Arts at the heart

A cultural funding scheme for local councils has boosted arts investment in Northern Ireland by £3 million. Patrick Kelly reports.

Last year more than 40,000 flocked to see actors like Fiona Shaw and Liam Neeson, poets Paul Muldoon and Sinead Morrisey, and musicians Ralph McLean and the Meccore String Quartet.

Forty thousand might not seem a lot until you realise that these audience were making their way to a tiny theatre space in the middle of a small village whose population barely makes it into four figures.

The venue that attracted them, and the dozens of star names, is the Seamus Heaney Homeplace, built by Mid-Ulster district council in the renowned poet’s home village of Bellaghy. The £4m site is the council’s way of attracting tourism and employment to a marginalised part of Northern Ireland.

So far its been a great success, exceeding the council’s own estimates of the number of visitors it would draw in its first year. But a major part of that success has been the artistic programme which has drawn the Shaws and Neesons and others like songwriter Phil Coulter and War Horse writer Michael Morpugo. Even Prince Charles and Irish President Michael O’Higgins have included Homeplace in their tour schedules.

But Homeplace’s arts programme is just one of ten schemes which form part of ACNI’s Local Government Challenge Fund – a £1.5 million fund aimed at increasing access to the arts for people across Northern Ireland.

The scheme has its origins in the reorganisation of Northern Ireland local councils in 201? explains Nick Livingston.

The new ‘super councils’ now had responsibility for ‘well being’ and an obligation to consult widely on their community plans, and ACNI convinced councillors that embedding arts and culture in those plans would help them meet their goals on economic regeneration, community relations and social cohesion.

As a way of ‘inspiring’ the local government sector, says Livingston, ACNI decided to put its money where its mouth was, setting up the fund in September 2016 and inviting applications for three year programmes.

The arts body insisted on two conditions. Firstly, that councils had to come up with match funding and secondly, that it had to be new funding, not just a re-badge of existing spending commitments.

The fund excludes Belfast, by far and away the biggest local authority in NI, not only because it had highest spend on arts and culture already but because ACNI has a different deal with the council already.

Eight of the other ten councils applied for up to £150k worth of cash each. The schemes cover every conceivable art form from the spoken word to a giant model of the Moon. It encompasses theatre productions, artists-in residence programmes, European exchanges and involves dozens of arts organisations and venues. Artistic work in the scheme brings in health professionals, older people and a slew of voluntary and community organisations.

“The schemes are a complete mix of art forms,”says Livington, “but the pattern shows a very strong emphasis on well-being and community cohesion and trying to bridge divides, not only sectarian ones, but also those between different age groups.”

A year after the Fund launched, ACNI believes that it has not only engineered £3 million worth of extra investment in the arts, it has also inspired imaginative and artist-led approaches to placemaking.

“It has meant that councils are now aware that arts and culture could play a significant role in their local communities,” says Livingston. He cites the example of Mid-Ulster council, once one of the areas at the bottom of the arts spending league table and now gone right to the middle. Community plans right across Northern Ireland have taken the arts on board, he says. Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council has explicitly described arts and culture as important community assets.

The Challenge Fund has also helped ACNI meet its own goals in reaching rural communities, he adds. Much of Northern Ireland is rural, and the scheme has increased its impact on many of the small towns and villages, like Bellaghy, that were previously untouched by arts and culture investment.

In an age of austerity, this is good news. Although the overall budget picture for the arts in Northern Ireland looks bleak-major cuts have just been announced in ACNI’s own spending, other indicators are positive. Tourism in Northern Ireland is growing by more than 6% annually, and is now worth more than a £1bn a year. Much of that increase is down to ‘cultural destinations’ attracting visitors. Northern Ireland now hosts two of the top three tourist attractions for Chinese visitors – the Giants Causeway and the Titanic centre.

Livingston also points to the success of a culture-led regeneration project, Re-imagining Communities, whose signal success was in persuading local people to swap dozens of bloodthirsty sectarian murals for paintings depicting less divisive aspects of the region’s heritage. “This was an artist led project that allowed artists to go to places where more conventional community workers could not,” he says. “It demonstrated the value of putting artists at the centre of the project and in the community.”

 

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