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Funding cuts – a survivor’s guide

The Puppet Centre Trust’s director Natalie Querol offers her thoughts on the current funding crisis


When it comes to funding cuts, it seems it never rains but it pours. First the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme was cut by 35% almost overnight. Then we were told that come 2009, 112.5 million of lottery money would be diverted from ACE to help foot the Olympics construction bill and a further £161.2 million of lottery money will be switched to the Olympics from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Finally it looks likely that the Arts Council will receive, at best, standstill funding in the government’s General Spending Review, which, without an inflationary increase, will certainly feel like a cut.

These cuts will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the landscape of arts funding. ACE have already sent letters to their Regularly Funded Organisations (a portfolio which includes organisations such as ITC and Total Theatre Network who have over the years offered support of one kind or another to those working in puppet theatre), stating that it will not be equal misery for all, that whilst some will be removed from the portfolio altogether those that remain will get an appropriate cost of living increase. More significantly for many of those working in puppetry, the Arts Council’s open access scheme Grants for the Arts will almost certainly shrink further as lottery funds dwindle. Already applications are being turned down with the cuts being given as the primary reason.

The drain on the Heritage Lottery Fund will also have an impact as, whilst not specifically dedicated to the arts, HLF has been a regular supporter of arts projects such as the Little Angel Theatre’s programme of work based around the heritage of the marionette (see more on this project in Beccy Smith’s article Back to the Future in this edition of Animations Online).

There is no doubt that this is a very serious situation indeed and reactions suggest that both the Arts Council and the government have been surprised by the extent of the outcry. However as time passes it’s important that that initial outcry doesn’t drop to a whisper. To help keep the pressure on those who control the public purse we can all take steps to ensure our voices are heard – to start with, we can sign the two petitions on the Downing Street website and write to our MPs. It’s also well worth keeping an eye out for new postings from Lyn Gardner on the Guardian blog
[http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/theatre/2007/03/this_arts_council_cut_will_dev.html]
and letting her know about any projects that won’t be happening as a result of the cuts.

There are some slivers of light at the end of this particularly gloomy tunnel. One hopes for instance that ACE will use the loss of so much lottery funding to lever a better than expected settlement in the General Spending Review. We are also assured that the lottery funds taken to fund the Olympics will be repaid come 2013 when the lottery will have first call on profits from the sale of land after the Olympics. However 2013 is a long way off and the question remains of how the arts, particularly small companies and individual artists, can survive in the meantime?

The first and perhaps most obvious trick up any arts manager’s sleeve will be to turn to trusts and foundations to fill the gap. It is fairly simple to divide those trusts and foundations that have been known to support arts projects into two distinct groups – those that exist to support various disadvantaged groups and recognise the ability of the arts to serve those particular social ends, and those that specifically support artistic innovation and excellence. A number of the larger trusts do both under separate programmes. The key is to work out to which type of funder the project you are running will be most attractive, then write a proposal that emphasises those aspects of the project of greatest appeal to your chosen target. It is entirely possible to fund a year-round programme of work through trusts and foundations.

The downside to relying on this kind of funding is that it is very unstable, as in most instances only short-term project funding will be available. Furthermore the fact must be faced that with so many organisations affected by the current cuts there is likely to be a dramatic increase in the applications being received by trusts and foundations, making it more difficult to access the available funds. Nonetheless there are new opportunities arising all the time. In 2008 for instance the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation will review their current policy of funding only visual arts and, one hopes, begin once again accepting applications for the performing arts. It’s also worth investigating the fortunes of the companies that feed many of the large trusts. Northern Rock building society for instance is predicting a huge increase in profits, which will be great news for artists in the North East as the Northern Rock Foundation will receive considerably more income as a result.

Another source of income often suggested by well-meaning officers is sponsorship. This is a brilliant way to raise funds if you are a large and impressive organisation, otherwise it is incredibly hard to come by. That’s not to say that smaller organisations shouldn’t try to attract sponsors, but be aware that unless you are getting particularly large audiences or have an attractive venue it will take an awful lot of time and effort with no guarantee of success.

Fortunately there is another, far more practical way to survive as direct public funding declines and that is simply by exploiting the commercial potential of your work. I’m not suggesting that small companies should immediately embark upon West End style extravaganzas or indeed that every piece of work should be able to turn a profit. My point is rather that within a repertoire it can be invaluable to have one or two shows (or workshops) that can be sold for more than they cost to deliver.

As a producer I have been amazed by the number of times I have come across artists who had a great idea for an income generating show or workshop that never gets off the drawing board because they couldn’t get funding for the initial costs. My advice is always the same; where the costs are relatively small and you have great confidence in your idea then find the money to invest in the project by simpler and quicker means, be that personal investment, an overdraft or convincing a couple of key customers to pay upfront, just make sure that the price at which you are then selling allows you to repay the initial investment. The logic is simply that it can often take less time to make a show and reach break-even point then it can to raise production funds.

Where the initial costs are too great then some savvy seeking of commissions may be called for. There are many more commissioning opportunities out there than are ever advertised and it’s worth building up contacts with anyone that has a budget, some of which could be diverted your way. In my last couple of years as an independent producer I received commissions from a Local Education Authority, a library service, a local street arts festival, Sure Start and a national visitor attraction. In most cases the organisations hadn’t been looking to commission a show – I simply pitched an idea that I thought would help them achieve their aims.

In order to maximise a show’s profitability the next task is to frontload as many of the costs as possible. Not for a moment am I advocating sacrificing artistic quality, it’s entirely possible to make a great show that is cheap to tour, but choosing where to invest is key. For your profit-making show it would be wise to invest in a long rehearsal period and making costs but keep the running costs extremely low with a small and easily transportable cast and set. Think small but perfectly formed. In this way the commission or initial investment will cover all the production costs and you’re left with a show that can continue to generate a profit for years to come.

One final alternative income stream worth mentioning is the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which funds university research programmes. There are many different strands of AHRC funding including practice-based research, which allows artists to work within a higher education institution to pursue a particular line of enquiry through their practice. Applications for these three-year funding packages must be made by the higher education with which you are planning to work.

These are just a few of the many ways in which companies and individual artists can survive in a climate of ever decreasing public subsidy. There is no suggestion here that every show should be commercially driven or that all artists should retreat to universities. Some work will always require subsidy and it’s essential that the Arts Council keep fighting to retain sufficient funds for Grants for the Arts. What I am suggesting however is that being dependent on subsidy serves neither art nor artists well. A couple of profit-making shows in the repertoire or a research project give us a chance to take control of our own destiny rather than tying us inextricably to the changing fortunes of a funding system in crisis.

The puppetry world has always boasted a high proportion of artists that work without any kind of subsidy and happily they will be unaffected by the current and projected cuts. For the rest of us there are testing times ahead, but if we respond by diversifying our income streams and gaining greater control over our financial fortunes then we will emerge as a stronger, more resilient sector ready to make best use of all that promised Olympics generated income in 2013.


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