The Funding Hole

Whilst up at 3am the other night I managed to catch the repeat of BBC4s excellent documentary about the funding crisis hitting the arts sector in Britian. The focus of this particular show was the Northern Ballet. The Ballet; a diamond in the rough of bruising Northern machismo, is in-fact much beloved of the region. Some great points were made, some that I feel would do well in the context of arts funding here in Ireland. Firstly an external (independent) advisor in the shape of Michael Lynch former CEO of the Southbank Centre was brought in to look at where Northern Ballet were going wrong in terms of funding. He isolated a few key areas where improvement was needed. Firstly the dislocation of management from the main body of the organisation meant that rumour and ill-feeling had spread throughout the cast. For those of us working in large arts organisation this may sound familiar. He also felt that the dancers – those at the heart of the ballet, were not being used to best advantage. None of the dancers knew what the financial picture was, just that jobs were likely to be lost. The negative feeling amongst them and their feeling toward the management was palpably bad. Much of the funding push thus-far had been based on a negative premise; the ‘save a dancer’ programme was being rolled out sending a somewhat desperate innuendo, not to mention terrifying the dancer in question! Rather a focus on ‘sponsor a dancer’ was felt to create an open enough interpretation that gave a notion of possibility rather than doom. Lynch suggested that the management ask the dancers to a fund-raising dinner to speak with the patrons about the new programme. Laughably they did this – dressed in full stage attire. They were then paraded amongst the seated guests and swiftly ushered into the kitchen area for their meal. The dancers felt undervalued and cheap. I do feel that artists and curators are at a similar disadvantage in Ireland. Both sets of workers can be the best asset an institution has and should be used as such. Artists and curators alike hold a weight of knowledge that is used in the implementation of shows but can also be used to great advantage in the area of funding. Creating a separate funding department in an arts organisation breaks with the core strength of that organisation and cannot create the passion that is required by donors. The Northern Ballet finally took this on-board and in a separate event a small dance routine devised by a young in –house choreographer was used within the space to create some enthusiasm for the cause and during the meal the dancers (in their own clothes) sat amongst the donors telling their stories and how they came to be involved in the company. Furthermore Lynch noted that existing funders should be included in any event. So what if you’ve already gotten 1 million from the Arts Council (and that was cut from 1.5) – you always have to think of next year’s budget. They need to see that you are getting somewhere, and more importantly they need to know their money is being put to good use. At the end of all this I realised that we are making some fundamental errors in the field of arts funding in Ireland. We are foolishly dissociating the artists from the funding needs of the organisation and they are what make the organisation get funds in the first place. We are also not adequately using the young curators within arts organisations; they are full of good ideas and can create enthusiasm within the patrons (as well as the fact that these are the patrons and head curators of the future). Finally we need to remain positive, in certain organisations in Ireland the weight of managerial pain can be felt throughout the staff structure and it is heeding progress irreparably. And for God’s sake keep the meals open to artist, donors and staff alike. Create an atmosphere wherein the joy that comes from working in the arts can be felt and transferred to those that ultimately want a piece of that story – the donors. ‘Arts Troubleshooter’ is a two-part series which sees arts expert Michael Lynch at two unique English arts organisations facing serious challenges. http://balletnews.co.uk/northern-ballet-in-arts-troubleshooter-documentary-this-weekend/

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