], and Catherine Bottrill, the Creative Green Lead at Julie’s Bicycle.[17]

Our own commitment to changing the way we worked in the organisation of APAC, included encouraging reduced low carbon travel, a glass Keep-Cup for every delegate, limited printing of publicity and delegate material and a zero-waste policy.

Conclusion

We would like to thank ACNI for the opportunity to respond to the ongoing development of the strategy framework. Our understanding, is that the implementation of the strategy, is dependent on being accepted by the Department for Communities (DFC). With the absence of a Minister and functioning Executive, this could present many challenges. We would ask that the DFC collaborate within the strongest mechanisms at their disposal, to advocate for the necessary resources and investment financially and otherwise to ensure an agreed strategy is implemented fully and within the timeframe. TheatreNI, along with our colleagues in the sector welcome continued dialogue with ACNI and DFC in the development and implementation of this strategy and will be pleased to provide further information on any of the points discussed above.

Thank you,

Niamh Flanagan, Executive Director, TheatreNI

Footnotes

[1]https://theatreni.org/brexit-discussions-day-culture-sector-statement/?highlight=Brexit%20Statement

[2] Sam Young, Deputy Head of Policy and Public Affairs Creative Industries Federation; Siobhán McAlister, Policy Development Officer; NICVA and Paul Gosling, Chairperson; Playhouse Derry-Londonderry, chaired by Susan Picken, Director, Cathedral Quarter Trust.

[3] Jackson Annabel, Desk Review of ACNI’s Five Year Strategic Plan, Final Report, October 2018.

[4] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/reveal-ed-how-investment-helped-the-arts-in-the-north-1.3751497

[5] Jackson Annabel, Desk Review of ACNI’s Five Year Strategic Plan, Final Report, October 2018.

[6] https://www.ulster.ac.uk/news/2018/march/research-finds-high-levels-of-mental-ill-health-in-the-creative-industries-in-ni

[7] https://theatreni.org/resources/member-assistance-programme/

[8] https://scopeni.nicva.org/article/the-agony-of-the-artist-shocking-report. The full report can be accessed: https://theatreni.org/inspire-and-ulster-university-research-finds-high-levels-of-mental-ill-health-in-the-creative-industries-in-ni/

[9] https://www.ulster.ac.uk/news/2018/march/research-finds-high-levels-of-mental-ill-health-in-the-creative-industries-in-ni

[10] https://theatreni.org/resources/creating-safer-spaces-theatre-performing-arts-sector-ni/?highlight=creative%20scotland%20bullying%20and%20harrssment%20

[11] Email responses to request for support for all -island initiatives such as the North South Touring fund following APAC, June 2018, {Email} Prime Cut Productions.

[12] https://theatreni.org/tourbook-live/  An innovative digital showcasing platform and marketplace for live performance, originally developed in Scotland, launched in December 2017, at the Lyric Theatre.

[13] https://theatreni.org/tni-drb-host-crp-training-internationally-acclaimed-trainer-choreographer-theatre-maker-liz-lerman/?highlight=liz%20lerman

[14] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[15]https://www.creativecarbonscotland.com/about/what-we-do/

[16] https://www.siamsatire.com/about/greening-siamsa

[17] https://www.juliesbicycle.com/pages/category/resource-hub