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Has your organisation really got a chance of success? If not, think some more and save yourself the headache, says David Micklem.

The Great Reset

“We’re definitely applying for NPO.” 

I’m lucky enough to work with dozens of incredible artists and arts organisations across the UK. And many of them, in England, are saying just that, right now. “We’re definitely applying.” Huge numbers of applicants have their eyes fixed on becoming an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation (NPO). For the reward of three-year funding that will enable them to plan strategically, and to deliver their ambitions for a post pandemic arts and cultural landscape. 

Many applicants will be new to regular funding from ACE. Two years from its publication, Let’s Create has been digested and dissected by artists and arts administrators across the country. And ACE is sending a powerful message to the sector: ‘If you think you can help us deliver our new 10-year strategy – Let’s Create – then we want to hear from you. The door is open, come on in.’

Advantage for those with funded infrastructure 

At the same time, most of the current portfolio is likely to re-apply. Of these applicants, it’s likely that many will ask for more money this time round. Years of standstill funding, the impacts of the pandemic, and time spent rethinking how they might respond to a new ACE strategy, are contributing to a massive pent-up demand for greater levels of support. 

These organisations have a funded infrastructure that advantages them when it comes to considering working up a compelling bid. People on payroll to do the thinking and planning and writing that’s essential to develop a case for support. 

Some existing NPOs will do as they’re told (by ACE) and only apply at the level they currently enjoy. But many will want to present plans based on increased support to enable them to reach into communities poorly served by arts and culture. 

A much more democratic approach

I should say I think Let’s Create is a brilliant and bold statement of intent from ACE. If their previous 10-year strategy was 'Great Art and Culture for Everyone', Let’s Create might be described as ‘art and culture, made by, with, and for – everyone’. It suggests a much more democratic approach to art and culture, opening it up from something that is done ‘for you’ to a broader range of practices that we can all be actively engaged in. 

So, Let’s Create is an opportunity. An opportunity to change our understanding of what comprises arts and culture, who gets a say in it, where it happens, with whom, for whom. And ACE is actively encouraging new organisations to consider a path to NPO status – regular funding and all the security and profile that brings. What’s not to love?

The problem of course is there’s no extra money. This leaves ACE with little wriggle room. The reality is that hundreds of organisations will waste thousands of hours considering how their plans might align to the principles at the heart of Let’s Create, only to be disappointed. Most applicants just don’t have a chance of entering the club. 

Money tied up in buildings

Last time round (2017), ACE received 1,200 applications and awarded 828 NPO grants. I’d be surprised if that figure isn’t significantly higher come the deadline on 26 April next year. And while ACE doesn’t yet know how much it can spend, the current climate suggests it’s unlikely to be more.

ACE says that by 2030 its portfolio will be different. That organisations currently funded will need to be working differently, and that the portfolio itself will be comprised of different organisations, freeing up resource for new companies. But despite warm words about a shake up, much of the money is likely to be tied up in the (largely building-based) organisations that dominate the current portfolio. 

ACE is also clear in its ambition to contribute to the government’s levelling-up agenda. It has published details of its 54 priority places targeting geographical areas through need and opportunity. If you’re not currently an NPO, and not based in one of these places, or planning to do real work there, I’d suggest you save yourself the effort of thinking through a bid to ACE. Based in London and thinking about trying to get in? I wouldn’t bother. 

Proactively exit the portfolio

Instead look to ACE project funds and the flexibility that they offer. Or developing relationships with other stakeholders and funders, within and outside the arts. Let’s banish the notion that there’s an implied hierarchy of funding that has NPOs at the top and acknowledge that all this time and energy might be better directed elsewhere. 

If the portfolio was completely open – if the £407m per annum was generally available to be bid for – things would be different. If existing NPOs were better able to acknowledge when their time was up, if boards were better equipped to proactively exit the portfolio – to shut up shop or move along elsewhere – then there’d be more room for ACE to choose a genuinely fresh portfolio. My fear is of an on-going log-jam – too many big organisations, largely building-based – that will continue to demand the lion’s share of the available money.

If ACE can liberate its portfolio to support Let’s Create, it will free up resource to enable hundreds of new organisations to flow into the portfolio, up and down the country. If genuine support for arts and culture made by, with, and for everyone is available, then I’d encourage every organisation that meets the criteria to start thinking about an application. 

But if the current portfolio is still fixed, then forget it. Save yourself the hundreds of hours and all the blood, sweat and tears that go into brilliantly compelling bids, and direct all that energy into something more positive. 

David Micklem is a writer and arts consultant. 

 @davidmicklem

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