BLOG 27th March 2019

Digging deeper: funding cuts and arts attendance in Northern Ireland

In February, a headline from Arts Professional caught our eye:

Arts attendance in Northern Ireland falls by a quarter as cuts bite

Clicking through we discovered that this very depressing statement came from an internal Arts Council of NI report, released following a Freedom of Information request by ArtsProfessional. It found that between 2014 and 2017, audiences for performances at ACNI’s portfolio of Annually Funded Organisations fell by more than a quarter, while exhibition visits dropped by almost 50%.

The article went on to say that this dramatic decline in attendance took place as ACNI cut its core funding to the portfolio by almost 40% due to ongoing public austerity. The independent review, carried out by Annabel Jackson Associates, states that NI arts organisations are under "financial stress" and suffering 'damage to long-term sustainability", warning that any further cuts “are likely to be counterproductive”.

At thrive we work every day with individuals and organisations across the arts in NI helping them drive audience-focussed change. Through our research work with organisations across the country, we've got access to data that tells a different story. Looking at ticketing data for 2016 - 2017, we found that there was:

  • A significant growth in the number of people engaging with the arts (Ticket bookers increased by 20% in Belfast and 8% elsewhere).
  • A 2% increase in ticket sales across NI.
  • A 10% increase in Belfast ticket sales - whilst regional venues are seeing a decline.

We have seen the massive financial and personal stress caused by ongoing cuts and the short-term focus that annual funding brings. The absence of the Assembly has reduced government decision making in all areas of public funding. Policy-making in NI at a damaging standstill. Layer onto that the ‘Brexit factor’ and it is easy to see why the arts sector here feels deflated and depressed.

Looking beyond Regularly Funded Organisations

But what has to be remembered is that one data set is never going to tell you the whole story. The data behind the headlines comes from the reporting by ACNI’s portfolio of Annually Funded Organisations, a group of 100+ organisations including thrive. And that data only represents a fraction of the cultural organisations and activity in Northern Ireland, and only some of the venues. The regional theatres and arts centres (around 15) that are funded by local authorities are not included, and neither are many festivals or community arts programmes. So it is important to look at what we know from other sources. Of equal importance as the quantity of the data is the conversation about its quality. The reporting requirements for regularly funded organisations (RFO's) have changed little over the last 5 years, although artistic practice and audience behaviour most definitely has.

Many RFO clients have no way of collecting or measuring data, so attendance and participation (especially at large scale events) are simply estimates.The figure also hides the depth of engagement. Many have moved their practice in recent years to smaller numbers with deeper engagement to increase the impact of the work.

Urban and rural venues telling different sales stories

Through thrive’s access to real box office data, rather than estimated figures, we can tell a different story. In 2017 ticket sales across NI increased by 2% on average. But the real story here is in the split between Belfast organisations and regional organisations. Sales for Belfast venues were up by 10% on average. On the other hand, sales declined regionally by an average of 3%.

But interestingly, both Belfast and regional venues saw growth in their numbers of bookers.

Belfast venues saw 20% growth in bookers to achieve a 10% growth in sales but for regional venues an 8% growth in bookers resulted in a sales decline of -3%.

This shows how there are certainly additional challenges for regional venues who rely on local councils for funding and calls on the need for local councils to reinforce this commitment in funding and capacity.

And what about the reported reduction in marketing spend? How is that impacting on attendance levels, and is it too easy to link the two? Marketing budgets in NI have never been huge and a reduction from a paltry 4% to 3% is almost irrelevant. Our data suggests that marketing is actually delivering despite reductions in this minuscule spend.

Survival at the expense of audience-led sustainability

But dig a little deeper and what is revealed are two hugely significant audience development challenges that are putting the NI arts sector at risk.

1. In Belfast, the venues are attracting lots of first time and one-off bookers. Great for short term sales but not for audience loyalty which is crucial for developing a long-term relationship.

2. Regional venues show the reverse with higher levels of re-attendance, so their priority has to be the more costly and time consuming task of attracting the ‘new’.

To fully explore the issues this data raises would require further work linking sales to the product on offer. Thrive has done this for some venues who could afford to carry out this work but it requires collective action to really explore the link.

And this is not only a recent problem. Although these findings are based on data from 1 year as opposed to the 4 years covered by the ACNI report, they continue the trends we have been seeing for some time. It is no coincidence that this trend coincides with the ongoing funding cuts over the same period.

We are all working harder (or is that working miracles?) to get bookers, but, we are sacrificing longer term sustainability through sustained audience relationships, to focus on short term sales. This scenario is good for no one. The headline we would write is:

Arts sector in NI bravely battles to attract audiences but is losing the fight for sustainability.

A note on the data:

All data is taken from our 2018 Foundations reporting – a collaborative box office benchmarking project with ticketed arts venues across Northern Ireland. Data from 18 different venues is included – 7 within Belfast, and 11 outside of Belfast. We'll also be running a Foundations project this year, and any NI festivals or venues are welcome to take part.

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