There's no word on a long overdue upgrade to Grantium - the reason for most requests. Those providing access support say the system must change.
Peter Alfred Hess
Arts Council England has spent more than £1m on access support since the pandemic began.
The Access Support Fund, which provides help with reading, writing or otherwise navigating the funder's processes, is primarily used to make applications through Grantium, Arts Council England's (ACE) much-maligned online portal.
Altogether, 1,254 applications to the fund were made between March 15, 2020 and the end of June this year, costing the equivalent of more than £800 each. ACE has no record of how many people received access support - or at what cost - before then.
- Planned Grantium upgrade delayed due to Covid-19 pressures
- Emergency funding applicants vent frustrations about Grantium
ACE pays freelancers to provide support to applicants, who are normally neurodivergent artists. They usually get about two days to work on applications to Developing Your Creative Practice, sometimes up to four or five for National Lottery Project Grants.
Those freelancers told ArtsProfessional the fund was poorly publicised before the pandemic, and that clients have recently been asked to give extra information about their needs before support is granted.
Communication via email - ACE's phone lines have been closed during the pandemic - has added to the stress of navigating Grantium to apply for emergency funding.
Applicants argued the process of applying for support was discriminatory and that Arts Council England should be providing the right tools up front.
79 people abandoned their requests for access support, ACE's figures show.
One access support worker said the current system "loses the nuance of difference".
"Given there is a higher incidence of neurodivergence in the creative industries than the population as a whole, [it] is a real problem.
"It has the effect of making the written word, which is what Grantium is really about, a flattener of that set of sensibilities."
An upgrade to Grantium due at the end of 2020 has been delayed indefinitely.
An ACE spokesperson said: "There is currently no date set for upgrading to the latest version of Grantium, and no specific cost associated with the upgrade, as it is part of the supplier’s ongoing product development."
The UK branch of the supplier, Grancius, could not be reached for comment.
Access support providers want a "complete overhaul" of ACE's funding application process.
They say a new portal designed with disabled and neurodivergent people in mind would benefit all funding applicants.
"Right now, it feels as though the system for making and processing ACE project grant applications is set up to make life easier for ACE assessors," one told ArtsProfessional.
"It is somewhat understandable that it is designed in this way, if the culture of the organisation is formed around an ableist leadership, but it feels very out of step with the key user base of people who actually make projects happen on the ground."
A 'cheat sheet' to Grantium for neurodiverse applicants first published in August 2016 has been viewed 43,000 times, highlighting the number of people struggling with the current system.
ACE's recent Creative Case for Diversity report notes the success rate for disabled funding applicants was 32% compared to 35% for all applicants.
While applicants were glad to be able to access help more easily, support workers said, the access support system should allow applications to be made over the phone or via a filmed video.
"It's totally disempowering for the person to not have their voice heard in the way they would like to have it heard," one commented.
"The arts council doesn't learn anything new. It's all homogenised out."
Applicants cannot change support worker if the one they elect is a poor fit and the freelancers are often working "about six other jobs", another said.
They wanted to see the loose network of about 2,000 access support workers consolidated into a publicly available database.
"I have had several people who have said 'I need help to find someone to help me.' It's a bit ridiculous.
"Grantium saves the arts council money but it costs the sector because of the number of free and unpaid hours that go into navigating that system."
ACE says it doesn't expect any upgrade to Grantium to change demand for the Access Support Fund, in part because it is focussed on reaching more people.
A spokesperson said the upgrade is "being designed to meet all relevant accessibility standards".
Other competitions for disability arts funding are following the Grantium model, extending the barriers for artists, access support workers said.
One said this creates a "Catch 22" where support becomes essential for disabled applicants.
Another commented: "The [arts council's] system needs to be better so there is less need for access support, but there won't ever be zero need."
But some of the workers are frustrated at the slow pace of change.
"It's a bit like shouting at a brick wall trying to get any feedback.
"The arts council thinks that by posting in access support and advertising it more widely that they have solved the problem.
"The bigger issue, I think, is how is the arts council fully in tune with the nature of the sector and also the individuals who make it up at all levels?"