Documents linked to its national portfolio application have revealed Emma Rice’s new company was unable to provide required financial information, and was the only South West applicant to hold a ‘mandatory conversation’ with its ACE Area Director.

Photo of Stage Door, Old Vic
Wise Children's first residency is confirmed at the Old Vic, London.

More information about Wise Children’s application to join Arts Council England (ACE)’s national portfolio has become available following the organisation’s decision to publish a series of documents online.

ACE’s assessment of the organisation’s funding application found the new company – led by the outgoing Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe, Emma Rice – to have a “credible financial model”, a “highly suitable and experienced” advisory committee and “clear plans in place to make appropriate progress”.

But ACE also declared Wise Children’s management structure and governance arrangements “not currently suitable for delivering the programme as proposed”, and suggested the application would have been stronger if the organisation’s plans were more developed.

“Where both the level of partners and the track record and profile of the organisation’s director are a compelling platform to work from, the application would have been strengthened were strategy for launching the company at a more advanced stage,” the assessor wrote.

Preferential treatment

Issues were raised with ACE’s decision to grant Wise Children a £475k annual grant for 2018-22 by journalist Christy Romer in a blog post that drew national media attention and raised concerns across the sector. Romer questioned whether the company – officially formed just nine days before the deadline for registering a funding bid – had received preferential treatment.

Last week, Wise Children made the decision to publish its National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) application and assessment, along with email threads between Emma Rice and senior ACE staff, days before they were released under Freedom of Information (FOI).

The documents reveal that ACE considered the financial viability of Wise Children – which was unable to provide the required financial documentation with its application – and its “untested” business model to be major risk factors.

Emails with ACE’s South West Area Director Phil Gibby show that he attended Wise Children’s ‘mandatory conversation’ prior to its application, and ACE has confirmed this was the only such meeting he attended in this round of funding bids.

‘Mitigated risk’

ACE’s assessment of Wise Children’s application evaluated its contribution to three of the Arts Council’s goals and the Creative Case for Diversity, its management and governance, and its financial viability.

Although ACE found “reasonable” steps had been taken to ensure appropriate budgeting, drawing on the experience and skills of Emma Rice and Wise Children’s advisory committee, the assessor added there was a “major risk inherent” in the launch of a new company, and said progress against targets must be monitored regularly.

The assessment concluded there was a moderate risk attached to management and governance, recognising that neither board nor staff were in place, although this was mitigated by the involvement of an advisory committee.

It noted that the members of Wise Children’s “highly suitable and experienced” advisory committee may become the organisation’s trustees and that this “increases the likelihood of the organisation’s future board possessing appropriate skills”, but also stated ACE must be consulted during recruitment and invited to attend interviews.

Wise Children’s advisory committee is chaired by David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, and includes Sally O’Neill, Chief Operating Officer of the Royal Opera House, Clare Reddington, Director of Watershed, and Judith Dimant, Producer at Complicite.

ACE also found a moderate risk to delivery of Wise Children’s goals, in relation to its need to secure venue partnerships and because its ambitions for diversity are “untested”. But it concluded these were mitigated “to some extent” by a confirmed hosting in Bristol for 2018/19, and by Emma Rice’s track record and diverse board development plans.

No financial documents

The application and subsequent assessment show Wise Children was unable to provide previous and projected financial information, which ACE requires of its applicants.

In place of its financial statements for the previous financial year, most recent management accounts, and the planned budget for 2017/18, Wise Children supplied a ‘financial statement’ outlining that the new organisation was “not in a position” to provide such information. It says the company was set up with the purpose of “establishing a formal business structure to enable the work of Emma Rice,” and that the advisory committee will develop “appropriate and robust governance structures”.

“The Advisory Committee for Wise Children is committed to supporting Emma through a period of transition and will develop appropriate and robust governance structures, so if and when Arts Council England funding is granted to Wise Children, all appropriate systems of planning, management and monitoring are in place,” the statement adds.

“We are happy to work with Arts Council England to ensure the funder is fully satisfied with what we have put in place.”

South West home

Wise Children’s application also provides detail about where the organisation will be based and its planned artistic activities. This follows concerns that it has been funded as a South West organisation – contributing to ACE’s plans to invest more funding in the regions – while announcing it will initially be a resident company of the Old Vic in London.

The documents reveal Wise Children is in discussions with Spike Island in Bristol about initially basing the company there, but adds: “The journey of the first four years will lead Wise Children towards a permanent home in the South West.”

During this time, the company plans to work in partnership with venues to create ensemble work to tour nationally and internationally, and will create a “bespoke creative space at each venue”. These residencies will “inform a future creative home in the South West”.

As well as the Old Vic, Wise Children is currently in discussions with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, Manchester International Festival, Bristol Old Vic, Liverpool Everyman and the Royal & Derngate in Northampton about large and mid-scale partnerships.

Each residency will involve the creation of new work as well as the ‘School for Wise Children’, which aims to develop skills, train independent artists and diversify the creative workforce.

‘Friends at the arts council’

Included among the documents are all the emails between Emma Rice and three senior ACE staff – Head of Theatre Neil Darlison, Deputy Director Simon Mellor, and South West Area Director Phil Gibby – that were held by the Arts Council when the FOI request was made.

ACE initially told AP that Wise Children’s ‘mandatory conversation’ – a discussion every new NPO applicant must have with ACE, covering the finance and management of the organisation and appropriate funding programmes – was held with a senior relationship manager. However, the email thread reveals that Gibby organised the meeting and was also in attendance.

ACE has confirmed that three of its five Area Directors attended mandatory conversations ahead of this year’s NPO applications. A spokesperson for ACE said it is “appropriate for Area Directors to take part in conversations with potential NPOs in receipt of higher levels of public funding – in keeping with the greater expectations we have of these organisations”. However, Gibby did not take part in mandatory conversations with any other South West applicants, including two that went on to receive higher levels of NPO funding than Wise Children.

The emails also show Rice spoke with Mellor and Darlison about her idea for the company ahead of the application, and received encouragement from Darlison, who emailed Rice to say he would “love to help” and that there was “good level of support” at ACE for the idea.

Mellor has since posted a blog on ACE’s website addressing the fact he – and other members of Arts Council staff – talked with Rice ahead of her application.

“It would have been remarkable if we had not,” he wrote. “As the development agency for art and culture, we talk to people all the time.”

“Conversations like those with Wise Children are key to the Arts Council’s effectiveness as a development agency. We actively seek out and encourage new talent and fresh ideas, wherever they emerge,” he continued.

“The critical point is that the conversation is not the application. The process of assessment and decision-making is designed to be wholly and deliberately independent of any informal discussion that may have taken place, and we work hard to try to make sure that this is the case in practice.”

ACE has strenuously denied the “unsubstantiated allegation” that there are “different rules for applicants” according to “how well known they might be to Arts Council staff”.

The published documents:

Wise Children NPO application and supporting documents
Wise Children NPO assessment
NPO Mandatory Conversation Wise Children
Wise Children Organisational Development
Emails held by Phil Gibby
Emails held by Simon Mellor
Emails held by Neil Darlison

A photo of Frances Richens


It appears there is another funding stream - the kissy fund - the equivalent of 'mates rates'. Why does this matter? it matters because this is public money and is to be delivered through a transparent process that is fair and equal to all. The emails show that this was not the case (substitute the kisses for winks). The real problem is that the people involved (and the advisory board) think that there is nothing wrong with this - it is the corruption of friends, nepotism and sycophants. Very, very poor. Thank you for exposing this so that we can all see how it really works.

"Onwards & upwards!!!" writes Simon Mellor, the day of the NPO deadline. "Emma's work is beloved and popular" says Emma. "Emma plans on hosting two Meaning Making dinners" and ACE gives her £4600 to do so. x

It's easy for detractors to get up in a lather about something this, if you're inclined to do so. I'm not inclined to do so, but this has made really strange and unsettling reading. I don't understand, given the lack of key areas of information required, how this has been awarded NPO. I have some experience of this (CEO of two arts orgs - three successful portfolio applications - and now Director of a major GFTA recipient) - I work with the system continuously and have done for a long time. It's true that Emma's work is very worthy of support in my opinion, but surely project funding is more suitable as the company finds their feet: they have four years to do that which is perfectly reasonable and many others will be doing exactly that. This paints a confusing and slightly sordid picture of system that could quite easily be perceived as being really not as transparent and fair as ACE would like it to be. Parts of the reading process made my stomach flip. I'm guessing this will run and run. Not ACE's greatest day by some distance and I feel sorry for the many companies that work tirelessly for support yet go continually unrewarded.

I have read the whole bid and supplied emails and am so grateful that ace suspended all the usual carping and fair dealing to allow this superwoman to take over large scale mid scale and international touring AND school new performers from diverse backgrounds .. There's nothing left for the rest of us to do .. We may as well pack up our tents .. There is certainly none left in the pot which is why so many people are now being rejected on not very reasonable grounds. Don't waste your time applying people there is only a bit left for the other mates of ACE. What a corrupt and moribund and discriminatory jargon infested club has arts funding become? I am glad it is a woman that at least is redressing some of the balance .. I am also glad for more equality of opportunity - but hoovering up so much of the budget on a questionable application and on the reputation of one person? How many companies and worthwhile projects could have been funded on some of this? It should have been project funded at best - at least initially - until it proved the concept. Instead ace have bet the farm on a hugely ambitious project that is unproven. I have seen too many companies denied funding for even a small budget subset of this unproven model. Laudable yes but achievable??? I am also amazed at the amount of absolute hyperbole in the application .. To read this you would think Emma the greatest director EVER. She's ok but I have to admit being personally underwhelmed by the concepts and execution. But I am obviously one of the (patronised) dinosaurs referred to in the spectacularly ageist remarks in this document ..