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Lyn Gardner: Artists and funders must improve relations for the good of theatre

White, a production by Catherine Wheels. Photo: Paul Watt White, a production by Catherine Wheels. Photo: Paul Watt
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I have sympathy for those making tricky decisions about how to distribute arts funding. It’s not an easy task and requires imagination, sensitivity and superb leadership skills. Funders are often damned if they try to make changes to the portfolio and bring in new blood – and damned if they don’t.

Every theatre and company will have its own champions who fight for that institution’s survival whether or not its survival is in the interests of the wider theatre ecology. Think of the outcry that followed the decision to cut the Orange Tree from the ACE portfolio. There was sense in that decision. Although facing financial challenges, The Orange Tree hasn’t withered. Rather, it has bloomed under Paul Miller.

Just because a performing arts organisation has received core funding in the past doesn’t mean that it should always be funded in the future. Sometimes there are other ways to support an organisation. If organisations lose their ability to creatively renew, it may be better to let them die than keep propping them up forever.

In England, during the good funding times, ACE was far too timid about renewing the portfolio at the very time when it would have been easiest to do so. That failure exacerbated the inequalities so that the rich got richer—and often administratively more bloated—and the artists, those actually making the work, stayed poor. Now it’s playing catch up.

Too often funding systems lag behind what is happening on the ground, and they always will, unless funders get out of the office and into the field. Then need to see what is really happening out there, talk to artists and listen to their concerns. For historic and geographical reasons funders are almost always too in thrall to buildings, and one of the consequences is that over the past 20 years – in all parts of the UK – touring has gone in significant decline.

The reason funders are in thrall to buildings is quite simple: buildings have the administrative clout to advocate on their own behalf more effectively than smaller companies, and when funders cut buildings’ subsidies the boarded-up evidence is all too visible.

Cut a company and whatever furore there may be dies away. An empty building sits mournfully, tweaking the funders’ consciences for years to come, until it is eventually turned into luxury flats.

But as ACE discovered painfully in 2007/8, when it’s portfolio plans led to a revolt by artists and a vote of no confidence at a meeting at the Young Vic, funders not only need to think hard about their decisions, but also the way they deliver them. They need to think how they are explained and to be completely transparent about their decision-making process.

Creative Scotland failed on all these counts with the recent announcement of plans for its 2018-21 cycle. These included cutting two brilliant companies, Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions, who make work for children, as well as Lung Ha, Janice Parker Projects and Birds of Paradise, who are leaders in the field of disability arts. They were all told they would be able to apply for the £2 million touring fund that is proposed for 2019. But how do you apply for something that does not yet exist?

Not surprisingly there has been fury, and how could CS have imagined otherwise? Being core-funded confers status, so what does it say about the status of children and the disabled when these theatre companies, world leaders in their fields, are cut from the portfolio?

After the resignation of two board members, Creative Scotland has told the arts community that it is listening and, by the time you read this, some of its cuts may have been reversed at a hastily called board meeting.

Creative Scotland plans emergency meeting following criticism of funding cuts

But the interesting thing is what it says more generally about the relationship of funders to artists, and the absence of a strong and meaningful year-round dialogue between the two. Why was CS surprised by the strength of feeling against its decisions? Funding, and how it can be used to shape the ecology, needs to be an ongoing conversation between artists and funders – not just one that occurs when there is a funding round or a crisis.

That requires both artists and funders to engage actively with each other and for a system that welcomes input from all sides – one that creates a culture in which people feel they can say what they think without fear of being penalised in their future funding applications.

It demands a system in which artists and funders are committed to work together in the interests of the whole ecology, and one in which funders do not let themselves slip into ‘we know best’ paternalistic models that treat artists like needy children with begging bowls. Equally, artists need to take responsibility to find out how the system works and how it might work better for all.

In the current debacle, it is probably relatively easy for CS to reverse some of the cuts. What is far harder is to bring about a genuine long-term change of culture.