Funding arts in NI: A strategic way forward

A crowd of 40 arts organisations and eight funders gathered at the Funding the Arts in Northern Ireland symposium in February. This symposium, hosted by Arts & Business NI in partnership with ACF and Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), provided an opportunity for foundations interested in funding the arts in Northern Ireland to meet with potential applicants and arts sector representatives, and explore the possibilities of funding in this area now and in the future.

Following presentations by Margaret Bolton, consultant and co-author of Socially Investing in the Arts, and Lou Errington, Grants Manager at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and a lively panel discussion, representatives from foundation and arts organisations had the opportunity to meet individually to share ideas and learn from one another.

Socially Investing in the Arts, commissioned by Building Change Trust, provided the context for the symposium. This report aimed to investigate and uncover the potential of social investment to sustain the arts and cultural sector in Northern Ireland, building on the 2010 report Capital Matters supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. A key finding from the report was that current funding structures and models do not support organisational stability and impede organisational development. The report concludes that in addition to changes in the ecology of support for arts organisations in Northern Ireland, a specific capacity building and investment scheme is needed. It suggests that the main funders of arts and culture in Northern Ireland should be convened to consider how their funding policy and practice is supporting the financial stability and long term resilience of the sector. In particular, the report proposes that a new fund should be established; a hybrid with grants provided alongside loans and quasi equity which should provide financing for projects across the income spectrum.

Speaking at the symposium, Nick Livingston, Director of Strategic Development & Head of Policy and Research at Arts Council NI, welcomed the initiative by ACF and Arts and Business NI to bring funders and arts organisations together to learn together and from one another. Nick commended efforts being made to help the arts sector become more financially resilient, and called for both funders and arts organisations to “take a long-term view of innovation in order to avoid the risk falling into a rigidity trap”. He called for funders to “play a more entrepreneurial role in shaping that environment – they need to work closely together developing common insights into what interventions are needed as arts organisations go through cycles of change”.

Having attended the symposium, David Cahill Roots, Arts Manager at Wellcome Trust, said that he “welcomed the opportunity to participate and to have face to face conversations with potential applicants to our Public Engagement Fund – set in the context of the shared desire for building a resilient arts sector in Northern Ireland”.

The symposium and report contribute to a wider review of the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector in Northern Ireland conducted by Building Change Trust. The VCSE Futures project, which will take place throughout 2017 and 2018, will explore the challenges facing the sector and what support it needs to overcome them. The first stage is a survey on key issues for various stakeholders including funders which can be accessed here.

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