Against All Odds?

Northern Ireland's artists have an uphill struggle, writes Lisa Conlan

Let's make no bones about it, making it as a visual artist in NI is virtually impossible. With rent to pay, trying to keep yourself alive, buying art materials and getting someone to believe in you (apart from your mum), the glimmer of hope in the distance sometimes seems so far away that you want to stop reaching.

Breaking into the arts scene in any country is tough but are there additional odds stacked against artists in NI?

Emerging artists Liam McMahon and Helen McNulty seem to think so. They have both relocated to Dublin to find support and that elusive ‘big break’.

‘There is so much more happening in Dublin in terms of the arts,’ says McMahon, from Donaghmore, Co Tyrone. ‘The limited opportunities in Northern Ireland have artists on their knees, fighting with each other for the scraps.’

McNulty, from Fermanagh, has similar reasons for the move south: ‘Although there are a few pioneers in Northern Ireland, working to get emerging artists seen, most galleries, funding opportunities and workshops are in city areas. The rural communities have little to no support for emerging artists and have an elitist view on art.’

‘Only those who have 'made it' in the cities can be exhibited in the rural galleries. It feels like a horrible Catch-22,’ she sighs. ‘I have to close the doors on rural life if I am to make a living out of my art.’

Public funding plays a major role in the success of the arts. Producing any form of art costs money. Then there’s the promotion so that everyone can share it. At present in NI the government invests £6.13 per head of the population on the arts in comparison to £8.39 in England, £9.17 in Wales, £11.93 in Scotland and a whopping £12.61 in the Republic of Ireland. While neighbouring regions enjoy increases, NI has seen less money attributed to the arts each year. The current year has been described as ‘the bleakest in a decade’ by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

The lack of arts funding puts NI at a distinct disadvantage when competing with its counterparts in relation to culture and creativity. I know plenty of artists who have tried for funding but never got a penny, leaving them disheartened and resentful, vowing to give up on their talents.

McMahon agrees. ‘There is a noticeable lack of funding in Northern Ireland, keeping struggling artists struggling,’ he says.

McMahon and MacNulty are passionate about their art and it is clear to me that we are losing bright sparks, people with the energy and enthusiasm to make a real difference. Don’t we care? Shouldn’t we be doing something to hang onto the creativity that resides here? Shouldn’t we be protecting and nurturing the talent in NI, instead of driving them away?

Northern Irish people are often viewed as friendly and open. Yet they are also seen as non-accepting, backward, inexpressive of their inner emotions and afraid of change.

‘It is not just a matter of religion,' writer and poet Anthony Weir has said. 'Almost all Northern Irish people distrust all other Northern Irish people.

‘They hate excellence in others, and fear any kind of originality … Third-rate paintings here are twice as expensive as third rate paintings in the USA. Art is business here, never originality.’

I am inclined to agree with Weir on these points. Walk into one of the galleries on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, and you’ll see that art is certainly business, as opposed to appreciation for the artist’s emotion in the painting. Most of the galleries in NI don’t want to be acquainted with artists unless they are making it big. There is snobbery. Artists lose control when their work goes into a gallery.

‘A lot of the galleries in Belfast seem to be more interested in an artist’s name than the quality of their work,’ says artist Catherine Creaney. ‘Some galleries welcomed me as an unknown. The Eakin Gallery and the RUA annual exhibition gave me a chance when others wouldn’t.

‘I have been in galleries that told me they would accept me if I chose only to do abstract art. They said my varied style would diminish my credibility and that collectors would be put off. I believe my credibility would diminish if I followed anything but my natural instincts to explore art in complete freedom.'

How do artists make money from their art without compromising? It’s a tough road for the uncompromising artist. If an artist wants to stay true to their style and self, there are many sacrifices.

Oliver Jeffers is developing a reputation as one of the greats in his field. I met up with him at Deane's at Queen's University, chef Michael Deane having commissioned Jeffers to paint the four main personalities of his restaurant. There is a Neil Shawcross feel to his work (Shawcross, although born in Lancashire, has become one of the most popular painters in NI ). So does Jeffers think it’s easy to make it as an artist here?

‘Definitely not,’ he says. ‘We don’t look at art as much as those in other areas of the world, and that’s what we’re competing with as well. We’re about 30 years behind everyone else – but we’re getting there.’

‘I’m not any better than anyone in my year at college, I’m just very determined,’ he adds modestly. 

And there’s the rub. While Anna Burns, gallery manager at Belfast Print Workshop, admits it is difficult to get the press to take notice and come to exhibitions, she also suggests that ‘being determined and putting your work out there will eventually reap rewards'.

Artists in NI certainly do have extra odds stacked against them – less funding than neighbouring regions, a generally unsupportive public and a scene that’s tough to break into. You’d think artists would stop trying. But all hope is not lost.

‘There are some things more important than money,’ states Catherine Creaney. 'Being an artist isn’t something you choose to do. It’s a vocation.’