Letter to Arts Council England

Dear Arts Council England Executive Board and National Council,

I am writing to you from my position as an independent artist, board member of an independent dance organisation and as an arts participant and attendee more broadly. I sincerely welcome the emergency funding available for arts organisations and individuals who will need it during this Coronavirus crisis. Thank you for that enormous undertaking, advocacy at government level and working tirelessly under such unprecedented and emotionally challenging circumstances. 

And yet, I am dismayed and incredulous at Arts Council England’s decision to include applications currently in their system awaiting decisions as part of the suspension of National Lottery Project Grants and DYCP and Grassroots Music funding programmes. I feel on the initial level of respect for artistic communities, that this information was not included transparently enough in the Emergency package announcements earlier this week. Likewise, clarity around the timeline for this suspension period has also not been adequately communicated leaving both artists and smaller organisations in a current freefall in terms of financial and business future planning and contingency. The Arts Council has added loss and uncertainty in a climate where loss and uncertainty is already so prevalent.

This level of destabilisation of an already fragile economic exchange and power differential between artist and funder, is further highlighted because this action undermines the enormous amount of often unpaid work independent artists and smaller organisations take in pulling together those applications.

I appreciate the need to redirect a huge proportion of funding at this time but feel the disregard shown for protecting independent artists’ projects will now take significant steps to repair. It feels a graphic oversight that these projects would have seen artists and smaller organisations employ more artists within our sector and in that way, support artists who themselves haven’t accessed Arts Council before – and who are now at very real risk of missing out on both these employment opportunities. In some ways, the Arts Council has also missed out on the opportunity to continue this aspect of strategy for representative and inclusive workforce within the arts.  

I’d also like to draw attention – as many colleagues and peers are doing – that the project funding which artists apply for, frequently subsidises the financial grants and commissions NPOs can offer artists as part of their own programming and other cultural activities. 

It also feels a shame not to support artists who would have met the ACE criteria at the time of writing their applications, to reimagine what their projects could have been going forward rather than wipe them out completely and justify that with “we think the vast majority of applications could not be delivered in the current crisis so it would not be a good use of public money to proceed”.

I am shocked that so much support has gone towards bolstering NPOs and the independent sector faces this potential wipeout. Artists and smaller organisations are in constant relation with NPOs for a great deal of our support and there are symbiotic relationships there. The independence of projects is also of immeasurable value. Both need to exist.

As a useful point of reflection, I would like to know how many independent artists and members of non NPO organisations were involved in this decision?

It is of small comfort that I and others could reapply in the future and/ or apply to the emergency funds. The grants of up to £2,500 available for ‘individuals if they have a track record in publicly funded culture’ is one months average salary in the UK. Very little will be able to happen with this money beyond an artist surviving. I would argue that is plenty for anyone to be getting on with at this time. With this in mind, I am increasingly concerned by the stipulation that these grants will “support those seeking funding for a creative response to the Covid-19 crisis.” I implore the Arts Council to stop being part of the worrying trend of organisations asking artists to creatively respond to this pandemic. Please stop commissioning out of this crisis and stand by your offer of hardship relief without the need for artistic product. Doing so makes invisible the in-depth practices of artists who constantly respond to our environment and shape our practices in ways which feel anchored, generous and give rise to what we wish to voice. In other words, the landscape of work made after Covid-19 will undeniably be informed by these current events. 

A crucial note concerning access funding. What has happened to the personal access costs related to the funding programmes? Are the £2,500 grants that amount plus access costs? Again, there is a need for clarity and a need to reflect on the notion that disabled artists may inform you of what they might need – or now be unable to access – rather than the Arts Council providing their disabled artistic communities with clear information. 

Lastly, I understand that we are each grappling with these financially dire times and that the Arts Council has an enormous responsibility to our sector. I also take with gratitude, the number of artists and organisations who haven’t been asked to return any current grant monies in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is in this spirit that I am asking Arts Council England to reconsider the decision to suspend these particular funding strands and the devastating impact it will bring to the independent arts sectors. 

Warmth and respect,

Alexandrina Hemsley