Open House reeling after funding axe

THE OPEN House Festival is reeling from a cash blow after the second of its three main funders pulled out of backing this year’s events.

On Tuesday, just days after the team unveiled the line-up for August’s festival, Tourism NI stated that Open House wouldn’t be getting any grant money this year.

It’s the second financial shock the festival has received in recent weeks, as the Arts Council has already refused them money in a range of sweeping budget cuts.

The team say Tourism NI’s announcement has left them with a £30,000 hole in their own budget, just weeks before festival season starts.

“At a time when we are working hard to raise the profile of Bangor, with its new-found city status, and to help drive regeneration, tourism and a burgeoning arts sector, it feels like we’ve been abandoned,” say festival directors Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon.

With budgets squeezed across Northern Ireland and the arts sector particularly under pressure, Open House had been expecting some reductions to their annual grants from government bodies.

But two of their three main funders completely axing all cash has come as an enormous blow, and the team say it has left them ‘extremely vulnerable’.

“Although the bulk of our income is from ticket sales, this still represents a significant shortfall for any business or charity,” say Kieran and Alison.

“The cuts in budgets don’t make sense at any level. For every £1 that Tourism NI invest in our festival, we generate more than £32 for the local economy through visitor spend in bars, restaurants, hotels, taxis and so on.

“This all comes just seven months after opening our new arts venue in the Court House on Bangor seafront – our single greatest achievement in 25 years as an organisation, and the single greatest risk we have ever taken on.

“It also comes just three weeks after the loss of our annual funding award from the Arts Council.”

Now only Ards and North Down Council remains as the last of Open House’s core funding bodies, though some private businesses are also on board as smaller sponsors for elements of the festival.

“We’re so grateful for the continued support of the council,” the festival directors say. “Without them there wouldn’t be a festival this year.

“Of course, we understand the impossible choices that Tourism NI and the Arts Council have had to make, given the drastic cuts in departmental budgets, but it leaves us in an extremely vulnerable position.

“Ultimately this is due to the lack of a functioning government at Stormont. It’s truly shocking – we all deserve better.”

Tourism NI has reduced or axed a large amount of its events funding, as its own budget is set to be cut by around a third by Stormont’s Department of the Economy.

As a result, a grant programme aimed at supporting large events, the National Tourism Events Sponsorship Scheme, has been scrapped by the tourism body.

That’s the scheme Open House was meant to draw on.

The programme also funded high-profile events such as Belfast Mela, the Northern Ireland Science Festival and the Balmoral Show.

Tourism NI said it wants to minimise the impact of cuts on the wider tourism industry, and as a result has to ‘take some difficult decisions as to how we spend our budgets this year’.

The body added that while it can’t provide grant funding, it wants to ‘identify other ways’ to support events over the course of the current financial year.