All Change - Conor Shields, Programme Director
About seven years ago I wrote a document about the issues surrounding the transformation of our society and how the arts were a vital, creative means of making progress called “The Challenge of Change”.
Change is all around us. It is a vital if sometimes confusing and inconvenient fact of life. Anyone involved in the community or arts sectors knows only too well that change is a constant… and not always for the better.
In the current economic climate, the speed of change can make our heads spin. Bank collapses, VAT increases, price hikes and public spending cuts. No one is immune. It is in this context that New Belfast has felt the need to respond to difficult circumstances and make changes too.
When the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's (ACNI) ASOP programme (Annual Support for Organisations funding Programme) opened last year, ACNI made it explicitly clear that it would be prioritising service delivery organisations over umbrella groups.
As an organisation, New Belfast delivers workshop programmes to over 3,000 participants every year so we felt that we were in a strong position to seek funding for the year ahead.
The same could not be said for our sister organisation, the Community Arts Forum (CAF), an umbrella and networking operation.
The threat of a complete loss of ASOP funding and subsequent closure of CAF was an all-too-real and imminent possibility. At that point, the board of CAF decided to explore the possibility of saving services through a merger. They looked for possible partners.
We, at New Belfast Community Arts Initiative, have had a very close working relationship with CAF over the years. New Belfast was initially developed by CAF over eleven years ago and indeed, we shared premises in those very early days.
Since then, we have been partners on many issues and always had representation on each others’ governance committees. So, the board of New Belfast agreed to explore the possibility of a collaboration or merger and began negotiations with both CAF and the Arts Council.
The primary objective for both organisations was saving services that have taken years to develop.
Since October last year, both boards, along with CAF’s director Heather Floyd and myself, have explored just how we might protect the core services of CAF that have been the focal point for community arts in Northern Ireland for over 18 years.
The weight of responsibility hung heavily on all our shoulders in looking at this challenging situation but we persevered. The stark alternative was the total loss of all CAF services and staff and a core component of the community arts sector in Northern Ireland completely wiped out.
We moved forward slowly and methodically with both boards meeting and sharing their ideas. We communicated regularly with our principal funder, the Arts Council, and together, developed a merger-plan that aims to combine the strengths of CAFs advocacy, lobbying, training and information services with New Belfast’s multi-disciplinary workshop programmes.
The aim was to build on the legacy of both organisations. We applied to ACNI in our respective ASOP applications, developing a complementary merger process. The Arts Council then indicated their support through this ASOP funding announcement in March 2011.
These newly merged services will maintain and strengthen community arts provision across Northern Ireland and explore and forge new partnerships locally, nationally and internationally. We hope to be the touchstone for all matters relating to community arts and preserve the hard-won services that so many involved have taken for granted over the years.
So all change then? Well, not quite and that really is the point. We want to see as little disruption to the operation of community arts as possible but there will be new ways of working, new partnerships, new services and new personalities. Unfortunately, there will also be the loss of some well-known and well-respected people too and that is a heavy price to pay.
We will be updating you with publications and seminars in the future about this process; to share learning and insights and we will also be making further announcements soon.
As I said earlier, change can be an unwelcome force in our lives. But change is the force that community arts are built upon. It is what we support through this type of work, everyday. Everyone involved in community arts believes in positive change: we are working hard to harness the optimistic and transformative energy of the creative arts for the benefit of all our society, especially those at the margins.
Sometimes change comes slowly, sometimes all too fast. The philosopher says “nothing endures but change”. We all have to respond as best we can.