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Bristol Council's recommendations for arts funding follow a 12-month delay in the decision-making process that left some organisations facing severe financial difficulties.

Clockwise from top left: The Watershed, St George's, RWA, Bristol Old Vic
Several major institutions in Bristol face losing their local authority funding

Clockwise from top left: Nilfanion, Linda Bailey, Enrique Íñiguez Rodríguez, Jwslubbock/Wikicommons

More than a dozen arts and culture organisations in Bristol, including the Old Vic and Watershed, have been earmarked to have their council funding axed from next year.

Bristol Council’s funding recommendations for cultural organisations for the three-year period 2024/25 to 2026/27 were published this week following a year-long delay in the grant administration process that left some organisations facing severe financial difficulties.

A total of 10 institutions in the city previously funded by the council for 2023-26, including Bristol Old Vic, Watershed Cinema and Royal West of England Academy (RWA) will have their funding cut. A further three that were not funded during the previous round were also unsuccessful. The proposals are due to be voted on by the council's cabinet next week.


Several smaller organisations have also missed out on ‘Imagination’ funding, including DragonBird Theatre, a company that runs participatory sessions and performances for children and adults.

In its recommendation report, the council said the level of investment available to arts and cultural organisations through its Cultural Investment Programme has reduced by 40% over the last 5 years, from £1,015,960 in 2017/18 to £635,960 in 2022/23.

It said: "The combination of these factors has meant that recommendations have required the intention of achieving a step change in diversifying the programme at the same time as adapting to reduced budgets."

Cultural strategy

Watershed CEO Clare Reddington wrote on the organisation's blog that the council’s proposal was a “huge disappointment”.

Acknowledging “local authorities are under severe pressure and have to make difficult decisions”, Reddington was critical of the funding process, saying it was “hard to feel confident” when “the city doesn’t have a clear cultural strategy, or a Head of Culture in post”.

When Bristol's Cultural Investment Programme 2023-27 opened in spring 2022, applicants expected a verdict on their bids from the council in October of that year. Instead, after a series of delays, they were informed an independent committee would oversee the process, with decisions initially pushed back until March 2024.

Following protests by performers' union Equity, the council bought forward the verdict to this month. Bristol City Council has previously said it stalled its funding process for 12 months because it was concerned its own decision-making process was "not sufficiently transparent”.  

Speaking about the delay, Reddington said: “Our applications were re-evaluated months later, though we do not know if the criteria we originally applied against were used in the second assessment process and, of course, 12 months ago the culture sector looked like a very different place."

Structural deficit 

Reddington said the funding cut would compound a £200,000 structural deficit facing the venue due to inflation, Covid, and the cost-of-living crisis, adding that it follows a 35% cut by the council in 2018.

She said: "Bristol has long been seen by people as a place for independent arts to thrive but, for this to be true, we need to ensure we are also supporting the platforms that enable them.

"The city has underinvested in its culture sector for many years. Without a clear strategy to map out the unintended consequences of cutting cultural infrastructure, I have significant concerns about the impact of these funding decisions on Bristol’s communities, economy and overall brand."

'A precarious future'

The RWA said it was "disappointed" to learn it faces losing council funding and, while the previously-awarded £9,600 a year grant represented less than 1% of its total operating costs as the organisation's only public subsidy, it was vital for securing grants from other funders.

Alison Bevan, RWA Director, said: “We are now totally reliant on the support we receive from our visitors, members and donors. We’ve managed to keep going for over 160 years, and are delivering life-enhancing creative engagement when it’s needed more than ever.

"However, this year, with massively increased running costs, our future was precarious and, without any support from Bristol City Council, it’s now even more so. "

Arts Professional has approached Bristol Old Vic, St George's and DragonBird for comment.

A headshot of Mary Stone