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Northern Ireland’s Ministry of Culture is going to meet its maker. It will cease to be. It is no more by Steven Hadley

In 2004, when I was still a PhD student, I published a chapter of my thesis with the title ‘Auditing Culture: The subsidised cultural sector in the New Public Management’. In the article, I critiqued the pressures that the new systems of auditing and performance measurements that the New Labour administration had introduced in the public cultural sector starting in the late 1990s and the narrow instrumentalism that it seemed to have engendered in policy discourse. The article concludes with an observation, which, at the time, I had made with the intention of portraying an extreme and unlikely scenario: “… if we took the instrumental argument to its most extreme yet intrinsically logical consequences, then there would be no point in having a cultural policy at all, for its functions might be carried out just as well by economic and social services departments. In this perspective, arts provision could be easily absorbed within existing economic and social policies”. This lead me to issuing a concerned warning: “ … there seems to be a fairly good chance that instrumental cultural policies, which started off as “polices of survival” attempting to put forward a stronger case in favour of arts subsidy, might in fact turn out to be “politics of extinction” and further undermine the legitimacy of the arts sectors’ claims over the public purse”. I thought this was a real risk, but I certainly didn’t think that it would take just over ten years for it to materialise! And yet, this is precisely what has been happening recently in Northern Ireland, where arts and cultural policies (and their relevant Department, DCAL) are going to be subsumed into social policies: they will become the responsibility of a new Department for Communities. However, Steven Hadley suggests, in his guest post, that this might not necessarily be the sinister scenario I had suggested all those years ago…

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As part of a process of institutional reform agreed in 2014, the NI Executive recently reached agreement on 9 new government departments, which will replace the current 12 before the 2016 election. An outcome of the Stormont House Agreement, the plan was drawn up by the Head of the NI Civil Service and reported in the media in terms of the hens-teeth-rare unanimous agreement and cordial debate of the political parties of the north.

DCAL (the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure) came into this world just before the millennium amidst the creation of a range of new government departments ensuing from the Good Friday Agreement, with the first minister for the arts appointed in December, 1999. On the cusp of legally being able to smoke, drive a car and join the army, DCAL is to be no more. After Easter, the process to see the Department of Cultural Arts and Leisure close its doors begins in earnest.

Driven by a desire for efficiency (is this phrase now entirely synonymous with savings?), the new dispensation sees the majority of the functions of DCAL transferred to the newly minted Department for Communities. A commitment is on the record that no functions are being done away with and no policies terminated. The new Department for Communities is a revamped and extended version of the previous Department for Social Development. It could be argued, and indeed has been by some in the arts sector, that a radically instrumentalised DCAL policy agenda, re-written by the incumbent Minister and with a top priority to “promote social and economic equality and tackle poverty and social exclusion” was effectively a part of that department already, in purpose if not in name.

Whilst the process of re-naming government departments appears to have been relatively straightforward, it hasn’t always been entirely serious, as the BBC has reported,

“most debate was over what they would call the new department which will see the Department of Agriculture amalgamated with some of the functions of the existing Department of Environment… One minister proposed a compromise with unexpectedly hilarious consequences – he wanted it known as the Department of Nature. Until that is, someone pointed out that staff may be deemed to be “naturists.” An insider referred to it as a ‘Monty Python moment’”.

For the arts and cultural sector, aside from having to explain to their young audiences who Cleese, Chapman et al are (or were, for some pythons have also ceased to be) the most immediate question posed was the extent to which the arts are threatened or diminished by the lack of a dedicated Ministry for Culture. Does removing ‘culture’ and ‘arts’ from the name of the restructured department raise questions about the value arts and culture has for Northern Ireland’s government as Victoria Durrer has posited, or is this more simply a pragmatic response to a widely-held belief that the mechanisms and delivery structures of civil society in NI are both cumbersome and long-overdue for reform?

In direct response to this issue, Peter Robinson (The First Minister) stated in an Assembly discussion this week that,

…if one were to look at the Department for Communities and add “arts” to the title, is the Member saying that that is more important than housing; urban regeneration; the Social Security Agency; child maintenance services; the voluntary and community sector; museums; libraries; creativity and architecture; language; cultural diversity; sport; the Public Record Office; employment services; local government; the social investment fund; and racial equality? I could go on and on. If the argument is that arts is more important than all those issues, the Member can ask the question, but I do not believe that it is more important than many of those issues (Hansard 2 March, 2015).

The first, and perhaps most obvious point of comparison is the comment made by Ed Miliband a couple of weeks ago in his ‘arts speech’ when he stated that, “Of course, we should keep the department of culture. It says something that that should even be a question.”

Yet ministries of culture were not always so sacrosanct. As Janet Minihan noted, the Arts Council of Great Britain was set up specifically as “a compromise between disorganised voluntary efforts and a central Ministry of Fine Arts” (1977:246). Resistance to the idea of a ‘central Ministry’ at least partly derived from a post-war sensibility which had witnessed art-as-propaganda in the direct control of repressive state regimes and sought to make structural attempts to avoid it being repeated. The physical manifestations of this view stay with us to the present day, most vividly in the arms-length principle. Equally, one could look across the Channel in the 1960s, where in opposition to Bourdieu and Darbel’s work in the field the conceptual (and thereby institutional) framework initiated with the establishment of the French Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Andre Malraux as Minister in 1959 had given priority to institutionally-led supply-side funding and the separation of cultural policies from the education system (Dubois, 2011).

DCAL itself has a history of Ministers making ill-advised forays into the cultural sector and straying beyond their brief, including a previous incumbent writing to National Museums Northern Ireland to insist on creationism being included in exhibits, complaining of swearing in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch and attempting to have pro-Israeli views and Christian music introduced into the arts programing of Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

Perhaps Northern Ireland’s arts and cultural sector will be better off without a dedicated department. Given the recent series of brutal cuts to Arts Council Northern Ireland funds it could hardly do any worse. That may seem like an odd thing to say, but as GPS Culture have recently argued, now is the time for radical new thinking and a new destination for the arts.

Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue. Probably pining for the fjords.

 

 

BIO

Steven Hadley has over 20 years arts marketing and management experience in both the visual and performing arts, most recently as Chief Executive of Audiences NI, the audience development agency for Northern Ireland. He has experience of working with a wide range of arts organisations, funders, local authorities and government departments and currently sits on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) Ministerial Arts Advisory Forum working to develop a new ten-year strategy for the arts.

Steven holds an MBA and is a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and is currently in the second year of a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast researching the ideological function of democracy in English cultural policy.

Email: shadley01@qub.ac.uk

Twitter: @mancinbelfast

 

 

 

 

 

 

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