Louisa Davies asks if England’s funding structures are hampering the development of our emerging artists.
At mac birmingham, working with emerging artists is part of our DNA. Mike Leigh did some of his first directing work here. Tom Hunter, the only photographer to have a solo show at the National Gallery, was with us recently to give the keynote at our Lessons in Geography conference. I am currently working with Ben Norris, a young spoken word artist, helping him to secure Arts Council England (ACE) funding for research and development into his first full-length show. Through our Next Generation programme and partnerships with IdeasTap and Somewhere to, our doors are open to a new wave of artists.
The adventure here is seeing what happens when artists from different disciplines, backgrounds and experiences work together. Our arts team are not programmers, but producers, helping work get made. Much of this happens through making creative use of space and resources, from offering a theatre company a free studio space for a week's R&D on a new piece, through to us instigating opportunities for creative intervention in the programme.
There is more we could do as a sector to create direct routes for talented artists to develop and finish their work
I love working with ‘emerging artists’ but would question whether it is a useful label, especially when for so many the pace and progress of an individual’s trajectory is unwittingly dictated by the idiosyncrasies and demands of our funding structures. I believe there is more we could do as a sector to create direct routes for talented artists to develop and finish their work, without too much obligatory hoop-jumping along the way. I often advise emerging artists to apply initially for under £15,000 to support research and development, especially if it is their first ACE application. For some, it is an essential staging post for their project and may help to define a creative team, develop a narrative or experiment with digital technology. It is also more likely that they will get the funding, and their best chance if they intend to tour the finished work – it should give them the opportunity to create enough material to garner sufficient interest from receiving venues to programme the work – and therefore to have a viable application for funds to support touring. If they are turned down, the often received reason is ‘competition for funds’, and so they are advised to reapply. As a result, the whole process is lengthened, applications are redrafted and reread, schedules are changed and sometimes by the time the big envelope arrives, the creative energy has moved on.
I wonder how many projects go no further than research and development, and therefore what is the public benefit? It also begs the question: When do we consider an artist to have ‘emerged’? After they have been through this process once, twice or more?
One project that helped us counter this challenge was Holding Space, led by a consortium comprising ourselves, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Black Country Touring, Warwick Arts Centre and Stan's Café/A E Harris. In 2012 we received a significant amount from ACE managed funds to develop a pilot commissioning programme for regionally based independent theatremakers. At the top of our list of criteria was that we wanted to present finished work. Applicants were asked to tell us how much money they needed in total, plus a brief description of their project. The funding had to be spent within six months. The work commissioned and presented was ambitious and of high quality. In the evaluation we all identified the tightness of time as a challenge, but also felt it was a catalyst for energy and progress.
Back to now, and we are hoping we can make Holding Space again. Alongside this, we are ambitious about how we can sustain and grow our programmes in this area. We are just scratching the surface of the uniqueness of the arts centre as a place for cross-artform practice and development, and as a place where the audience can play an active role in those conversations and witness the creative process unfold.
Louisa Davies is Producer – Performing Arts at mac birmingham.