voluntary arts ireland

Friday, 4 November 2011

A Voluntary Night at the Opera

Left to Right David McLoughlin CEO Wexford Festival Opera, Peter Scallan Chair Wexford Festival Opera, Connor Brennan Director of Broker Distribution Zurich, David Agler Artistic Director Wexford Festival Opera,Elizabeth Foley Wexford Festival Opera/Zurich Volunteers Award Recipient 2011, David Maguire Volunteers Representative Wexford Festival Trust Board of Directors,Kevin Murphy Chief Officer Voluntary Arts Ireland

My first visit to Wexford Opera on Thursday 3rd November was to attend the award ceremony of the inaugural Wexford Festival Opera Volunteer of the Year Award sponsored by Zurich. Voluntary Arts Ireland had supported the award and sat on the awarding panel.

I had heard about Wexford’s volunteers and how they really get behind the festival and help create a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere – but I had no idea how embedded in the culture of the festival they were until I went there.

Chairman of Wexford Festival Trust, Peter Scallan said, "Wexford Festival Opera was born of the foresight and enthusiasm of a small local voluntary group and is now a renowned international event.   The volunteer spirit has been key to our success and we are committed to developing this essential core ethos into the future.”

What is striking is that this was self-evident. There was no discernible distinction between professional staff and voluntary staff – they were all informed, enthusiastic and possessed a rare sense of pride in and belonging to the festival.

The inspirational Elizabeth Foley, on whom the inaugural award was bestowed, is a perfect example. Described as one of the hidden heroes of Wexford Festival Opera Elizabeth has been a volunteer at the Theatre Royal and subsequently the Opera House since she was a little girl, then assisting her mother.  In turn she has involved her daughters and indeed her grandchildren, two of whom I met on the night, helping with the tea and biscuits in the Green Room. 

Elizabeth shared some thoughts on her experience with Wexford Festival Opera in this brief video vox pop.

The connection to Wexford Festival Opera runs wide and deep through the citizens of Wexford. Not only have families across generations been supporting it but in many cases this has included long gaps away as people moved from the area for work or study only to return, sometimes decades later, to pick up where they had left off.

This is real, long-term community development and who would have thought that Opera could help achieve this – not its traditional moniker. Perhaps it just goes to show that the arts are inherently open activities – that work best when people from across our communities participate in them, nurture them and make them a part of their everyday life.

And what of the opera performance itself, La Cour de Célimène – what use of all this civic action if the art is no good, I hear you say. Well it was tremendous – engaging, witty and a visual and aural feast. All built on volunteer effort.....congratulations Elizabeth and congratulations Wexford Festival Opera.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

We Are More

The We Are More campaign is a Europe wide advocacy campaign that seeks to increase the EU budget for cultural activity in the next budget cycle. Talks for that start in July and at the moment the EU budget for cultural activity is 0.05%.

Its difficult to imagine how we could have collectively under-invested in cultural activity to such an extent. This perhaps reflects the pervading lack of understanding of policy makers of the value of culture, but it could just a likely reflect the cultural communities inability to lobby effectively.

After all people and communities get culture, otherwise why do they continue to form groups, put on performances and get their children involved? Despite the vagaries of government funding and stop start policy initiatives people continue to organise cultural activity for themselves and their communities.

Is it possible that those of us who professionally represent the arts and cultural sector have neglected our duty to translate that community interest into policy that makes sense and the investment required to create the maximum return for society?

If so, there is at least evidence that we are beginning to address this issue. There are National Campaigns for the Arts in Ireland and the UK which are encouraging the arts and cultural sector to engage with politicians on a range of platforms and policies. There is a sense too that politicians and arts workers need to work more effectively together. The traditional them and us stance is gradually being replaced by a more constructive relationship.

It is a striking story that in a recent campaign in Northern Ireland in response to a draft government budget which proposed a significant cut to the arts over 5000 people wrote letters opposing the cuts - the next biggest campaign numbered letters in the small hundreds.

People do support arts and culture, and politicians probably want to do so too. Its the job of the arts and culture sector to give them the reasons to say yes.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Virtual Word of Mouth

At a recent training event in Naas, Ireland Voluntary Arts Ireland in partnership with Artlands delivered a beginner's guide to social media. Increasingly we can see tools such as Facebook and Twitter being the first and best entry into an online presence for small arts groups looking to develop their audience and promote their events.

We can also see many groups struggle with the concept of the virtual world and how to begin to inhabit that space. Groups can see that there is potential there but are unsure of the rules of engagement and how much time and effort is required. During the training we came to the conclusion that in fact social media is simply a reworking of a very traditional and natural form of promotion, word of mouth.

This reworking is quite extensive of course with the added elements of images and videos through tools such as YouTube and Flickr but essentially it is digital show and tell.

Like all good word of mouth it takes the form of a conversation and this perhaps gives us a clue as to how to successfully navigate the social media world. The best conversationalists are good listeners and show a genuine interest in what those they are talking to are interested in. They are engaging and empathetic.

It is all too tempting when entering this virtual word of mouth world to broadcast noisily about what we do. Whilst "look at me" is important and we shouldn't hide our light under a bushel (just getting cliched up!) perhaps joining the online conversation using the well worn social skills learned from our mothers might be a better approach.

Is it possible too that in the online, binary landscape we currently wander through, these technological advances are finally beginning to be useful for our primary urge to lead more meaningful, creative and connected lives?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Northern Ireland Politicians Talk Arts and Culture

The recent arts hustings event in Northern Ireland organised by Audiences NI, Arts & Business and Voluntary Arts Ireland saw the five main political parties begin to set out their policies in relation to arts and culture. With their policies only published the day before it gave a strong turn out from the arts community the opportunity to open up a positive dialogue with candidates seeking election.

The proceedings took the form of a panel discussion with questions and answers hosted by the talented BBC presenter Marie-Louise Muir. A provocation was provided by Declan McGonagle, one of the most influential figures to emerge from the arts scene in the north west, who said "It’s the economy that is broken in this society, not the culture," and called for a fundamental reworking of the relationship between the arts community and the politicians who make funding decisions - "we need to break the cycle of threat, cut, begging, and reprieve"

Although the event did not solve the very many challenges faced by the arts and cultural community there was a sense that an opportunity now exists to reframe the discussion and to engage politicians in a robust policy debate. A quick survey of the manifestos outlining the various policies the main political parties will promote if elected confirms that we are very much at the start of this debate. Policies still struggle to get away from partisan positions and neglect the need to provide access to cultural and creative activities as a fundamental entitlement for all citizens.

But make no mistake culture and the arts is definitely on the agenda. Why not engage with your candidates on the basis of their policy towards culture, arts and leisure – maybe we can move the debate on.

The main political party manifestos are available through the following links:

Alliance Party             http://www.allianceparty.org/
DUP                          http://www.mydup.com/efiles/DUP_Manifesto_2011/index.html#/28/
SDLP                        http://www.sdlp.ie/images/files/44339%20final%20low%20res2.pdf
Sinn Fein                    http://www.sinnfein.ie/files/AssemblyManifesto2011.pdf
UUP                          http://www.uup.org/index.php/jo-anne-dobson/item/389-campaign-story-3.html

Monday, 11 April 2011

Square Mile, Round Mile

It is still a little known fact that the City of London and the City of Derry/Londonderry are linked in a rather unique way. The current form of Derry/Londonderry with its still intact walls (one mile round) was not only built by money from London companies but is still owned by the Honourable The Irish Society - a committee of the Corporation of London established by Royal Charter in 1613. Relations between the square mile of the City of London and the round mile of Derry/Londonderry have very often been about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. As the 400th anniversary of the relationship is fast approaching in 2013 it brings the shared histories into sharp focus.

Last week on the 07th and 8th of April 2011 Voluntary Arts Ireland helped host a visit by the Barbican Centre and the Honourable The Irish Society to look at shared programming, co-commissioning and knowledge exchange in the context of Derry/Londonderry's City of Culture year also in 2013. Louise Jeffrey's - Director of Programming, Sean Gregory - Director of Creative Learning, Catherine McGuinness - Board of Barbican and Deputy Governor of the Honourable The Irish Society, and Edward Montgomery - the Irish Society's local representative took a whirlwind tour around Derry's cultural, educational and creative organisations.

What struck me was the possibility to look at the City of Derry/Londonderry as an interconnected cultural cluster, a place where you could programme across spaces, landscape, art forms and themes, across voluntary, community and professional arts. The city as a whole is compact enough to create this dynamic. Within the city walls alone there are at least 7 arts venues alongside a huge range of organisations and creative businesses. If you add the soon to be developed cultural cluster at Ebrington Barracks - no longer needed for military purposes - which is going to be joined to the city walls across the River Foyle by a foot and cycle bridge, the heart of the city will be transformed into an engine of cultural activity. Even this is not the whole story. Community and voluntary arts organisations across the city region have been keeping communities together through the arts for decades and as well as the city centre focus there are hubs of artistic endeavour operating at the very core of local communities.

The very big challenge with this is of course how to make the local relationships strong and effective so that the cultural offer in Derry/Londonderry can operate as a whole, as individuals and as ad hoc partners for particular projects including working with international partners. In the end it is likely to be the people and the relationships that matter and it is in that space that the work is needed. My guess is that this is not a challenge that is unique to Derry/Londonderry. No doubt the City of London faces this too.

The concept of the Square Mile, Round Mile was first articulated by the brilliantly insightful Ian Ritchie of the City of London Festival, who has championed shared programming between the two cities for a number of years. How the City of Derry and the City of London shape this towards 2013 will be fascinating.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Old fashioned democracy?

Well its official, the Northern Irish arts community will have its very own hustings event on 19th April 2011 from 09.30am-12pm in the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Invited representatives from all the political parties will articulate their policies towards the arts and members of the arts community across Northern Ireland will get the chance to question and challenge those policies.

I'm sure its not the first arts hustings event in Northern Ireland but it certainly is not a regular occurance in the region and perhaps taking a leaf out of the National Campaign for the Arts in Ireland is the beginning of a more constructive dialogue between the sector and government.

There are many questions to raise with political parties in Northern Ireland not least "do you have a policy on the arts?" Questions around how the arts impacts on peoples' lives are also likely to take precedence - the contribution of the arts to a healthier civil society, to the economy, to wellbeing, to education, to the economy. Perhaps fundamental to this is how to place the arts within policy - its not a singularly definable subject, indeed its strength is in its diversity. This is often at odds with the way in which government in Northern Ireland is structured, however, how is that Health - itself a fantastically diverse range of disciplines commands such singular attention? There is perhaps something for the arts to learn in this?

Nevertheless the old-fashioned democratic values a hustings event has come to represent should be a natural catalyst for the many articulate people involved in the arts in Northern Ireland. It is true to say that a lot of the time now we are seeing these debates carried out online through social media, which is perhaps the up to date hustings. Very much to the vanguard and the potential for seismic change when it is wedded to citizens' core desires is certainly exciting as witnessed in places such as Egypt.

We could well need a seismic change in arts policy now - some would say it is long overdue. In a small way this live hustings could be the beginning - lots of small changes often add up.

To book your place at the event please contact karen.orawe@audiencesni.com or tel: 028 9043 6480.

For more Voluntary Arts Ireland news visit http://www.vaireland.org

Monday, 7 March 2011

Life is Organic

Its been a very interesting day attending first a breakfast meeting and then an all day session around creativity as part of Derry/Londonderry's Cracking the Code programme leading up to the 2013 City of Culture.

An impressive bank of speakers including Sir Ken Robinson and Phil Redmond were punctuated by some engaging local characters and idea generating sessions in smaller groups. On behalf of Voluntary Arts Ireland I played a strong part thinking about how participation in the arts and crafts stimulates creativity. However, I was struck most by a phrase that came from Ken Robinson's initial address - "life is organic not linear"

When we think of all of the structures and processes that seem to provide the framework for our activities on the ground - virtually none of them are organic - they are nearly all linear and top-down. And yet this is just the opposite of how we, as human beings, go about living and interacting with others.

Take the creative process, which was also talked about today. We get an idea or a kernel of an idea, we play with it, we refine it, we connect it to other ideas and sometimes it becomes something that we act upon - we create it. One of the key skills in this process is the suspension of critical judgement. I might also say that one of the key skills is critical judgement. However, we must be able to suspend it long enough for us to create a bank of possibilities that encourage us to take the kernel further.

Critical judgement seems to be at the heart of most of the structures and processes mentioned above - it is a fairly advanced form of compounded critical judgement that say creates the legal system, and the influence of critical judgement is very great throughout policy making.

But is this now to our best advantage? Is this focus the way in which we are going to create a wider bank of possibilities that we all now seem to be seeking? Life is clearly organic and critical judgement has a part to play but do we have the balance right?

Kevin Murphy
Chief Officer
Voluntary Arts Ireland

Monday, 28 February 2011

Big Community

Following the launch of the European Year of Volunteering in Ireland, Voluntary Arts Ireland along with partners the Gaelic Athletics Association, the Church of Ireland, City Church Belfast and the Department of Social Development took over the Long Gallery in Stormont, Belfast last Friday, 25th February 2011 to celebrate our joint volunteering project. Two years on the go the project highlights the impact that sports, arts and faith-based groups have in making communities better and bigger places

Big Community was the phrase that stood out to us all - volunteering makes communities bigger and across our society which is looking for a way to share the future, engaging people voluntarily through the various disciplines that make up the fabric of society seems crucial.

"Volunteering's not important - it's essential" said Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts. Sentiments echoed by Minister Alex Attwood MLA who talked about volunteering reflecting the best of society.

The contribution by keynote speaker Peter Jenkinson, OBE was provocative - encouraging us all to be "promiscuous" and to "make friends with strange people" - and highlighting the trend towards DIY/Open Source voluntary action that most recently has affected enormous positive change in Egypt.

The event was genuinely stimulating and threw up a number of challenges around how and what we measure as the benefits of volunteering. Rather than falling into the age old argument around how you measure the value of something that has a multitude of intangible benefits, there was a grown up discussion about focussing on outcomes and shifting our measuring mechanisms to accommodate the more intangible.

Another exciting thought was how the four partner organisations, coming from very different places could create a programme together and build on this very unusual connection. Perhaps taking up Peter Jenkinson's challenge of making friends with strange people is a potential starting point for many new innovations. As Einsein said  - "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them"- perhaps we also need to shift our thinking by regularly going outside of our normal connections and relationships.

Perhaps also this is what a big community is - not necessarily big in size, but a big space, an accommodating space, a safe space for us to come in and out of, a space to be creative in.

In the best democratic traditions we also voted on a number of questions at the celebration in Stormont - not sure if the results were particularly surprising but the questions did force us to think - never a bad thing. To check out how we voted visit http://bit.ly/hLnn6q.

Kevin Murphy

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sure that's not really volunteering, is it?

The recent launch of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 in Ireland was an example of how, in the face of very significant challenges both economically and socially, that the state, voluntary and community sector and the private sector can come together for the common good.

Hosted in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham by the dynamic Volunteering Ireland, led by Elaine Bradley the event involved the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, Minister Pat Carey from the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Minister Alex Attwood from the Department of Social Development in Northern Ireland and Eamonn Sinnott of Intel Ireland - who sponsored the event.

Not only a great event with lots of involving performances from a range of groups and some stirring speeches, but an event that acted as a call to action for all involved in this year of volunteering.

It also brought into focus Voluntary Arts Ireland's joint event with the GAA, the Church of Ireland and City Church on Friday 25th February in the Long Gallery, Stormont, Belfast. Mild panic as lead organisers as the date quickly approaches and a nod towards what our contribution might be in this year. One of the key elements of the Living Together : Giving Together celebration event in Stormont is how we encourage people to think about volunteering.

One of the difficult concepts to get across in the traditional world of volunteering is the concept of cultural volunteering - the idea that people coming together to create arts and crafts in a voluntary setting for the benefit of their own and society's cultural enrichment. Sure thats not really volunteering, is it? Perhaps  because in the world of the arts we tend to call it participation, this voluntary action is not viewed as volunteering? It is certainly true that those who participate voluntarily don't view themselves as volunteers.

So it may be that the distinction between volunteering and cultural volunteering or participation is important but it is interesting to look at how similar the benefits to individuals and society are when we look at them side by side:

Benefits of Volunteering 
paraphrased from Volunteer Now website
Enjoyment, pleasure
Meet new friends
Help others and make a difference
Personal development
Improve your health
Be part of something bigger – connect to your community

Benefits of participating in the Arts 
taken from Rand Corporation Gifts of the Muse
Development of learning skills
Development of positive attitudes and behaviours
Improve your health
Develop social bonds – sense of community identity – build community capacity
Contribute to the economy
Captivation and pleasure
Emotional and cognitive growth

The Living Together : Giving Together event will explore this concept and the impact voluntary participation in sports and faith-based groups make. We will also pose some provocative questions which those attending will be able to vote on:

  • We don’t need to invest in volunteering, do we? It’s freely given and costs nothing 
  • We are not competing for volunteers; we need to be making partnerships in unexpected places
  • In present times of greater social and economic need, volunteering can only scratch the surface.
We would love to hear your take on any of these questions - so feel free to comment or follow the threads through our facebook and twitter feeds. Full details of the speakers for the event is at http://www.vaireland.org/cgi-bin/website.cgi?tier1=ireland&tier2=volunteering%20in%20sports,%20arts%20and%20faith-based%20organisations&fp=true

In the meantime congratulations to all involved in the recent launch of EYV2011 and we look forward to a great year of volunteering.

Kevin Murphy

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Power of Play

A recent article in the RSA Journal sports writer David Goldblatt talked of the potential of sporting clubs to make a real difference to the life of local communities. He wasn't talking about the professional clubs such as the Manchester Uniteds of the world but rather the primarily Victorian legacy of the club as a "mutual association of individuals who above all want to play and participate, rather than consume, make money or accumulate power".

He talks of the development of clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, formed in 2002 by fans appalled by the the move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes. Now AFC Wimbledon, still owned and run by its members is on the threshold of entering the Football League. Goldblatt also asks the question:

"If clubs are capable of mobilising citizens' energies for the benefit of common projects, can they do more than just put a team out on Saturday?"

In other words can they contribute to wider social activism? Can they use the power of play to engage citizens in projects that benefit the wider community?

Central to this is the idea of supporting common ownership and the transfer of relevant assets from state to society - for example in the case of football the transfer of playing fields - so that local communities can run them with and for their citizens.

Another legacy of the Victorian era is the voluntary and amateur arts club. This legacy still exists across the island of Ireland with 100,000s of people getting together to create art and craft every week in their communities. Voluntarily and collectively run by their members they account for the vast majority of arts participation and attendance at arts events across the country.

However, can they do more than just run their weekly and seasonal activities? What if there was collective ownership of underutilised or derelict spaces that could be turned into spaces for the arts? What if professional arts venues turned over sections of their programme and venue to voluntary arts groups to run?

At the very least this would help many groups who struggle to find or afford suitable spaces in which to run their activities. It would also help space owners populate their space and generate strong community connections. And what other assets are there that would be better placed in collective ownership run for the benefit of communities rather than profit.

No doubt this form of self-organisation is on the increase as essentially the state tries to withdraw. However, this very positive move by communities to help themselves is unlikely to be enough to drive the sort of transformation that many of us would like to see.

Governments and their policies have a crucial role to play because they are creating the frameworks in which we operate. At the moment we are seeing the strongest emphasis on rebalancing the books, with a nod towards a notional increase in civic and private sector engagement to take up the slack. The risks of that approach have been well documented. In Northern Ireland they are huge, with both civil society and the private sector still struggling to get back on their feet. In the Republic of Ireland it is at this point impossible to say. A former colleague suggested that the most likely outcome of the elections on 25th February is the return of Fianna Fail, the party that has presided over the recent national crisis. As unbelievable as that might seem she could well be right.

I think the truth of the matter is that in order to transform our society into one which is driven locally by engaged citizens which then influences government policy is going to cost more money in the first instance. I think I would agree that it should result in a healthier civil society and cost the state less in the mid-long term but the idea that we can radically cut our spending and then expect this transformation to happen is flawed - and in the Irish context particularly so.

The power of play and creativity to engage people in positive activities that have personal benefits and societal benefits is real. These benefits, although often economic, are primarily for the good of society. Like anything else they require investment of time and of money.

Are our governments brave enough to make them?

Kevin Murphy

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Big Ideas, Small Organisations

The recent Boardmatch event on 26 January 2011 in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin brought together a wide range of Chairs and Chief Executives from the not-for-profit sector. The focus for getting together was to learn from the experience of England in setting up a regulatory framework for charities - something that is imminent in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The event also advanced the benefits of networking to look at how organisations can work together to achieve common aims.

The charity information and learning came from guest speaker Andrew Hinds, former CEO of the Charity Commission in England and the networking was helped along by a fine lunch and some gentle lubrication. Hats off to Chris White and his team at Boardmatch - a very well run and interesting afternoon against the backdrop of a spectacular pitch. There was, I felt genuine consensus on the need to work together and there was a sense also that it may be a key means to grow through the current funding climate.

So how do we encourage this spirit of working together and how do we put in place ways of working that allow organisations of varying sizes and needs to be effective together?

One thought that occurs to me is that we have to have big ideas - ideas that are bigger than the capacity of any one organisation require people to work together. This is, generally speaking, counter intuitive for organisations. Whatever our capacity it usually is best to work within our means. However, what if our means don't fit?

Another thought is that focussing on outcomes - i.e. what is best for the communities we serve - helps us to keep working to our vision of the future rather than how to maintain our current organisational structures. That way too we can notice others who are working towards common aims.

Another running theme throughout the Boardmatch event was that the level of public trust for the charitable and not-for-profit sector was still high in relation to other parts of society (e.g. political, financial, civil service) and that we should seek to protect and enhance that reputation.

Trust is surely another key element. Trust is essential for people and organisations to work together, it is essential to learning, to providing services, to negotiating contracts, to allowing people to make mistakes and fail before succeeding.

As Society became more and more centred around huge urban centres which necessitated larger and larger organisations to help manage those centres, trust, which tends to blossom in smaller settings was replaced by heavier and heavier regulation.

Andrew Hinds made it clear that in his experience a "light touch" regulatory framework was essential for dealing with the charitable sector which is made up of a few very large charities and a plethora of small and very small charities.

At Voluntary Arts Ireland we can recognise the same dynamic in the voluntary arts sector - 1000's of small organisations linked by a common set of values. If we demand a certain level of governance structure of small organisations we may find ourselves putting up obstacles. In our drive to improve standards we may set many things back. Flexible structures and adjustments for scale are going to be needed and they are perhaps the most difficult to write into legislation.

We must also fight against the urge to consolidate, to fall back on type and in the drive for efficiency attempt to make logical sense of sectors that thrive on being a diverse network. Big consolidated organisations although needed in some instances, don't tend to encourage trust or partnership working.

One very interesting model that was featured at the Boardmatch event was the Credit Union movement. Kieron Brennan from the league of Credit Unions spoke very eloquently about how a network of mainly small membership organisations have provided a viable and trustworthy alternative to banks for savers and borrowers. From a standing start in 1960 in Ireland there are now over 500 credit unions serving 2.9 million members with savings approaching €11.9 billion. There are over 9,200 active volunteers involved in the movement, and over 3,500 people are employed. They played no part in the recent financial meltdown and one would have thought are poised to form a strong part of a more ethical financial system.

The Credit Union movement is a great example of what can be done. Big ideas and small organisations - not a bad mantra.

Kevin Murphy

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Big Society Arts

At the moment it feels like we are being bombarded by rhetoric. Rhetoric ranging from an age of severe austerity to one of big society revolution - from the burden of our financial woes being shouldered by the man on the street to the time when finally that same man can shape the policies and participate in the running of his local community. Of course the rhetoric is generally coming from the centre ground of our political landscape, not the margins, but we have to imagine that our political leaders are grappling with how to build our communities for the future.

If so its a wonder why are we focussing primarily on how much it costs instead of on the kind of society we would like to build? It is commendable that the current UK government has at least advanced the argument of a more engaged civil society - but it is still unclear if it will judge itself first by how big the society is or how small the deficit is. These do not need to be mutually exclusive goals but settling on a primary focus seems essential. The Republic of Ireland government finds itself in much more straightened and chaotice circumstances, and with imminent elections future policy is at best uncertain.

So it is in this context that the voluntary, community and professional arts across the island of Ireland are being asked to play a part. In Northern Ireland the current ask is for how much can you save, how much can you provide for less money? The round of departmental meetings on the budget organised by NICVA as part of their Smart Solutions campaign has been very informative and what the meeting with the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure made clear is that the budget for the arts is taking the largest cut. That is perhaps not a surprise despite the Northern Ireland government's recent rhetoric - there's that word again - on developing a creative economy. It is probably not a surprise either that the meeting with DCAL was almost exclusively attended by members of the arts community even though the department covers a range of areas including angling and sport. At one point the department representative did ask if there were any representatives of organisations other than the arts so wide ranging and persistent were the questions from the arts.

It struck me at that meeting that the department struggles to understand how such a small part of the government budget should have such a diverse and vocal lobby. Essentially government departments are used to dealing with big sectoral bodies and therefore a small number of influencial people usually at the top of hierarchical organisations. The arts community is in fact made up of a range of organisations - mostly small and entrepeneurial - and individual creative artists all focussed on their practice. They can be professional or amateur and they don't obey the normal rules of engagement. It is a much more organic structure.

To a certain extent this is mitigated by the representative role played by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland - the department's arms length body. The Arts Council has the somewhat impossible task of trying to balance the needs of the department and the needs of the sector. The department is its paymaster and the Arts Council is the paymaster of many of the arts organisations - not an ideal lobbying position. Is it the case that the Department imagines that it is engaging with the sector by engaging with the Arts Council and that the arts community imagines it is influencing government policy by engaging with the Arts Council? If so then there are gaps and perhaps we ought to build on the relationships by putting in place other additional means of communication that allow a more regular and free flowing conversation. There is a danger too that the arts community only sees its work in relation to the work of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure when in fact many of us work with a range of other departments on social, health and education projects.

In the Republic of Ireland the arts budget has already been struck and after some severe cuts in previous rounds seems to be at least stabilising for the moment, although the impacts of local authority spending cuts are yet to be fully felt. In Ireland we can also see a very strong move by government to support the current European Year of Volunteering 2011 with a national programme of activity that has engaged all sectors of society and has made connections across the border in Northern Ireland. Having the president Mary McAleese as the patron for the year is sending a very strong and positive message.

Voluntary action is very powerful. In Voluntary Arts Ireland we can see the evidence of this on a daily basis - with over 5000 voluntary arts groups across the island of Ireland. Every week people get together to make art and crafts together, to explore new skills and meet new people. They do this whatever the government policy is - provided it enables freedom of expression - and most do it without thought of payment. Does that mean that it doesn't cost anything or that people who develop high level of skills and want to make a career out of it shouldn't get paid? No and it would be very wrong for policy makers to assume that because its voluntary or that professional people driven by their passion will do it voluntarily that it doesn't require investment.

However, when we think about the Big Society perhaps it is already here - we can certainly see plenty of evidence of it in the arts? Is it possible that the radical part of the call for a policy shift towards the Big Society is more of a call to governments, departments, quangos and local authorities to reconfigure their working practices to support more local involvement and empowerment? If so perhaps it would be more fruitful for the arts community to find ways to open out the eclectic, multi-faceted, diverse and frankly bewildering world of the arts - make it easier for people to get involved, to understand and to invest in. In a sense enable the above bodies to see a way to connect in more diverse ways with their communities through the arts. Might the two worlds then be more likely to meet and to work together for the common good?

Not an easy challenge and perhaps not an appealing one as it requires more than rhetoric to achieve.