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Ballina Arts Centre’s peril is our shame

An Cailín Rua

An Cailin Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Last week’s sombre warning in the local papers that Ballina Arts Centre is in imminent danger of closure has led to heavy hearts around the town. The news is no surprise; there have been quiet, worried conversations for a while and many have been aware of the centre’s funding issues, but there is something stark about reading an announcement like this in print. It transforms the hypothetical to probable, and in the weeks before Christmas, casts a grim shadow over people’s livelihoods.
Naturally, in the immediate reaction to this, many will insist that fixing ‘real’ problems such as homelessness and poverty in Ireland should take priority, and that ‘luxuries’ such as arts facilities should come further down the list.
Fundamentally, however, this argument is flawed. Of course, in an ideal world, as advocated by Maslow, the most basic needs would be satisfied first. The problem is that we do not live in an ideal world, and in this neoliberal era the closure of Ballina Arts Centre will not house a homeless person or feed a hungry mouth.
The argument that the arts are a luxury is one that has been long refuted. Back in March 2017, I wrote here about the value of the arts, and how we must persist in resourcing it in the face of an increasingly capitalist and almost utilitarian society, where everything is measured in term of the financial value it delivers. (Apart from, one more cynical than I might suggest, politicians’ remuneration.)
I referenced the value of exposing children to creative activities, the importance of the arts to mental health outcomes for all ages, the inclusivity of the arts and, of course, the oft-ignored economic argument. Ireland has been trading off its reputation as a land of poets, musicians and creators for decades, while behind the scenes the arts and artists have been cynically starved of investment and physical spaces in which they can flourish.
Ballina Arts Centre is funded by the Arts Council, Mayo County Council and Ballina Municipal District Council, which funding totals less than €150,000 annually. It needs an increase in annual funding of approximately €35,000 to make the centre viable. Not an insurmountable sum, and one in which they have started to make inroads by launching a Friends of the Arts Centre scheme, aimed at businesses.
It is notable too that Ballina Arts Centre receives significantly less core funding from the Arts Council than other venues of comparable size, and that inequity needs to be addressed. Now is the time for this national body to listen to the needs of towns like Ballina, and for locals to show their support.
This conversation also shines a light on how difficult it is to work in an industry in which funding is rarely guaranteed or secure. Rather than being a festive time, December tends to be fraught with worry for those of us working in community-led initiatives, who find ourselves pitching for our very livelihoods at this time due to a lack of national resourcing to assist with core costs.
Of course, it can be argued that any operation worth its salt will finance itself, but trying to deliver the specific programme of work you are there to deliver, while simultaneously being forced to find your own funding for both core costs and activities can be a massive challenge for under-resourced, small-scale operations.   
The measures of success of arts initiatives and their outputs should not, under any circumstances, be dictated by capitalism. They are not businesses or corporate entities, nor should they be subject to those standards, and we should strongly resist any efforts to place value on the arts based on the numbers on a financial spreadsheet.
In a world where the facts, figures and statistics – so beloved by Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ – rarely bring us joy, it is imperative now, more than ever, that the arts is supported at a national and local level. Time spent watching good theatre, revelling in a great live-music performance or creating or participating in the various artforms is life-enhancing and a means of escapism, necessary now more than ever.
It is sometimes too the case that we only learn the value of what we have once it is gone.