Responses to the Lockdown Crisis: an early analysis

/ Analysis

Analysing some of the immediate responses to the lockdown crisis suggests two possible and very different long term effects: either a re-enforcement or a re-evaluation of weaknesses in current arts, policy funding regimes and business models.

For decades, the arts and creative industries have been loudly promoted as vibrant sectors of the economy capable of transforming lives for the better in Northern Ireland. In a matter of weeks, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed long-standing weaknesses at the heart of the cultural economy model, not only in Northern Ireland, but in Britain and Ireland. Immediate responses from governments and funding agencies suggest that the immediate crisis may be driving two very different long term effects: either re-enforcing existing weaknesses or forcing a re-evaluation of current funding regimes and business models.

Some of the most positive responses to the crisis recognised the fragility of the arts sector and the precarious economic position of arts organisations, artists and cultural workers. The Arts Council England (ACE) published details of an Emergency Funding package on 30 March. Having already agreed to honour existing funding commitments regardless of whether the funded activity is cancelled, reduced or rescheduled, the emergency fund diverted £160 million towards mitigating the immediate impact of lockdown closures. ACE also postponed its autumn call for applications to the National Portfolio funding programme and extended existing arrangements to 2023. Adopting a similar strategy, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) prioritised the need to provide flexibility and liquidity to portfolio clients, by releasing upfront payments of 50% of approved annual grants and promising more ‘flexible approaches’ to the deployment of funding.

However, some early responses appear to be reflecting - and thus potentially re-enforcing – existing weaknesses in arts funding regimes. For example, arts organisations and artists have raised long standing criticisms of the transactional nature of funding regimes, in which the value of their work is measured almost entirely against its capacity to deliver instrumental targets. The relentless demand to supply evidence of social, economic and therapeutic impacts has placed a heavy administrative burden on arts organisations and, where budgets are stretched, has diverted resources away from core development over many years. The extensive review of funding and evaluation regimes undertaken during the first phase of the Art for Reconciliation research project suggests that the prevalence of tick-box approaches has done little to serve the development and improvement of this field of arts practice. As well as contributing to a loss of organisational capacity and memory, the continuing decline of core funding has fuelled an assumption that instrumental targets must be scrupulously costed and measured, whilst the contribution of artists to cultural value should be seen as voluntary.

Just as the arts have been rendered a service industry within cultural policy regimes that focus on delivery and consumption, so the working conditions of artists have steadily worsened (Siebert and Wilson 2013). Unfortunately, whilst seeking to ameliorate the precarious economic position of artists and workers in the cultural economy, the priorities of some emergency funds are likely to extend and intensify this problem. The Department of Communities in Northern Ireland provided emergency funding to ACNI to support arts practitioners and small to medium sized arts organisations through the crisis. However, rather than prioritising activities aimed at the development of arts and cultural workers, arts practice or arts facilities the Creative Support Fund has been designed to help artists and arts organisations develop ‘different ways of engaging with audiences across a range of platforms’ so that ‘arts services’ are not withdrawn from the public at this crucial time. Launching the new fund, the Communities Minister emphasised the 'crucial role' of the arts as an economic driver and contributor to 'the mental wellbeing of our communities'. In other words, rather than developing practice, strengthening the core or improving working conditions, the crisis funding has once again been made conditional on delivering external impacts.

Similarly, after providing €25m emergency funding to arts and cultural organisations in the fortnight immediately following the closure of venues in Ireland, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht announced additional support of €1 million to be distributed as small grants for artists to create new and original work, that could be made available on the internet ‘for public benefit’. Large numbers of artists and arts organisations across Ireland responded with anger and dismay to an emergency bailout scheme, which, in the words of one angry practitioner, paid artists to continue creating new work, but only on the basis of them ‘offering it up for a pittance online’.

Much of the friction between funders, artists and arts organisations that has arisen in response to these early emergency packages reflects long standing tensions in arts and cultural policy between the value placed on instrumental outputs, the value of art and cultural production and the need for arts organisations to develop core programming and business capacity. On the one hand, funders’ responses appear to recognise the necessity of providing arts organisations and artists with resources to maintain their core role as the makers of arts and cultural value. On the other hand, by expecting artists to continue ‘providing their talents and services to audiences’, at a moment of extreme crisis in an already under-resourced sector, there is a danger that core business and programming capacity are simply further hollowed out. Taken aback by the angry reception given to its emergency fund, the Irish Arts Council has established an Advisory Group aimed at bringing together 'leading expert voices from the arts and other sectors including public health, economics and media' to discuss and try to address the huge challenges posed by the COVID-19 lockdown. The sudden announcement that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland is to close its emergency fund from 11 May until further notice is likely to provoke further anger and dismay, but do failures and weaknesses in emergency responses make the case for greater and more meaningful consultation between artists, arts organisations, policymakers and funders? The first phase of this research project clearly suggests there is an appetite to explore substantial points of convergence as well as conflict between funders and funded organisations. Might there be an opportunity for us to put aside our immediate sense of anger and dismay and start talking about the long-standing, systemic and structural weaknesses in the cultural economy model that the crisis has exposed?

The current crisis is a critical incident that has disrupted routine processes of funding, delivery and evaluation and exposed unsustainable weaknesses across the arts and cultural economies of Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of different responses to the crisis may help us see and possibly even fix the underlying contradictions and flaws in the system. The crisis presents significant challenges to artists, arts organisations and funders, but it also provides time and space for artists, funders, policymakers and researchers to discuss and develop better responses in the short to medium term in ways that could help change arts and cultural policy for the better in the long term.

Pauline Hadaway is Research Administrator on Arts for Reconciliation research team. Pauline has worked in arts and education since 1990 and was director of Belfast Exposed Photography between 2000 and 2013. In her recently completed doctoral research at the University of Manchester, Pauline explored different uses of arts, heritage and culture as tools for peace building and economic and social reconstruction in Northern Ireland. Publications include, ‘Re-imagining Titanic, re-imaging Belfast’ in Relaunching Titanic: memory and marketing in the ‘post -conflict city’, Routledge, 2013 and ‘Escaping the Panopticon’ in Photography Reframed: visions in photographic culture, I.B. Tauris, 2018.

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