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Sally Staples explains how East Sussex Arts Partnership has simplified its grant-giving system by match funding successful Grants for the Arts bids.

Photo of people in rowing boat towing a wooden sculpture
Felicity Truscott's project 'Resonance and Revolution', June 2017

This story started in the 1990s, when Arts Council England (ACE) encouraged local authorities to build alliances with their neighbours to take a more strategic approach to local government arts development. The East Sussex Arts Partnership (ESAP) was the product of that policy and survives to this day. During those 20 or more years it has adapted with the times, moving from being a direct commissioner of arts projects to playing a more strategic role.

Lack of local knowledge

When ACE ceased its practice of seeking comments from local authorities on Grants for the Arts bids (a savings-driven decision), we lost a valuable insight into the activity in our locality. We had been diligent in our responses and in return, apart from increasing the chances of our organisations succeeding, we also felt we had our fingers on the pulse of what was happening in East Sussex.

It is mostly the first-time bidders who seek us out and we witness how that first successful bid can launch another career or a new arts organisation

Organisations checked in with us, or we called them up when the forms arrived in our inboxes, and we built and reinforced relationships. But suddenly there was nothing triggering that communication. We felt we were coming adrift from the sector we were here to support.

Parallel to this, we were struggling to maintain an ongoing financial investment within the partnership itself. But what we did have was an accumulated reserve. As we had made the decision not to commission arts projects directly any longer (not great value for money, and not easy to market or deliver effectively over a large and diverse area), we came to the conclusion that the best way to invest our diminishing resources was to set up a very modest grant scheme.

Match funding grants

The East Sussex Arts Partnership grants are only available to match fund Grants for the Arts bids. We offer a £500 flat rate and any award is conditional on the Grants for the Arts bid being approved and the budget establishing that our contribution is needed. We have set aside £8,000 a year so we can fund up to 16 organisations per year.

The outcomes are as follows:

  • We see the bids that our organisations are making so we stay in touch with the sector.
  • Each grant request stimulates a chance to offer advice on how to make an effective bid and how any given project fits into the overall picture of activities on the ground (reducing duplication and facilitating collaboration).

As the grants are so modest we don’t ask organisations to fill in a form for us – we just ask them to send us their completed Grants for the Arts bid. It is always a pleasure to break the news to them that we don’t require them to do anything more than that.

In 2015/16 alone our investment supported over 14,000 people to engage with the arts. Will Kunhardt of the Arensky Chamber Orchestra said: “With ESAP support we were able to turn our latest experience The Forests of Aulanko into a performance that included workshops for 150 young people in Eastbourne as well as a concert for the public. As such, we are indebted to ESAP for helping make our wider and most meaningful goals a reality.”

Funding event

Once a year we run a funding event that starts with basic advice (make sure your budget adds up and tell us what you want to do) and offers one-to-one surgery sessions, not just with ACE but with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the county council’s own external funding team.

We set aside about £350 a year to make this event happen and the truly satisfying part of the day is what happens after the presentations: people start to network, new projects are formed and emerging ideas are honed.

As people emerge from the surgery they glow with pleasure, walking a little taller because someone has clarified their thinking, validated their ideas and taken them seriously. For some people it is the first time that someone has treated them as a fellow professional.

First steps

We prioritise projects that complement the priorities of our cultural strategy, and it is particularly important to us to grow the next generation of talent. With such small amounts on offer it is mostly the first-time bidders who seek us out and we witness how that first successful bid can launch another career or a new arts organisation.

Sometimes we offer a grant and then the Grants for the Arts bid is rejected. Our act of faith often encourages applicants to persevere and try again, and we are on hand to offer advice on how to improve their chances.

£500 is not a great deal of money, but it can be the difference between that first properly funded project, that first step on a creative career, or giving in. The difference between being happy ever after or a story never told.

Sally Staples is Cultural Strategy Manager at East Sussex County Council.

How have the arts been affected by recent changes in local government, and how can they be steered towards a thriving future? Have your say via ArtsProfessional’s short Pulse survey.

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Photo of Sally Staples