Doing More with Less – How the cuts impact the delivery of community arts – Philip Campbell

When asked to contribute to the Monthly regarding the recent round of cuts I thought to myself ‘how do I contribute?’

I’ve been privileged to work for Down Community Arts (DCA) as a Volunteer, Artist, Project Officer and now Project Manager since 2003 and there’s not one facet of the organisation that I’m unfamiliar with.

This in itself gives me a unique perspective on how a sustained period of cuts has affected an organisations ability to perform year on year.

DCA was formed in 1993 to ‘promote, improve and maintain the arts for the people of Down District Council’. That we are still here 25 years later tells a story in itself.

DCA’s longevity clearly demonstrates a belief in our communities that the Arts Matter and we are a better society for it. Don’t get me wrong it’s not all plain sailing and at times convincing rural communities to take part in an ‘art project’ can prove a tough slog.

However, when that breakthrough comes; when people come through the door the following week asking for more, you know it’s been worth it. So I suppose my faith and stubbornness and my commitment to the arts and its potential to transform lives is how I, on behalf of DCA contribute to the Arts.

I refer to faith and stubbornness because, in my humble opinion I believe it is the greatest strength and weakness of many a community arts organisation. I may be wrong in my assumptions and will happily be corrected, but from my experiences with DCA I can only surmise the harder the task the harder you fight to succeed, and herein lies the problem.

Abundant

When I first encountered the work of DCA it was through a chance meeting with the then Chair who suggested I volunteer on a school mural project. Funding was in abundant supply, there was fulltime Project Manager, Project Officer and 3 part-time administrative staff and a plethora of artists ready and willing to deliver.

Fast forward to present day and the staffing contingent consists of a Project Manager and a freelance Project Officer (working 12 hours a week) with an expectation to deliver 19 Projects consisting of 177 workshops for 2017/18.

Such expectation has made DCA rethink time and time again on how to deliver with diminishing resources. Our response has been to barter, to think of innovative ways to work our way through, striking up partnerships with community, voluntary and statutory bodies to keep providing in the face of adversity, but at what cost and where does it stop?

Now please don’t assume I’m crossing the picket line when I say this, but let’s focus on some positives. Yes believe it or not in these times of austerity there have been positive outcomes for DCA. As funding reduced across all sectors in community provision we have found ourselves forging closer links with colleagues and working harder to provide for our communities.

As a result more statutory and voluntary bodies are seeing the benefits of arts participation, they realise it can help achieve their goals, it’s an avenue they would never have gone down unless the cuts had forced them look for alternatives.

The cuts have also evolved our artistic programme; working in a rural setting presents its own unique set of problems with regard to the art form you can deliver and the cost associated with it. To solve these problems we’ve introduced new technologies to reduce costs, for example purchasing a number of I-Pads now enables us to deliver Music, Film, Animation and Photography in rural communities for a fraction of the cost compared to previous years. As perverse as it sounds the cuts have to some degree helped the organisation develop albeit without growing in recent years.

Now to the cost to DCA, the financial is obvious and there for all to see but it’s the people I wish to talk about.

Yet again I can only put forward my humble opinions on the matter but I’d like to share with you my first experience of leading DCA, it came when I had to act up into the position of Project Manager in 2010. My first action was to inform a single mother of 3 that we no longer had funding for her admin position.

I’d worked with this amazing woman for 3 years and like so many working in the Voluntary Sector she had always gone above and beyond her role. Here I was a 29 year old single man with no dependants telling her ‘sorry we just didn’t get the funding’. To this day it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career and it will never leave me; it set the tone for the years to come.

Succumbing

Too many talented young artists have come and gone succumbing to the inevitable need to make ends meet. DCA has lost 2 extremely talented Project Officers in the past 4 years with our inability to offer stable employment, our only solace being that they continue to work in the sector. All too often my days are getting longer and my duties and responsibilities increase with family and friends bearing the brunt of my frustrations.

I now feel it’s time to bring you back to my original point, stubbornness and faith is our greatest strength and weakness. Personally I’m too stubborn to consider that we can’t continue and my faith that arts matter keeps me going through the toughest of times, I suspect my opinions might be shared.

I know I’m not alone and it’s a fight I will keep fighting whatever form that may be.

Philip Campbell – Project Manager – Down Community Arts

Find out more about the ArtsMatterNI campaign on Twitter – #ArtsMatterNI and the website www.artsmatterni.co.uk

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.