Fine art of survival as culture meets commerce in a new world of funding

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Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said philanthropy was the future. Arts reporter Nick Ahad on how Yorkshire cultural organisations are adapting.

There was much gnashing of teeth, wailing and demonstrating, but in the end, the arts world had to stiffen its upper lip, pull up its socks – and get on with it.

In December last year, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt delivered his first keynote speech and the rhetoric was clear – philanthropy was the way forward. He wasn’t killing Government funding – not entirely, but there was an expectation arts organisations must find help from sources other than the public purse.

Seven months into this brave new world, how are the county’s arts organisations faring? Is there a new world of philanthropic giving out there? The short answer is that arts companies are adapting and bringing in impressive amounts of money from private sources, but it’s a complex web of deals and negotiations which is keeping Britain’s arts scene alive.

Sharon Canavar is chief executive of Harrogate International Festival. Earlier this year her organisation was told it would no longer receive any Arts Council funding. The £20,000 it received in previous years was only three per cent of the festival’s total budget and seemed a trifling amount. Canavar, however, says that the public funding – it also receives £24,000 from Harrogate Borough Council – is not only key to their survival, but is vital in bringing money into the town.

“It might seem like small piece of the pie, but it is a really significant piece,” says Canavar. “One third of our budget comes from commercial sponsorship, another third from ticket sales. When we go to companies for sponsorship, however, the first thing they want to know is if we are supported by the local council. It is like a seal of approval.

“If the local council believe in what you’re doing and fund you, then it gives private companies the confidence to invest in you as well. It makes you legitimate in their eyes.”

Businesses from around Harrogate put money into the festival, which incorporates the Crime Writing Festival, the Sunday Series and the Sporting Words festival as well as the main event itself, with companies investing anything from £500 up to several thousand pounds. In return they are given access to events and special sponsor-only evenings. More than that, however, their sponsorship creates a festival that brings enormous cultural kudos to their town.

It’s something businesses around the region understand. This week the first major Damien Hirst exhibition ever held in the artist’s Leeds home is taking place at the city’s art gallery.

The exhibition’s main sponsor is The Art Fund, a national charity, but Leeds law firm Walker Morris has swelled the coffers to pay for the show.

“From a purely selfish, corporate point of view, it is something our clients enjoy,” says managing partner Ian Gilbert. “Sponsoring exhibitions like the Damien Hirst gives us an opportunity to entertain our clients in an arena other than the usual sporting event or whatever. However, it also gives us the opportunity to put something back into the community.”

This could be passed off as so much corporate flannel, but Gilbert genuinely sees the benefits to a company like Walker Morris in making the city in which it is based a better place.

“We are not divorced from the community, we’re tied into the fabric. It benefits us to help make Leeds a major centre. It’s in all our interests to promote it and the North as a major cultural player.”

Nigel Walsh, curator of contemporary art at Leeds Art Gallery, admits that though private money is useful, even necessary, to public organisations in these difficult times, it can sometimes lead to compromise. He says: “It is absolutely vital. The Damien Hirst show involves substantial installation costs and it would have looked very different without the funding from Walker Morris.

“Fortunately they just let you get on with it. When this kind of partnership doesn’t work is when the sponsors become interfering and want to get involved.”

Isn’t that the price you pay for dancing with the devil? If you want the private sector’s money, then presumably you can’t complain when they want to stick their oar in?

“I think it’s key for the future to have this kind of mixed portfolio of public and private funding,” says Walsh. “I don’t think we’ll ever have a situation like it is in the States where essentially everything is funded through philanthropy. Here the commercial sponsors don’t want to be the meat and two veg – they want to be the icing on the top of the cake. They want to come in to make an already successful organisation more successful.”

All that said, Walsh still vehemently believes in public subsidy. In York last week a conference organised by Pilot Theatre heard the old line about why public money is worth putting into the arts. For every 17p, said playwright Daniel Bye, the arts raise 32p.

It’s an equation Northern Ballet has put to good use since it heard earlier this year that its Arts Council funding was to be cut.

In the time since the announcement, NB’s people have been out pressing flesh and making friends. This week the Leeds-based dance company announced that it has generated more than £500,000 of support from private donors, companies, trusts and foundations – in the last month.

Northern Ballet’s chief executive Mark Skipper says: “We are delighted with the donations. In order to ensure we can maintain a full complement of dancers and commission new productions, private investment is now of paramount importance. The onus is on us to focus our energy on articulating the importance and benefits of ensuring Northern Ballet remains a valued member of the arts community.”

This amount of funding in a month is, clearly, great news and that a company with a reputation as impressive as Walker Morris is helping to bring Damien Hirst home to Leeds for the first time, is to be celebrated. However, there is another end to this spectrum.

As Walsh recognises, commercial companies are more likely to be seduced into funding the organisations that already have a sterling reputation. Smaller companies are now more than ever needing to find creative ways to keep their heads above water.

Fabric, a Bradford-based arts organisation, recently moved into a new, rent-free building, thanks to the city’s Schofield Sweeney Solicitors.

The law firm’s commitment to the arts in Bradford has seen it hand over the ground floor of its base in Little Germany to Fabric. While the law firm continues to operate out of the other three floors of the building, Fabric gets a rent-free space which would otherwise stand empty. Everyone, as the saying goes, is a winner.

Darren Birkinshaw, head of commercial property at Schofield Sweeney, says: “For us it offers the twin benefits of keeping the property alive and removes the burden of paying business rates. For the local community it means the number of empty buildings is reduced, keeping the area vibrant and dynamic. We’re committed to supporting businesses and the arts in Bradford, so this partnership with Fabric is a perfect fit.”

Gideon Seymour, director of Fabric, says: “It is hard for smaller organisations to engage the kind of support the likes of Northern Ballet can attract. It means we have to be more entrepreneurial when approaching companies because the corporate benefit might not be so obvious. It also comes down to just asking. With something like the partnership with Schofield Sweeney, they had an empty floor, we needed a new home – it just made sense.”

nick.ahad@ypn.co.uk