13p per week – The show must go on

The Government invests 13p per head of population per week in arts provision in Northern Ireland, and there’s serious threat to cut this level of current investment.

Current investment in the arts wouldn’t keep the health service ticking over for more than a day here – so let’s get the arts vs. health argument out of the way quickly. Enough said, I think.

What is the value of the arts? For me, the arts are what has made this place bearable to live in. It is what has been quietly making the place a better place.

On a personal level, what I know is that my own journey to the arts was one of following my children. They were the ones who wanted to dance, to act, to learn circus skills, to play music, to create. for my own part, I just wanted happy children. They went to circus school and to drama and dance classes. They went to the arts centre, which was nearby. It was fun. it was safe. It was accessible. It was inexpensive.

Circus school was instrumental in shoring up and restoring the sense of self, and self esteem of a little 7 year old girl who was being bullied and isolated at school and suffering terrible anguish, poor self-esteem, and anxiety and upset – the sequelae of undiagnosed issues with dyspraxia and dyslexia. At circus school, there was a place for everyone, a team, and falling over and dropping things, being wobbly and inco-ordinated was all part of the show and taking part. That girl has overcome the impact of what are long term disabilities and she’s now doing a PhD….. all these years later. However, she hasn’t forgotten what she learned at circus school and on the morning of graduation of her Masters degree ( with distinction, ahem!), fully turned out for the event, dressed to the nines and running out at the last minute, managed to trap her gown in the locked door of her house…… and the keys were inside. Ta daaaaaaaa!

Daughter the younger, did drama, dancing, art and ceramics, as a child. She learned the essential skills of amusing herself, ways to create, she learned about play, taking part with others and about being an individual in a team. The Oh Yeah! Centre was so formative. In the Volume Control project, she was learning about running events – everything from front of house, security, budgeting, marketing, stage management, band liaison, planning, implementation and evaluation, leadership and following…….individuals and the team.She and her friends were aged somewhere between 14 and 18 and they were doing all that – this was activism in the arts…. with essential life skills and development thrown in. The friendships have endured into the bargain. Her student flat in Glasgow is floor space for visiting bands from Belfast – her old friends. They look out for each other – with floor space, big pots of stew, with opportunities for gigs, with bonds of friendship.

The older was born in 1987 and the younger in 1992. I could trot out some of the things we lived through. I could shout about the people we lost and the fear and terrible days we lived through, and I could lose the point in doing so. The point is…… look how far we have come. The arts were a part of shaping them – my children; all our children.

I recently had the chance to work with a group of adults with learning disabilities, in Short Strand. We were making a film through Belfast Film Festival Outreach. Thrashing out the options on what we might do with them – they, rightfully had their own ideas – a remake of Tarzan, or of Dirty Dancing were high on the list – but when we talked about making a film about them and with them – that blew all other options out of the water. We talked about stories, and we talked about stuff they liked to do – going to Black Moon at the Black Box, about cinema trips and getting to the Opera House, going to bands, creating their garden. That type of stuff. Yes they could learn about the camera and yes they were the story. All of that.

I could talk about me too – but I’ll keep it brief. I am fifty years old. I am working in the arts full-time, having spent a life-time working in health and social care. I was dying and had to change the way I lived and my own priorities; I was simply dying.

Society is an eco-system. The life-cycles are delicate and interdependent. Artists are the bees of that ecosystem – an indicator of its overall health, an indicator of its capacity to thrive, and an indicator of the peril it faces.

Cutting funding to the arts is bad for everyone. What would be saved in terms of finances is minuscule. What we stand to lose in value is beyond our imaginations – and it is something that will act against us, profoundly and for generations.

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