Funding cuts exceed expectations

Funding cuts exceed expectations

From Monday morning, the day that the Arts Council’s funding decisions for 2010 were communicated to the majority of its clients by post, members of the theatre and dance community began phoning each other with heavy concern, the kind usually reserved for times of natural disaster, each asking the same question: Are you ok?

For an unprecedented number of independent theatre companies, the answer was no. Eleven production companies have had their funding discontinued, among them such high profile and long-standing organisations as Barabbas (pictured), Bedrock and Meridian. While companies slowly share news of the Arts Council’s decisions (the Council has yet to publish them) some reports suggested that only thirteen companies might now remain on any level of funding, with well-established organisations such as The Gate, Druid, Rough Magic, and Dublin Theatre Festival taking cuts of roughly ten per cent each. Other companies, such as The Corn Exchange and The Performance Corporation, have had their funding reduced severely: a 48 per cent reduction for The Corn Exchange and 35 per cent for The Performance Corporation. “There was so much trepidation in the sector over the past year anyway,” says The Performance Corporation’s Artistic Director, Jo Mangan. “We’d all been quaking in our boots waiting for it to happen. But for it to have been this bad is shocking.”

The Arts Council declined to comment further on the decisions or to explain what strategy underpinned them. It has published some details on its website, accompanied by explanations that the Council’s own budget has been reduced, with €9 million less to invest in the arts this year than in 2009. (The Arts Council is cutting its own administrative costs by 30 per cent, and stands to lose 25 per cent of its employees as a result of budget constraints, unrenewed contracts and an embargo on hiring.)

The website includes a brief summation of its overall approach: “Emphasis was given to achieving a regional balance, on enabling the arts to reach more people, and on supporting artists to make work.” An additional fund for touring is likely to come to €1 million.

For those artists whose companies had lost funding, there was cold comfort in the allocation of 20 per cent of the Council’s direct funding budget (€62 million of its €69 million from Government) to its projects and awards schemes – a pool of just over €12m. “As well as safeguarding funding for new and emerging artistic talent, this will provide opportunities for artists within organisations no longer funded on a recurring basis,” it explained. No details of the project awards, their schedule, or whether the application procedure has been altered could be confirmed.

If the agenda has been to “annihilate production companies”, as one artistic director put it, and to divert money from administration costs towards directly supporting artistic work via project grants, it remains unclear how this shift will be effected or how quickly it can take place. Faced with winding down a long-standing company, an artistic director may not adapt easily to the freelance world of project funding. Furthermore, some worry that if the project awards deadlines are set for March, with applications facing a lengthy evaluation process from an understaffed Council, it is unlikely that applicants will learn of grant decisions until June or July. This would make participation for such artists in the Kilkenny Arts Festival and Galway Arts Festival impossible, while putting great strain on Dublin Fringe Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival, which finalise their programmes long in advance of their autumn schedules. Nor do organisations that might function as production hubs, such as Project Arts Centre, appear to have been prioritised in these funding decisions: Project received a 16 per cent reduction.

“Of course I’m not happy about receiving a funding reduction,” said Project’s Artistic Director, Willie White. “But beyond that, what would make me feel that it was credible was that there was a plan to genuinely and promptly invest in independent artists.” Given the lag between a company’s initial funding application, in September 2009, and the results of a project award possibly up to nine months later, venues face the prospect of dark stages. “The infrastructure that [the Arts Council] have paid for is going to lie fallow as things currently stand,” said White. “There were projects that were going to happen that will not now take place. I don’t think the money is being distributed in the most effective way or the most considerate way… They seem to have gone in quite brutally. Cutting people is not a strategy. What is the strategy that succeeds the cuts?”

Few people in the arts expected good news, but many feel a particular sting following the achievements last year of the National Campaign for the Arts and the Arts Workers groups, in which theatre makers helped to lobby for the importance of arts funding. And the December Government budget saw the Arts Council’s budget reduced by 5.6 per cent, considerably less than had been feared.

Without a firm rationale for the severity of these cuts or a clear alternative for making work outside the company structure, the shock and sadness experienced on Monday is fast becoming a call for clarity and strategy from the Arts Council. “They forced us all into this situation of setting up limited companies and professionalising the sector, years ago,” says Jo Mangan. “None of us wanted to do that originally. Now it’s becoming amateurised… I don’t see any other policy in place.”

“We need structural change,” says Willie White. “We need a change to the way the Arts Council does its business. It needs to be light, transparent, open, prompt and it needs to do as well as say. This has to have been for something. There has to be a reason. There’s joint culpability for both the recipients of the money and the people who have structured it. You have to honour the pain you’ve caused people by actually delivering something that is different and useful.”



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