Biting The Hand That Feeds: A Few Oddities In The New Grants For The Arts
Like most England-based artists, I’ve made a number of applications to Arts Council England (ACE) for money. They’ve just changed the application process, and as I just finished on an application, I found a few oddities that haven’t been commented upon (much).
1. Grants For Social Work
Two of the three outcomes of Let’s Create (Cultural Communities; A Creative & Cultural Country) are heavily focused on giving people outside the arts profession the chance to engage in cultural activities.
Historically, this role would have been filled by schools, youth centres, working men’s clubs, churches, and other community-focused sites with deep links to the people and areas they served. Those people and areas have a meaningful need to create.
But, after austerity, socio-economic changes, and a range of historic choices, those institutions are not fulfilling that need (often because they’re no longer there).
Based on the experience of ACE’s previous hope for more arts outreach, which led to a lot of shallow engagement where artist-missionaries would appear in a place, give a taste of Good Art, and then leave for the next project, I’m not sure that Let’s Create will meaningfully fill the void.
Most artist training is focused on making art, not community needs. To meaningfully meet those needs well requires special training and focus. We’ve all seen bullshit outreach to get grant money, and at the moment this will likely lead to more.
Sincerely: rather than Grants for the Arts, why not offer Grants for Social Work if that’s the underlying goal?
2. Grants for Dynamism (But Not Too Much)
ACE has kept in the glorious requirement to submit a perfectly-balanced budget, where all income matches all expenditure to meet a perfect zero.
Everybody who’s tried to walk that tightrope knows the bizarre contortions this leads to (that contingency budget of £1,163.53 is definitely calculated based on… things that aren’t just breaking even).
However, given their explicit commitment to try and support the creative industries, shouldn’t ACE welcome the chance to become a seed-funder?
If an application just needs funding to jump-start it, and then it can become self-sustaining, isn’t that a good thing?
While it’s understandable that ACE wants to avoid funding the commercial sector, restricting the subsidised sector’s ability to become independent seems odd.
Especially for smaller organisations, where starting capital is an issue, it just seems contradictory.
Couldn’t ACE remove the requirement to break perfectly even for grants under £30,000? Or soften its commitment to the economically-valuable arts?
3. Precise Grants (For Short Words)
The question on the form where you write about the creative bit of your project is only 800 characters. It’s one of the shortest character-limits on the form, which is odd given how normally at least part of what we value in the arts is the art itself.
The question before, summarising the project, is a 50-word summary (300 characters). An average of 6 characters per word.
Obviously, being concise is good. But the arts are a specialist field, with an often-polysyllabic technical vocabulary. Many key words - ‘theatre’, ‘performer’, ‘training’ - are longer than 6 letters, and that’s before we get into words tied to sub-specialisms - ‘immersive’, ‘writing’, ‘medium’. Often, using shorter words means taking more time (say, ‘music writer’ instead of ‘composer’), and it is disheartening to see ACE choose a character-count over a perfectly reasonable word count.
4. Grants For The Time-Rich
ACE’s priorities are potent. They define the sector for years to come. Just as before it caused a pivot to outreach, now it is driving a pivot to community arts.
However, having potentially seven different questions, each with 1,500 characters, focused on each aspect of the Investment Principles and Outcomes, has meant that this form has taken days of my time. I don’t have days of spare time - I work five days a week, and am shattered in the evenings. At the weekend, I normally have 1-3 shorter applications to work on. This latest one has taken me about three months of snatched moments to finish, likely totalling a week’s work.
And, alas, at the end of it I think “if you had sent me an A4 page of what you were looking for, and said I could write two sides of A4 (1,000 words), or record a ten-minute video, I’d have probably made as good a pitch.” While I appreciate the box-filling format suits ACE, the contortions it forces are time-consuming (and I know ACE knows that, and is trying to make it better).
5. Art For Deserving Kids
ACE wants there to be more community art. It particularly notes that people want children to have art-engaging chances. Who doesn’t like children? People want to see arts for children, and so ACE delivers. And what child-catching monster would question this ‘hooray, arts for kids!’ policy?
Yes, I am of course in favour of arts for children.
But, in the same way that “I think the government should prioritise funding for things other than beach holidays for dogs” does not mean “I hate dogs”, the emphasis sits uneasily with me.
There are lots of other under-served groups (as ACE acknowledges). That it will be popular to do lots of art for children does not necessarily mean that it will be best to. Shouldn’t ACE support the less-lucrative, less-PR-friendly projects (e.g. art for prisoners) as a long-term investment?
6. Power To The People (Maybe?)
The compulsory Inclusion and Relevance questions include a question asking how the communities you hope to serve have been involved in the planning and/or creative process.
To me, this seems odd for most forms of theatre. While my Marxian philosophy would love to live in a world where The People conceive and generate all the artistic work, generally speaking this country still has a “team of people have idea, try to make idea, try to sell output” model. The team might be from diverse communities (hopefully), but ultimately programming is done top-down.
Is ACE wanting to change that? If it’s going for an Art For The People model, how does that sit with its somewhat jingoistic, conservative tone elsewhere? Or is it imagining The People as innately conservative, with them running local arts as a restricted instance where they can take control to produce nation-proud shows, while elsewhere the True Representatives of The People do it for them?
7. As ever, go forth and bring culture to the heathen
An old friend from the previous ACE form, which plenty of people have commented on: funding missionaries from high-status/high-wealth areas to go to low-status/low-wealth areas is probably not going to achieve as valuable results as funding creatives from those low-status/low-wealth areas.
If you’re reading this, ACE, I’d still like that money. Because you can make a life-changing difference to me.
And since I think it was a long shot I’d get it, even before I wrote the above - I dare you to surprise me.
Do it. Prove me wrong.
Fund my show.