I thank the committee members for the invitation to speak today. I met the previous iteration of this committee in June of last year as part of the process leading to my appointment as chair of the Arts Council.
Since that date, the council has undergone significant change. My early tasks as chair included overseeing the appointment of three new board members as well as the recruitment process for a new director. I am pleased to be accompanied today by Maureen Kennelly, who took up her role as Arts Council director last April.
We are now living in a very changed world. The Covid crisis has impacted hugely on jobs and livelihoods in the arts sector as well as undermining the financial viability of many arts organisations. With the first lockdown last March, months and, in some cases, years of planning for events simply ended overnight. Arts and entertainment remains one of the sectors most affected by the Covid-19 restrictions. A recently commissioned report for the Arts Council by EY shows that in 2020, the decline in economic activity in the arts sector will be approximately 55% compared with 11% for the economy as a whole. Latest CSO data shows a 67% decline in economic activity in the sector. That is the scale of the challenge.
Against this huge challenge for the sector, artists have responded to lift all our spirits. The public response to, and engagement with, the work of artists online have been overwhelmingly positive. The value of the arts has never been more evident to each of us as citizens and as human beings.
At the outset of this crisis, the Arts Council fast-tracked payment to over 450 organisations and asked them to prioritise payments to artists with whom they had hoped to work. With freelance artists also in mind, the council also focused on getting bursary decisions made quickly and funds distributed across all art forms. Despite repurposing current and future spending plans, the council, at that time with a budget for 2020 of €80 million, simply did not have the firepower to offer a medium-term response to the crisis.
Like other organisations, including the National Campaign for the Arts, the Arts Council worked to ensure the arts was elevated in public policy considerations and in the allocation of public expenditure. There was extensive engagement with the political and governmental system to make the case for additional funding. Following discussions with the previous Government, and then Minister and current Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, the council received an additional €20 million in July. With the support of the current Government, and the new Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, a further €5 million was received in the summer months, bringing the council's 2020 budget to €105 million.
The budget day decision to increase the Arts Council's budget for 2021 to €130 million was a welcome and historic decision. I said on budget day that money does not solve every problem, but this was an important endorsement of the value of artists and the challenges they face. Certainly, having €130 million as a baseline minimum budget beyond 2021 will be hugely significant for the sector.
As chair of the Arts Council, I am working on the assumption that the Covid-19 crisis will continue through 2021. Restrictions will continue to impact on creative practice and public engagement with the arts. Two points illustrate the demands the council is facing. To the end of August last, the Arts Council had received requests for €152 million in financial support from individual artists and arts organisations. That figure will hit €200 million by the end of the year. There has also been a 56% increase in funding applications so far this year.
The Arts Council has provided emergency stabilisation funding for key organisations. These organisations are household names. They are essential for local communities to engage with the arts and for artists to show and display their work. They include the Belltable in Limerick, the Everyman in Cork and the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire. This emergency stabilisation funding from the Arts Council will prevent closure by the end of 2020 but with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, these organisations will still face significant challenges in 2021.
In dealing with the crisis, the Arts Council has also given priority to increasing the number of bursaries to individual artists. Bursaries are an excellent way to allow artists the time and space to create work. Demand has always outstripped the available resources. At this time of crisis, a bursary is a vital policy response to support livelihoods. Ms Kennelly and I can provide more specific detail to the committee but by the end of the year, the Arts Council will have provided direct funding to 1,200 individual artists who otherwise would have been without work; funding to 750 different organisations right across the country supporting festivals, venues, production companies and resource organisations, which has a significant impact on 2,000 directly employed staff and a further 20,000 artists; and made 1,100 awards to artists and arts workers to fund their professional development. In the past month alone, over €16 million in funding has been allocated across the sector and over the next few weeks, a further €7 million in project awards will be distributed.
I assure the committee that the Arts Council remains committed to its current strategic plan, Making Great Art Work, and the two key policy documents in respect of paying the artist and equality, human rights and diversity. The staff of the council, who have worked tremendously hard since the onset of the crisis, and the board are committed to the two main objectives to the current strategic plan, namely, the role of the artist and public engagement with the arts. We will be able to provide the committee and the members with more detail on plans for 2021, which will continue to be a tough time for the arts sector, notwithstanding the increase funding from the State.
I indicated that I was appointed chair of the Arts Council in June of last year. In the months that followed, I had the privilege of experiencing all that is good about the different art forms in various venues across the country. Returning audience engagement and protecting the livelihoods of artists and arts workers are the challenges for the Arts Council for next year. In that regard, I ask those in government who are tasked with examining and making determinations on the Covid-19 restrictions to reopen the doors of galleries and arts centres. These are well-run, safe spaces with an ability to professionally manage numbers. Having attended indoor performances at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August and the Dublin Theatre Festival in September, which operated under strict safety procedures, I have the same ask for theatres. Please open their doors and keep them open. In moving from level 5 restrictions, the value and importance of in-person engagement in the arts across the country must be recognised and acknowledged. It is hugely important.