FeatureThe Exceptionals

Published on Thursday, 25 July, 2013 | Comments

Arts Council England announces a new funding programme for, what they describe as exceptional projects, it doesn't take long for the flaws to become clear.

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by Michele Lefevre

Arts Council England (ACE) announced yesterday that the National Portfolio bunfight will begin again this coming January and arts organisations will , once again, slug it out for regular funding.

Two weeks ago ACE also announced a new funding project, worth £40Million of Lottery money, that will enable the current crop of National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) to apply for one off grants of up to £250,000 for so-called "exceptional" projects.

Lottery money is used by ACE to fund various schemes, one of which is Grants for the Arts (GFA). ACE have assured us that GFA will be unaffected by this particular programme.

Some of the £40Million will also be used for "financial interventions" so organisations can apply for support money if they are running into financial difficulties.

No Salvation

ACE have made it very clear to Article19 that this programme will not save NPOs that lose out in the up and coming application process. In-fact, by the time that new funding term begins, in April 2015, the £40Million will have already been spent and there are no plans, as yet, to continue the scheme beyond that time.

We put it to ACE that the "exceptional" monicker was little more than a free pass for NPOs to apply for project money via the Grants for the Arts scheme, a scheme they are currently barred from accessing.

Article19 also pointed at that the term "exceptional" was a completely ambiguous and subjective term to use when asking organisations to apply for funding;

"We haven't given examples of possible projects because this initiative is to enable us to respond to new and exceptional ideas that come in from eligible organisations. This means that until we have made some Exceptional Awards it is difficult to give examples of what we might fund. Organisations should consider this to be a process for funding projects arising from truly innovative thinking.
Those that we fund will have exceptionally ambitious objectives and clear outcomes having national (and even international) impact.
While Exceptional Awards is an open process we're not looking for 696 applicants, as could be the case if we opened up [GFA] to NPOs. This funding is available for 2014/2015. It is likely that we will make fewer than 25 Exceptional Awards before 31 March 2015. This means that there will be many good ideas and opportunities that we cannot help to realise, given our limited resources at this time."

An awful lot of words used to completely avoid answering the questions, a technique that has long been the standard operating procedure for the funding monolith.

Arts Council England can't tell us what they want to fund until they fund it. Never mind the fact that NPOs are supposed to be creating "exceptional" work all the time so why not simply boost their regular funding to make that process a little bit easier?

Sustain 2.0

In 2010 we reported on the "Sustain" project being run by ACE to ostensibly support organisations that were in financial difficulties. Sadler's Wells Theatre in London was awarded over £700,000.

Our investigation revealed however that the money was being used to simply replace a surplus that the theatre had projected it would earn but failed to because of, claimed Sadler's Wells, the recession that had gripped the country at the time.

The numbers at the time didn't add up though because nothing showed that the theatre was in any kind of financial distress and ACE justified the spending by claiming that the theatre needed to money to "maintain its artistic output".

Here in TheLab™ we can see no reason why the large-scale organisations will not, again, swarm around the current version of "Sustain" to siphon off as much funding as possible for themselves under the guise of creating an "exceptional" project.

We predict that ACE, once again, will be only too happy to comply by giving more than a little help to their special friends.

We Need an Intervention

The additional purpose of the new scheme is to help NPOs that may be facing an untimely demise because they have run out of money. ACE is describing this as "financial intervention" or, to put it another way, the "you can't count so we're bailing you out fund".

This scheme has all the hallmarks of a previous project called "Sustain" operated by the Big Bad in 2009. At the time "Sustain" received a lot of criticism, particularly from us here in TheLab™, as all the evidence indicated the programme was nothing more than a way to prop up high value ACE clients who couldn't manage their budgets.

A three page document produced by ACE explains just how an organisation will qualify for this intervention. One item from the document says the following;

"Is the organisation irreplaceable? Do other organisations make a similar contribution to our portfolio either geographically, in terms of artistic development, or services to the sector?"

If you exchange the word "irreplaceable" with the phrase "too big to fail", then, once gain, you have the formula used by governments to prop up failing banks. A point we made three years ago when we covered the ongoing "Sustain" debacle.

The language used above gives ACE all the cover they need to provide additional financial support for their sacred cows. If the Royal Opera House or Sadler's Wells, for example, run into trouble then they easily fit those criteria, especially on the geographic front. ACE can cherry pick from their own guidelines to justify doing, essentially, anything they want.

It's All In The Timing

Another issue is the somewhat bizarre timing of this funding programme.

In April next year many NPOs will know whether or not they will still be NPOs in 2015. They will also know if their funding is going to be cut (perhaps dramatically so) if they do remain within the NPO portfolio.

If that's the case then said companies will, in all probability, be facing problems with regards to the financial stability of their organisation.

That situation will make them prime candidates for the very type of "financial intervention" this programme is designed to tackle. So, Arts Council England is creating a funding scheme that will potentially mitigate financial problems caused by its own funding decisions.

What does it say about a particular NPO and ACE's funding process if a company is offered a bail out grant after they had their NPO status renewed?

Arts Council England would also appear to be completely stupid if they gave an "intervention" grant to an arts organisation that was set to completely lose its NPO status altogether.

Clarity

As we have come to expect with ACE their "schemes" don't stand up to even a basic level of scrutiny. It would have been far better if this project was delayed until 2015 and the "exceptional" programme was opened to all comers. After all, it's little more than GFA on steroids.

That way, those that had lost NPO status, or enterprising new people, could still apply to do large-scale, one-off projects. The very idea that only the vaunted "NPOs" can have big ideas is as ridiculous as it is inaccurate.

If the NPOs are so good at running arts organisations and big projects then why would they also need a bail out system or "intervention" programme in the first place?

Only time will tell if this "new idea" will be yet another way for ACE to funnel money towards their big ticket clients, as we highlighted with the National Youth Dance Company and Sadler's Wells a few weeks ago.

The funding monolith has balked at the idea of using Lottery money to mitigate funding cuts from central government and with that they have almost certainly condemned many full time organisations to the scrap heap.

A lack of strong leadership, fuzzy arithmetic and bad timing does not make for good policy and this particular programme is another striking example of ACE's bigger problems.

[ The Surplus ]

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