Bev Adams accuses funding assessors of ‘project snobbery’ and favouring venue-based organisations over artists working in the community.
I read with interest Susan Jones’ article ‘Art won't look after itself’ in which she comments: “Policies have essentially marginalised the ‘at-large’ participatory and engagement-based practices in order to preserve diminishing funds for buildings and civic pride.” It resonated deeply with me.
I believe that artists working at the coalface of arts engagement are operating at a disadvantage by virtue of their work hardly ever being seen by those that preside over the funding pot. This has resulted in Arts Council England’s (ACE) funding system turning into a travesty, with flawed assessment processes that smack of cronyism and favour urban-centric venue-based arts organisations.
I represent an organisation that has 25 years’ experience of increasing access to the arts for communities less well served. We reached 46,000 people in 2013/14 and are free at point of access, yet have sustained a business model of 42% earned income, 18% core cost funding and 40% project funding. A model for which some heavily supported (or dare I say it, bailed out) venue-based arts organisations would be envious.
We are grateful to be one of the most successful applicants to the strategic touring fund to date. This success is due to a lot of hard work, research and experience, getting out there and meeting people - using shoe leather, the whites of the eyes and a smile - with some of the most isolated and least well-served communities in the UK. It also reflects just a 50% success rate. In order to be successful three times, we have made six applications for modest amounts of money for one-year projects. An attempt to draw down strategic touring for a longitudinal three-year project bridging three northern counties was turned down last year.
Panel members seem rarely prepared to travel to remote communities to see relatively low-profile socially engaged work
According to a recent BBC report only 6.8% of this green and pleasant land is urban, yet ACE persists with funding arts in urban centres over supporting arts in and for communities. Still further, ACE’s Strategic touring programme is focussed on audience development, meaning that its application process encourages applicants to explain how their work in and with communities drives audiences to the already funded urban venues. Quality arts work with communities is in itself quality work and should be valued for growing arts engagement from the ground up. Such projects should be valued for setting many people off on their first creative journeys, seeding the creativity of the future, rather than for how many bums they can put on the seats of the nearest city’s theatre or how many visitors they can drive through the city’s multi-million pound art gallery.
Despite informed paper-based assessments for applications to ACE’s Grants for the arts by some relationship managers, the funding panel appear to be venue-centric, elitist and lack an understanding of socially engaged work, constituting a type of ‘project snobbery’. Panel members seem rarely prepared to travel to remote communities to see relatively low-profile socially engaged work. They would rather go to a theatre with a bar or an art gallery with a café in a nice urban centre with easy transport links. Much smaller-scale venue-based art is art eating itself, with audiences for the main part being engaged in the wider arts network. The larger-scale venue-based work is only accessible to those with financial means and of a certain social disposition.
Frequently, eminently fundable, well-articulated projects assessed by relationship managers as outstanding for community engagement, good for artistic quality and meeting criteria for management and finance, are turned down when they come before the panel. How do artists succeed in getting their project that has been assessed as suitable for funding on paper, get it agreed for funding at panel? What are the criteria by which the panel decides that one organisation is more worthy than the other to receive ACE funds and where is the transparency in this? What expertise or experience of the organisation and the company’s socially engaged work do they have? Is it simply cronyism? If they know and like your work, you are successful.
ACE’s national portfolio system is equally inequitable. The revised national portfolio for the north provided an increase of £1.5m to three organisations covering opera, ballet and classical music, while 29 smaller organisations, mostly artist-led, socially engaged, financially efficient touring organisations with an average support of £91,000 per annum were axed. (Thanks to Chris Squire of Impossible Theatre for these figures.)
ACE’s Creative people and places (CPP) programme is also flawed. What ACE offers to consortia through CPP is laudable on paper, but in some cases and not all, much of this cash (millions) is gobbled up by management and marketing strategists, leaving the artists to scrabble for the crumbs of insignificant commissions for poorly conceived projects by inexperienced salaried producers. Many consortia fail to understand the value of having the artist - the deliverer of the art - on the ground at the outset. The artists’ ability to soak up inspiration and reflect the community’s needs from that very important first meeting with a community participant and the artist’s skill in transforming this inspiring information into meaningful projects for and about the community is lost in a mire of pre-production bureaucracy. Why are artists seen as high risk and lacking in expertise for the receipt of large funding sums via CPP, while local authority and quango consortia with limited creative expertise are deemed worthy?
As artists we are hobbled and unable to take the next step in our development in delivering projects to areas where we know arts and community engagement are low
Our recent lack of success with both grants for the arts and national portolio status means that our work remains marginalised. As artists we are hobbled and unable to take the next step in our development in delivering projects to areas where we know arts and community engagement are low. Because our work is free at the point of delivery, with no tickets, venue, café or bar, our opportunities for earned income are limited, yet we still bring in 42% of our total earnings by selling our projects to commissioners in both the private and statutory sector. We are well experienced in working on a project-by-project basis and are happy to deliver our work in this way without core funding. I advocate an arts ecology that survives without government subsidy, if artists were paid for the time it takes to create their work at a rate commensurate with any other profession. A junior lawyer costs £100 an hour, the starting salary of a recent graduate as an investment banker is £42,000. I and my colleagues, like most artists, do not seek a mega salary but I do expect to be paid for my work commensurate with my expertise and experience.
ACE’s ten-year strategy of Great art for everyone has been degraded and no longer applies when funding is allocated. ACE is now funding consortia research projects to create a greater evidence base of the impact of the arts. As a small arts organisation delivering this work and seeing real impact, it is impossible for us to report on our engagement successes to ACE. The annual review system asks for us to record figures against a core programme and separate figures against an education programme. Our education programme is our core programme. Still further, it asks for more detailed statistics against work delivered in formal education settings than it does for work in informal, community settings. A complete overhaul of the reporting structure to capture the wealth of arts activity delivered by artists would provide all the evidence ACE needs. It should simply fund the artists to make art and do its job of making the case for funding. Instead it launches a £2.5m research programme over three years to fund consortia projects linked to research partners, such as universities. Universities charge each student £9,000 a year so what makes them eligible for dwindling ACE funds?
In the UK and in Europe, whether in business or through arts funding, artists always seem to end up at the bottom of the food chain with consortia and governmental organisations snaffling up the cash, leaving artists to scrabble over poorly conceived and poorly paid commissions. Julie Ward MEP recently echoed this statement in a recent address to the EU when she called for further investment in informal education which contributes to the growth of the whole person, creates confident well-rounded citizens, and for the Creative Europe programme to support “smaller organisations (non-governmental players) upon whom our cultural sector is founded”.
I therefore propose a radical suggestion for realignment of arts funding. The arts and artists need money and not buildings in order to flourish. This is clearly visible from the work of the ‘venue-less’ National Theatres of Scotland and Wales, the outdoor arts work in rural landscapes and derelict urban wastelands, and the poignant personal journeys made by people accessing the arts in care homes, on housing estates, in the mental health system, in parks and community centres across the length and breadth of our country.
Because it is very difficult to survive commercially from the creation of arts, the sole purpose of ACE should be to support the creation of arts by artists. As arts venues have a far better chance of raising cash through sponsorship, ticket sales, restaurants and friend schemes, it is these organisations that should be challenged to survive without arts funding and not the artists, without whose work the venues would have no reason to exist.
Bev Adams is Founder and Artistic Director of Faceless Arts.
This article was updated on 11 February at the request of Arts Council England. The original article stated that ACE’s new research programme is worth £250m over three years, rather than £2.5m, and will fund seven projects per year, but the number of projects is not predetermined. It incorrectly implied that research partners have to be universities.