A fatal cut?

Last Thursday, Belfast blogger Alan Meban broke the news on Slugger O’Toole that the Department of Social Development had closed the Laganside Events Grants Scheme. 

Organisations which normally apply for the funding were notified by letter the previous week that the grant closure would take effect on 31 March 2012, giving just under two months’ notice for groups to find alternative funding sources for events and festivals already being planned and budgeted for.

Although the grants scheme was open to groups in areas beyond the Cathedral Quarter, this is arguably the area which will feel most keenly the slashing of this budget. The Cathedral Quarter Arts FestivalFestival of FoolsBlack Box events, Belfast Children’s FestivalOut to Lunch Festival and Culture Night are just some of the area’s cultural gems which are said to be under threat.

As you can see, the organisers of most of these events have already begun to fill their spring programmes.

The blow comes less than a month after sighs of relief were uttered at the Black Box, following news that its annual grant had been extended by the council. The council said the payment to the venue provides “value for ratepayers’ money”.

Pic courtesy of the group’s FB page

It didn’t take long for the Stop the Cathedral Quarter Events cuts Facebook page to be set up and at the time of writing, less than a week after the news broke, the page has nearly 3,000 supporters. 

I urge the readers of The Patchwork Quill to join me in backing the campaign to reinstate this vital funding. Whether or not you live in Belfast, or indeed in Northern Ireland – if you believe in the importance of a rich cultural society, where the arts, self expression and creativity are celebrated then please add your voice to the cause.

The relatively small amount of financial assistance these organisations receive have allowed them to provide top quality music, theatre, circus, poetry and art at affordable ticket prices – something which is integral to their ethos. In fact, funding has thus far allowed the Festival of Fools to provide eclectic programmes of free street theatre. 

To paraphrase one comment on the Cathedral Quarter Events cuts Facebook page, unless we want the arts to only be available to the rich, these organisations need this money.

My first experience of the Cathedral Quarter’s vibrant arts scene was nearly two years ago at the Open House Festival when I saw Seasick Steve for the first time, for a gig review for The Gown.

Packed marquee for Seasick Steve’s Open House Festival 2010 gig.
The man himself

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to return to this cool and quirky part of town to write reviews of shows at 2011’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Out to Lunch Festival 2012 for the Belfast Telegraph and have yet to see a show I don’t end up raving about. Camille O’Sullivan, Drive By Truckers and Being Piaf were particular highlights.

Seasick Steve himself has added his voice to the debate, in his own inimitable style, which the Open House Festival posted on its Facebook page today:

“Well I just heard that the Open House Festival in Belfast has had some of their funding cut called the laganside event fund, which Iguess has helped keep them goin’ from the begining and such.

Well I dont know nothing how to a make a festival go but I do know that the open house festival aint no big corporate festival – they always put new music first, findin’ new bands that maybe dont have no money type draw but that they believe people would love, just for the sake of music. In these days thats a rare thing. Bout 7 years ago they took on a chance of havin’ an old guy who just recently sufferd a heart attack and that nobody new about at all – just about as obscure as they come. Well, that fella was me, Seasick Steve and I can say, straight up if it wernt for the Open House festival I never would have kept goin and never went on the Jools Holland show. Nothin’. Would never ever got to have all the success I have had all over the world.” [sic]

Steve acknowledges the ripple effect this little festival has had on his career and I think that’s the whole point. One cynic comments on the Slugger O’Toole article that ‘non-essential spending’ is being cut and “maybe the decision of the Department of Social Development to stop paying for people to put on plays is part of that?”

But a city needs a rich social life and entertainment scene in order for the other parts of it to stay alive. 2012 is meant to be Northern Ireland’s big fat year of tourism, centred on marking the Titanic centenary and trying to sustain the buzz generated by last year’s MTV Europe Awards in Belfast.

The simple truth is, people come to a country, to a city, to experience its culture. If the festivals, gigs and shows that are so integral to Belfast’s unique vibe either dry up or become so expensive nobody goes to them, then the city will become less attractive to visitors and the next thing to dry up will be its economy, which is suffering already.

2012 may be the year that the world comes to Northern Ireland to see the Titanic Quarter, but we want them to explore and enjoy the rest of this beautiful city too, so they have a reason to keep coming back once ‘Titanic fever’ has faded. Cutting off the blood supply to the heart of its social and cultural life is short-sighted and ill-advised.

Below you’ll find a template letter created by Stop The Cathedral Quarter Events cuts for contacting DSD with your objection to the funding cut, along with the relevant email addresses if you want to join me in opposing this awful decision.

Dear Minister McCausland,

RE: the Laganside Events Fund

Festivals and events in Cathedral Quarter are clearly a catalyst for regeneration and enjoy the support of the public, businesses, arts organisations and the tourism industry.

I would ask you to immediately reverse your decision and restore the Laganside Events Fund. If you cannot reverse this decision, I would like a written answer to state why you have personally authorised the decision to cut the Laganside Events Fund without consultation or prior notice.

I would also request the rationale behind cutting a relatively small fund which has proven to be a key economic driver for the area over the past 12 years. Can you explain why events which have proven their economic worth to the satisfaction of funders such as NITB, fail to convince you?

I look forward to your response.

Thank you,

blog awards ireland

This post was shortlisted for Best Blog Post in the Blog Awards Ireland 2012.


15 thoughts on “A fatal cut?”

  1. Why should tax payers' cash – ANY OF IT – go on subsidising your gig going? Or a load of other decidedly middle class events? (I've been to Culture Night – it's undeniable). Least of all in a time of austerity and cuts? What bit of public spending would you cut instead of this grant? And there are enough private music promoters struggling to stay afloat in this city without state funded promoters crowding them out of the market.

  2. You need to open your eyes and your brain, Anonymous. There are three big reasons why subsidy should be given. 1) The economic return on these events is phenomenal – far greater than the return that comes from Invest NI pumping tens of millions into bringing in overseas companies for short term subsidies. If you want to be strategic about reducing public expenditure, let's have the debate. It's a lot more complex than What about hospitals and schools.2)The events bring together people from all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. You may have judged that they are decidedly middle class, but even then, there is no reason to deny them to people without money. 3)A world without public subsidy for the arts is not a world many people want to live in. The omnibus survey which is a representative sample of the general public shows overwhelming support for public investment in the arts. There are thousands more reasons, both subjective and objective, for funding these events and you can read many of them on the facebook page which has over 2,000 fans in a weekend. For the record, the majority of events supported by DSD fund were not music events in any case.

  3. Over 2000 'likes' on Facebook?? In only a weekend? Truly, this is our Arab Spring!The arts funding gravy train is coming to an abrupt end, and rightly so. As much good art and music will be made once it's ended. A lot less public money will be spent on keeping middle class arts graduates, who would otherwise be utterly unemployable, in Starbucks coupons, Cult t shirts and iPhones. And the private promoters will no longer have their rates and taxes used to subsidise the state funded competition which is driving them to the wall.

  4. When public money's involved, the debate tends to get emotional. But I do believe, (and Will, you put it far more articulately than I ever could!) that subsidy for the arts not only benefits this industry and enriches people's lives, but has a genuine financial return for a city/country as a whole. Think of the people who come to Belfast for these events (or are simply attracted to the city because of its growing reputation as an interesting, entertaining place to be) who then eat in restaurants and cafes, go shopping, spend their money in our pubs, stay in hotels etc. That's the ripple effect I was referring to.

  5. No one is addressing this: What about the private promoters? Why should they have their taxes (and rates) spent to subsidise rivals who they then have to compete with on a completely uneven playing field?

  6. Most people have missed the fact that there are a mixed bag of events here. The likes of Pride and The Childrens' festival are precisely the sort of thing that should receive subsidy, because the market cannot adequately provide these things and there are no festival directors taking big fat salaries from them whilst rejigging the figures so as to comply with the often abused "not for profit" status. The likes of Open House put on gigs with a massive subsidy which are more expensive than they would be in the market place (£38 for Fleet Foxes anyone?). You have to ask yourself where the subsidy goes then if this is the case, especially given that many of the workers are volunteers. The state is the biggest music promoter in NI. It's a shame that some of these better community events will no longer receive this funding, but one can only hope that they will survive and get their funding elsewhere whilst other events will learn to live or die without the help of the tax payer. The age of the middle class guy with a middle class audience being paid by the state to play at being the music promoter whilst making a massive salary and no consequence when he gets it wrong are over and I for one am happy about this.

  7. Dear Anonymous, whilst I can appreciate where you are coming from if you are competing against subsidised events, there are a few errors here. First off, having worked in the arts for 25 years as a performer and now desk dalek, I don't recognise your description of massive salaries and gravy trains. I work 60 hours a week and live in a tiny house and I do it because I believe in it. Come and meet all the folk in our organisation and tell them how middle class they are. If you have a problem with music events receiving public subsidy then the problem lies with the distribution mechanism but not with the funding itself. The events fund supports the Black Box which is equally subsidised for all music promoters who come along which means the net result is the public can access cheaper gigs.

  8. The Black Box was only supposed to exist until the MAC was built. It was initially intended primarily as a theatre space however it quickly became apparent that this wasn't going to work and ended up being a pretty poorly kitted out ad hoc music venue operating at the fringes of licensing law. The Black Box was a good idea in the interim until the MAC was completed. Now we have our beautiful new Arts Building it should probably just go. I don't doubt that you make little money and believe in what you do Will, the FOF is one of the better events, everything is free and accessible, and nobody is making a fortune for their work. I can see where that subsidy goes, though DSD as far as I understand only makes up a small percentage of this. Festivals like the Open House have done the rest of the Arts in NI a disservice by making the public pay twice for their gigs and giving arts subsidy a bad name, (firstly with their public subsidy and then again with their often inflated ticket prices). Tacking a few free events on as an afterthought does not make up for this either. Anything that brings the arts out to the people who need it most is fine by me (and by that I don't mean the alt country loving Guardian readers of this world who can well afford to access the arts' without state help).

  9. Hi Anonymous, I feel we almost know each other by now so I should probably call you Anon. Not sure that I agree with your analysis of the Black Box history having served as a Trustee from the early days, but certainly can't agree with your verdict that it should close once the MAC opens. The MAC is going to find it incredibly tough to make do at the best of times. In these recessionary times it will be even harder. One of the key ingredients for success will be the existence of a critical mass of culture and arts in Cathedral Quarter. If you only have one show in town it will die the death. Tell me in 6 months time that you think the Black Box market is the same as the MAC. As for Open House, can see you have a big problem there and I would invite you to input on the Stop the Cuts site to suggest what the criteria for Events Funding should be. Clearly you believe in the validity of some events and one of the tasks facing CQ is to persuade Nelson McCausland to change his mind. That is only going to happen if the criteria are powerful in my view. I think we should let Heather have her blog back now. See you on the other side!

  10. Indeed Will probably best we leave it here. I will though say one thing regarding the Black Box, there are vastly superior music venues all over our city that lie empty much of the week that can inexpensively cater for the "Black Box market" without subsidy. These events will generate taxes in a way that will subsidise the arts events that really matter. And while we're on the subject why should the arts be restricted to the Cath quarter. This part of town has had it's state sponsored leg up (some would say at the expense of other parts of our city that have been providing entertainment for decades) and it might be time for it to stand on it's own two feet. As for contacting McCausland etc I'm not getting into that debate, the decision is made and hopefully there will be a bit of a cull in the disproportionately big Arts state subsidy industry that has grown in Belfast. There are way better uses of state funding in these difficult times, especially given that most of these funded events only appeal to people who can easily afford to access the arts using their own money.

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