The Ulster Orchestra: access to the arts is a right not a privilege
If the Ulster Orchestra is forced to close, the shockwave will be felt around the world. It is one of Northern Ireland’s most successful artistic brands, known internationally through its acclaimed recordings, broadcasts and tours.
But the bigger loss will be to people here who will be robbed of the opportunity to hear some of the world’s greatest music, played live by musicians rooted in this community.
The loss will not just be felt by audiences in its main concert venues, but by communities across Northern Ireland. The players are the backbone of our music education system – working in schools and universities, community groups and with amateur bands across the country.
Politicians make much of the importance of cultural industries to Northern Ireland’s creative economy. The loss of this orchestra would undermine the drive to make this part of the world a creative hub.
For the orchestra, this crisis is the latest in a series of near disasters. It has been structurally underfunded for decades. Public funding is its bedrock. With a tiny private sector here, its capacity to earn income from other sources is severely constrained.
It has pared costs to the bone. Staffing has been cut, and its players – among the worst paid orchestral musicians in the UK – have endured pay freezes to help balance the books. Tightened financial circumstances have limited its capacity to innovate and search for new audiences.
The orchestra has stayed afloat with expressions of goodwill, and short-term injections of cash. But goodwill does not pay the bills, and the sticking plasters have now come off. Long-term, sustainable, investment is needed.
The founding partners – Belfast City Council, the Arts Council/Department of Culture Arts and Leisure, and the BBC – benefit directly from the orchestra’s work. Each faces pressure financially, but they must work together creatively to find a long-term solution. That solution must not just be about stopping the rot.
The future must be built around a vision of what an orchestra could bring to Northern Ireland’s cultural life if it were allowed to reach its full potential. Reducing it to a chamber-sized orchestra or going part-time should not be on the agenda.
There is an opportunity here too for Belfast City Council to learn lessons from other major cities who have used their orchestras to build profile – Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham among them. For too long, some city councillors have seen the orchestra as a ‘middle-class beggar’ holding out its hand for charity. Yet in most years, the orchestra pays more to Belfast City Council in hall hire fees than it receives in grant.
What a joke it would be if the city ended up with two of the finest concert halls in the UK and no orchestra to play in them.
Arts funding is not charity, it is an investment that makes sense economically, culturally, socially and educationally. The arts add value. Every pound of public money generates wealth for the Northern Ireland economy.
As for the middle class tag, I know from personal experience that is nonsense. As the Labour politician Ernest Bevin once said: “Nothing is too good for the working class.” The orchestra draws its audience from all classes and creeds.
One story illustrates what an orchestra can mean to ordinary people. Some years ago, The Irish News ran a competition for tickets to one of its concerts. One afternoon I got a call from a distraught woman from the Markets.
She’d won tickets, but her husband had forbidden her to go. “He’s not stopping me,” she said, asking if she could pick the tickets up rather than having them sent home. Whatever troubles she was facing in her daily life, I know the two hours spent in the Ulster Hall were ones she cherished.
Access to the arts is a right, not a privilege. After almost half a century of service, the orchestra deserves better than this.
- Tom Collins is a former chairman of the Ulster Orchestra. A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 22 October 2014