Excited, relieved, confused: three funding verdicts for the Arts Council

Balbir Singh Dance Company: “It lets the potential be realised”

A significant increase in annual funding from £153,228 to £251,728 gives Balbir Singh “more mountains to climb, which is fantastic”, said the choreographer and artistic director. His company will “continue to push and challenge ourselves and work outside of our comfort zone”.

The government’s instruction to Arts Council England (ACE) to shift investment away from London has boosted Yorkshire, where Singh’s company is based (he lives in Bradford and the office is in Leeds). South Asian Arts-uk (SAA-uk) and Kala Sangam have also seen a significant increase. “In one sense, it’s seen as ‘leveling up,'” Singh said. “In another sense, it’s a recognition that so much is happening here and that the potential can be realised.” It all kicks off Leeds’ Year of Culture 2023 and Bradford’s role as UK Culture City 2025.

“The Arts Council has put more money into more diverse leadership,” says Susan Burns, corporate director. “It’s good for everyone.” Singh’s company has grown significantly over the past few years while its funding has remained flat. Its relationship with ACE predates the National Portfolio Organization – it was selected as part of the previous portfolio of regularly funded organisations. Most of the funding will go to “artists and art delivery rather than a large backroom staff,” says Singh. His company is small and nimble, growing or shrinking depending on what projects they have at any given time. In a typical year, they work with between 25 and 50 freelance artists. There will be no dramatic change of direction, according to Singh, but they will use the additional resource to continue “more intelligently and efficiently”.

In addition, Burns said, “we will be able to meet any requests we have from people to come and work with them”. This includes collaborating directly with communities and performing in surprising locations, such as parks, libraries, ice rinks and swimming pools. They tour nationally and internationally and are involved in initiatives around the UK, including working with healthcare professionals on a project that approaches chronic pain from a holistic art perspective. “Recognition from the Cultural Council is also important to the people we work with,” Burns points out. “It also validates them.” CW

Anoushka Shankar performing with Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall, London, 2022.
Anoushka Shankar performing with Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall, London, 2022. Photo: Mark Allan

Britten Sinfonia: “We are strong, resourceful and determined”

The Britten Sinfonia, which has lost all its public funding, had been in the National Portfolio for over a decade. Around 25-30% of the chamber orchestra’s budget came from an ACE grant of £400,000 a year.

“Although we never took the funding for granted, there were no previous red flags. We are still quite baffled by the decision,” said executive director and artistic director Meurig Bowen, who, when we speak, has yet to meet with the arts council to discuss the cut and its implications. “We understand the rationale and the political directive to ascend from London, but the Britten Sinfonia is a complete anomaly with all of that – our story doesn’t match that story in any way.”

The critically acclaimed group, whose musicians are all employed as freelancers, are Cambridge-based and operate uniquely across the eastern region with residencies at Saffron Hall in north Essex, in Norwich and at London’s Barbican. There are regular performances at Snape Maltings and the Norfolk and Norwich festival, eight musicians are currently involved in a program in a high security prison south of Peterborough and early next year there is a tour of regional primary schools with a KS2 music and drama project. “This kind of thing is our core business and very much appreciated by us,” says Bowen.

He describes a recent successful pilot they hope to expand, a part called Music on Your Doorstep. “We bring music to the audience instead of asking them to come to us,” says Bowen. “Much of the eastern region does not have easy access to classical music – the roads are slow and public transport is limited. The Music on Your Doorstep model takes over the whole day – there’s a Pushchair playlist for parents, carers and toddlers in the morning, interactive slots for school children in the afternoon and then a short chamber performance from our top players in the evening.” They’ve taken this to market towns including Diss and Stowmarket and their 2023-26 funding application detailed plans to expand it to towns including Boston in Lincolnshire and Fenland between Ely and Peterborough.

But this type of outreach is labor-intensive and expensive, requiring massive levels of on-site marketing and enhanced event infrastructure. “The loss of the funding means it will be much more difficult to deliver this work as we will need to raise a whole host of additional funding from other sources. It is devastating that this decision appears to stop us in our tracks.”

“It is a bitter irony that two weeks ago we celebrated our 30th anniversary with sell-out concerts with Anoushka Shankar playing to 4,000 people over three nights in Norwich, Saffron Walden and London, and now as we enter our fourth decade we’ve been dealt this blow,” says Bowen. “But we’re strong, resourceful and determined.” THE

Squally Showers by Little Bulb at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013.
Squally Showers by Little Bulb at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Little Bulb: “We’re very excited but it’s bittersweet”

For 15 years, the team behind Little Bulb, a small touring company based in the South West, have lived hand to mouth. No regular salaries have been paid, the company has no premises and its productions have relied on commissions from more resourceful arts organisations.

But this month Little Bulb was told its application to join ACE’s national portfolio had been successful, and it will receive £240,000 a year for three years from April 2023.

“It’s a very big change for us,” said Alexander Scott, the company’s artistic director. “We have so many dreams and ambitions, but without regular funding it hasn’t always been possible to realize them.”

Little Bulb was put on by four friends at the University of Kent, whose collaboration Crocosmia won three awards at the Edinburgh fringe in 2008. Last year they won an Olivier Award for their production of Wolf Witch Giant Fairy, a “wild folk opera of mischief and magic” , at the Royal Opera House. Their next production, which opens at The Spring arts center in Havant in December, is The Magic Library, an immersive performative installation involving wizards and flying books.

“Our shows always have music and are ensemble-based,” says Clare Beresford, administrative director. “We strive to be happy. We want to reach people who don’t necessarily think theater is for them.” The ACE funding was “transformational,” she said. “We’re incredibly grateful and very excited.”

For the first time, they will pay themselves on a regular basis and they hope to hire someone to handle finances and administration. But the biggest boost was ACE’s confidence in Little Bulb as an arts organization, they said.

“But we’re also sorry for our friends and colleagues at other companies who didn’t get the money they want and need,” Scott said. “It’s bittersweet.” HS

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