To the people who have the power to make a change

News | 14 December 2023

I write this only a week away from Greenwich Dance’s closure date of 20 December, after 30 years of supporting dance in South East London. And I write because I would hate for this loss to our community and the sector to be in vain.

Having run a project-funded organisation through the last five years – a monumental time in history in which we have (and are still) experiencing a cost of living crisis, war, a climate crisis and are now navigating the aftermath of a global pandemic – I would very much like to share my perspective and ideas about how reform could come about in the funding system.

Firstly – You have to help shift the fixation with buildings. For the last five years, Greenwich Dance has been operating peripatetically, without a building of our own, using existing places such as libraries, community centres, arts centres and the outdoors to bring dance to the familiar spaces where people already are. The model, in comparison with others, is cheaper and nimbler whilst contributing to the economy of an area through space hire, programming and audience/service user development. During the pandemic it was brought into sharp focus that buildings are simply shells when artists and audiences cannot be in them. But despite this, the model for peripatetic organisations (and I include touring companies within this) is undervalued and falls between the cracks of support.

It is not that cultural buildings are not needed, and do not need to be looked after. But what needs to be unravelled is first the perception of value – it seems organisations with buildings are somehow valued by those with power more. But also the misguided idea that building more cultural spaces equates to the creation of more cultural provision. This is wrong. Unless the staff and art are also funded within those buildings all you get is a bigger drain on the cultural purse, not more culture itself.

Here in Greenwich we have a tangible example. Royal Borough of Greenwich council has poured millions into the recently opened (September 2021) and very beautiful Woolwich Works. Yet it remains financially challenged largely due to the fact that revenue funding has not been factored into their needs and funds are swallowed up by the infrastructure itself (as is often the case with heritage buildings). Additionally, the council has been unable to see how the existing cultural ecology in the area could support Woolwich Works to thrive. For a new venue, the job to engage authentically with long-established communities is both large and, ultimately, slow. Meanwhile, despite our track record of 30 years of community and artist engagement and our enthusiasm for actively developing audiences for Woolwich Works through our peripatetic model which we detailed in our most recent application to the council, Royal Borough of Greenwich cut our funding by 100% earlier this year. This thrust us into a critical state which, coupled with the inability to access Arts Council England (ACE) funding in London due to the ‘levelling up agenda’ (nine successive applications rejected) is resulting in our closure.

To avoid a repeat of this scenario elsewhere, what we need is investment in cultural organisations which form part of a vibrant national cultural ecology, whether they be building-based or not. And we need it urgently as the sector is on its knees.

Secondly – the role of Arts Council England needs to change as it is no longer fit for purpose. It exists to distribute and monitor grants, but it seems not to nurture the sector. Rather, Arts Council England appears to have had its ability to make decisions on behalf of the sector stifled by the department in Government whose very role it is to support us. ACE needs to extract itself, and quickly, from this position of dependence and vulnerability else it risks being eradicated – and that is scary. We have seen (through the Unboxed festival) just how speedily people with no experience of grant-making can waste millions of pounds.

Thirdly – ACE funding streams are no longer serving the cultural sector as they should. The all-or-nothing, three-year cycle of National Portfolio funding (NPO) doesn’t serve those in receipt of it, nor those outside of it. How can culture thrive if organisations are constantly in fear of being cut? And how can organisations possibly be expected to survive outside of NPO if they are unable to apply for core costs and are forced instead to have to create project after project to be delivered by an already stretched team? As we have discovered to our detriment, due to ‘levelling up’, if you are a London based organisation this exceedingly flawed model is not even an option. This lack of a sustainable funding base means that the services and activities organisations like Greenwich Dance provide are inconsistent: communities are constantly losing activity upon which they have come to rely.

Fourthly – Culture is now expected to deliver much more than entertainment and enrichment. Our artists are key workers and they use the arts as a tool to support mental health, community cohesion and social justice. More often than not it is a culture budget that funds this vital work, so therefore funding into the DCMS budget and those of local councils should be being drawn from other, better resourced departments in order to double or triple the pot. As pointed out by Tarek Iskander in our last Talking Moves podcast episode, the Arts Council’s budget is approximately the same as one hospital. Currently, it is simply scraps which we are all fighting over.

Lastly – The sector, which you should be nurturing is, to cite Sir Nicholas Hytner, on the brink of collapse. Leaders are exhausted, artists and staff are underpaid, and funding sources are drying up. The nation is at risk of losing this critical industry and all the incredible people within it. Brain drain is happening – and at a tremendous rate. And yet, with all this experience available, those with power consistently undervalue the expertise readily available. Here in Greenwich, a Leicester-based consultancy firm has been drafted in to write a local cultural strategy whilst leaders of the locally based cultural organisations are struggling to keep their organisations afloat. How powerful and relevant would a strategy have been if instead the council had chosen to keep that money in the borough, supporting the local cultural ecology as it did so by seconding some of those very leaders to come together and co-author a strategy based on local knowledge, skill share and collaboration?

A pet hate of mine is people listing problems and offering no solutions. So for what they are worth, I will offer you mine.

  • There is so much to do and get right. To bridge the situation, the sector urgently needs another round of Culture Recovery Funding which organisations can use to invest into their core operating costs to stabilise a crumbling sector. This should be done to support it whilst you have time to review the failings of the current funding system and create an alternative. And when you do that, please seek out the voices of those around you. Much of the intelligence you need will be held by leaders, producers, artists and practitioners who have been innovating on the hoof for years and years. Seek them out and listen – don’t just pay consultants.
  • During the pandemic there was talk of the ‘crown jewels’. It’s an uncomfortable turn of phrase as it referred to the big boys – but if you consider the actual make-up of the crown jewels: big gems alongside tiny diamonds we could start to think differently about the ecology as a whole. To my mind we need an element of that ecology to be stabilised. My rationale for this is inspired by Tarek Iskander’s ‘National Arts Service’ idea – discussed on our podcast this summer. When a school, or a hospital is in trouble and not delivering against agreed objectives, it goes into special measures: funding is poured in, and the senior staff are changed. The hospital or school doesn’t close and leave a locality without medical care or education and thousands of doctors, nurses and teachers without work. We need a similar element of stability in the arts.

It is obvious that every organisation cannot be part of this network. As such, the organisations within it could be (s)elected on a 10 year cycle by the sector itself and therefore answerable to them. And as part of the criteria for selection, they should also be required, as a mandate, to tangibly support and serve the cultural ecologies around them.

This essential ‘Arts Service’ is not an NPO alternative – but a layer atop it.

  • Then there could be a version of NPO – designed for the smaller organisations which make up those above-mentioned exciting cultural ecologies. But three years is just not long enough. They need at least five. You spend one getting better resourced, one delivering, the next planning your re-application then the cycle starts again. If you lose out in the next round, the bubble – which you have just inflated due to your resourcing – bursts.
  • I recognise that a five year cycle makes all those, like us who have been on the outside, have to wait longer for the next round. So introduce a Core Funding strand alongside Projects. To be able to apply for even £30k or £40k a year would be transformative to so many organisations like Greenwich Dance.

And this would have other positive repercussions. If there really was a viable alternative to NPO then perhaps the NPO would not be quite so competitive. At the moment the system forces those (sometimes ill equipped) organisations to compete heavily against each other when in actual fact being an NPO is not the best fit for everyone. But right now, there is little else so we all pile into the race. An alternative model has to be created.

  • Perhaps this is where ACE starts to outsource. Can another organisation that has experience in supporting innovative, entrepreneurial models such as Creative UK be brought in to devise, develop and manage an alternative model which shifts organisations away from the charitable sector and into creative enterprise? Large organisations already utilise this way of working with subsidiary companies but small organisations often don’t have that expertise or capacity. Imagine if, within such a scheme, a mentoring package could be negotiated – with corporates linked up with a cohort of smaller cultural organisations through their corporate social responsibility policies? What could a relationship like this deliver – if cultural organisations received in kind support rather than funding, and access to some of the expertise locked away in these corporations – such as innovations in marketing, design, installation building, data gathering and analysis?
  • Returning to ACE again now – Project grants should be retained and the funding available expanded so that artists are not forced through a funnel of gatekeepers – particularly as this is one of the only places for funding independent artists can go to. Developing Your Creative Practice is a great thing, but artists and small companies have to be able to access significant project funds if we are ever going to address the unfair balance between freelancers and organisations.
  • And finally, we conclude (again) that there simply needs to be a bigger pot. We cannot pay with love any longer. This should come from the government – and I refer you back to my point above which is that this should be done by drawing from other government departments to increase the DCMS budget to supplement the impact and outcomes that high-quality cultural engagement has the power to achieve. But also this budget then needs to be further supplemented through entrepreneurial means. In addition to supplementing with National Lottery monies (which research shows comes from the poorest in our communities), you should be turning to the wealthiest. A centrally managed corporate Cultural Sponsorship package that encourages big business and philanthropists to invest into the country’s cultural infrastructure could be one way.

Sadly, it’s too late for Greenwich Dance. But please, do not to allow more to follow in our wake.  

Yours faithfully,

Melanie Precious
CEO and Creative Director, Greenwich Dance

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