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Arts Council Chief Executive gives Covid-19 update to Communities Committee, Stormont

The Arts Council of NI (ACNI) was invited to apprise the Communities Committee of the NI Assembly today of the impact of Covid-19 on the Arts in NI. In both a written submission, and an opening statement  Roisín Mc Donough, Chief Executive, outlined the severe impact of Covid-19 on an arts sector that previously generated £53 million in income and employed an estimated 7,500 people – income and jobs which had been seriously damaged by the pandemic. She evidenced sectoral surveys undertaken during Covid-19 lockdown which revealed significant loss of earnings to both organisations and artists, the majority of whom are self-employed in a gig economy and most vulnerable of all.

Officials at the Department for Communities and the Minister were praised by the Arts Council for stepping in with £1m of emergency funding, which supplemented vital, re-purposed funds from the National Lottery and Exchequer funds, however ACNI representatives stated more support was urgently needed. The facts in ACNI written evidence state that the arts sector is likely to be one of the worst affected by the current lockdown, associated social distancing and the decimation of box office income.

Ms McDonough stated that  the deficit figure for the arts was estimated at £4million and that the current funding model, so painstakingly worked on over the last decade, and which saw arts organisations work hard to increase earned income, was now broken. She referenced the important contribution of digital platforms to the arts ecology but forecast that monetisation of digital arts content would not fill the income gap, and stated while consumer confidence around safety remained so low, neither outdoor nor indoor socially-distanced performances would deliver what is needed to keep organisations alive.

Arts Council representatives used case studies to illustrate to the committee the current bleak situation for many within the arts. They also laid out some of the further support measures the Council would like to see implemented, which would help the sector re-calibrate itself , make the most of digital content at this time, allow creative thinking time, while preparing for live audiences to return in the future.

The key actions recommended by the Arts Council to help ease current anxieties included:

  • Extension of the Job Retention and Self-Employment Income Support schemes for those sectors that need time to open and rebuild their businesses
  • Enabling furloughing to be done on a part-time basis
  • Revising the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to ensure no freelance worker falls through the gaps
  • Provision of further emergency funding for organisations to enable them to trade through the crisis over the next 12-18 months
  • Technical and financial support to implement ‘safe space’ protocols to help the sector return to business when appropriate to do so.

The Arts Council Chief Executive finished her submission stating, “Our arts sector here has been in the forefront of creating equality and access in ways which are the envy of other Arts Councils in these islands. Just like the health service many offer a huge variety of activities and services, free at the point of delivery. That must be sustained if some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community are to be supported to enjoy their rights to access the arts.”

Following the meeting Roisín McDonough commented,

“The Arts Council experienced a most appreciative reception from the Communities Committee who unanimously endorsed the valuable and creative work of our arts sector. They commended the artists and arts organisations who have been at the forefront of creating equality, improving access, as well providing opportunities to build health and wellbeing for so many people in Northern Ireland.

“Every member present at today’s meeting shared personal examples of the positive impact of the arts on them and on their friends and families. It was noted by committee members how hard the arts sector had been hit by the current Covid-19 pandemic, a sector already fragile from many years of underinvestment and despite this,  a sector that makes enormously valuable contributions to our society and to our economy. We took away from the committee their desire to see a cultural recovery strategy that might guide us through these difficult times, and indeed that is our shared aim.”

To read the full aural submission made to the Communities Committee by Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive, Arts Council of Northern Ireland click here.

To read the full written submission to the Communities Committee, NI Assembly, click here.

Image: Arts Council of Northern Ireland Chief Executive, Roisín McDonough