Despite being Arts Council-funded, rural theatre company November Club needed to find more cash to support its ambitions. Its artistic director, Cinzia Hardy, explains how the region’s farming sector stepped up
I don’t know any cultural organisation that would say raising funds for its work is easy. The challenges we’re facing now, and the challenges we might expect looking ahead, need to be addressed head-on, harnessing the tremendous powers of creativity and community.
This is particularly true outside London. November Club is a site-specific performing arts company based in Morpeth, Northumberland. We create productions in response to our region’s landscape and buildings, creating stories of its people and places. Our most recent story has involved turning to our farmers.
We are fortunate to be one of a handful of arts organisations in the region that receives regular local authority support, as well as being an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation. Even then, there is never enough money to support the ambitions we have for the communities we serve, and we are constantly seeking new ways to support our artistic programme.
So, we have to explore new routes and be as creative as possible when looking for support. Indeed, there has been a big shift in the last six years in the way arts organisations are encouraged to look at funding. It came following the restructuring at the Arts Council, declines in the government’s investment in the arts, falling lottery funding and the impact of local authority cuts. The shift led arts organisations to look more to individual philanthropy – which might be described as closer to the US model of funding – and corporate support to fill the gap.
Philanthropy for arts and culture represents less than 1% of all philanthropy in the UK, to the tune of £480 million, but about 60% of this goes to the 50 largest organisations, leaving the majority of arts organisations across the UK to share a portion of the £200 million that’s left. Small but vital cultural organisations often don’t get a look in.
The state of corporate support for culture across the UK doesn’t look much better, and has actually declined by almost a third between 2012 and 2016. Attracting cultural philanthropy in the North East is particularly challenging because the region has few corporate headquarters, so finding sponsorship is very hard, especially for smaller arts organisations.
Overall, our region receives less than 2% of national business investment and less than 1% of individual giving to culture in the UK.
There’s a need for new creative thinking about how we can create innovative partnerships
So clearly there’s a need for new creative thinking about how, as arts organisations, we can create innovative partnerships with potential corporate sponsors and individual philanthropists within our communities. It’s our responsibility to help them to discover new ways they might be able to support and advocate for our work.
In our new musical, Beyond the End of the Road, young farmer Bobby Lockhart tells the audience: “The watchword is diversification. You cannit put the same in and expect to get something different out. Farming doesn’t stand still. You have to move with the times…capitalise on what you’ve got.”
And diversify is what we did. We turned to the farmers. We approached Hexham and Northern Marts – which is where farmers buy and sell livestock – in Northumberland last year, with a view to staging our musical in the Bellingham sheep ring at Hexham Mart, which is rumoured to have the same proportions as the Garrick Theatre in London.
The show draws inspiration from the beautiful Northumberland countryside and the stories of hill sheep farmers. So, approaching Hexham Auction Mart as a venue to present the performances made perfect sense, and yet how many of us have thought to approach a mart to support an artistic venture?
Its managing director, Robert Addison, told me it was the first time he had ever received a request for collaboration from a professional arts organisation. Robert offered us free use of the mart premises as a rehearsal and performance space, use of its hospitality suite and plenty of marketing and PR support. It all helped us to connect with the rural farming communities we wanted to engage.
We need to seek out unexpected partnerships within our communities, not only to allow us to realise an artistic project but to embed that project even further within them. Philanthropists and supporters might not look like how we envisaged, or be located where we expect. We must be prepared to be unquenchably curious and to grow our artistic practice through new and expanding relationships. This diversification of support can only be a good thing and encourages more people to see the arts as relevant to their lives and something they can be stakeholders in.
We realised together that the performance could enhance our sense of social cohesion
One of the aspects I’m most proud of within this collaboration was that playing at the mart not only created a unique setting for the performance, but also attracted a farming audience. The complexity and heavy demands of the farming calendar make it difficult to involve farming people in mainstream cultural events. Addison became a strong advocate and ambassador for our production, citing the importance of the social aspect of life in marts. These are places for farmers to gather and interact as well as to do deals. We realised together that the performance could enhance this sense of social cohesion, especially at a time when marts are under pressure from supermarkets and there is a real need for diversification.
Hexham and Northern Marts’ innovative support of our production inspired me to nominate the project for the Achates Philanthropy Prize, the only annual prize that celebrates first-time cultural giving in the UK. The prize underlines the dual role of philanthropy in exactly the way we had experienced the support of the Marts – that it is essential to the sustainability of cultural organisations, but just as importantly helps to embed them in their communities.
We were delighted and surprised to win, and I feel so very proud, on behalf of Robert and his staff at the mart, for his trust in us and for what his company’s support gave us. Northumberland has few designated cultural venues, so there is huge potential for other arts organisations to follow our lead and work with Hexham and Northern Marts in the future.
The Achates Philanthropy Prize win secured us £5,000, which has allowed us to remount the production and we took it back to Hexham Auction Mart last month.
I would whole-heartedly encourage other arts organisations across the UK to apply for this year’s prize, not least because Robert is joining the Corporate Award judging panel alongside MP Ed Vaizey and Callum Lee, managing director of BOP Consulting. It can only be a good thing for culture that a mart manager and the former minister for culture will debate the merits of this year’s applicants. Perhaps they are an unlikely pairing, but as we’ve experienced, unexpected partnerships bring thrilling rewards.