Down but not out in the face of funding news

The Paper Birds. 'Thirsty'
The Paper Birds. 'Thirsty'
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This week the latest round of Arts Council funding was announced. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad looks at what the announcement means for the arts in the region.

It was Steve Dearden who summed up the emotion of the day most succinctly, for me.

Tuesday was the day the Arts Council made the announcement about what it will fund and to the tune of how much, for the next three years, for Britain’s cultural life.

Dearden is the man in charge of The Writing Squad, an organisation that develops young writers.

It relies on Arts Council funding to survive, and Tuesday for The Writing Squad, was a good day.

After receiving his news, Dearden wrote on Twitter: “Reading the ACE list is a bit like watching the planes return, I can’t see x, can anyone see x? Happy we got back, but a sinking feeling.”

In fewer than 140 characters, Dearden nails it.

Twitter was the medium of choice for the arts world on July 1, 2014, when the decisions started to come through (it was interesting that the social media network was where all the instant reaction happened and then people appeared to turn to newspapers and their websites for further analysis, but that’s a side issue).

Some companies and artists were conspicuous by their absence.

Those that were in the digital open were mostly sheepishly echoing Dearden’s sentiments of feeling happy to have survived, but not popping champagne corks for fear they might be doing so at another organisation’s wake.

I happened to see the former head of Arts Council Yorkshire, Cluny Macpherson and current acting head Pete Massey the day after the announcements. They both remarked how supportive the arts community was remaining across the
North.

It’s true, we do have a remarkable spirit in Yorkshire, of support and encouragement between arts organisations. If cutting funding was ever supposed to divide and conquer – the cuts are administered by the Arts Council but handed down from central Government – it has backfired.

There was nothing but shock at the announcement that two Leeds theatre companies were to lose all Arts Council funding – Red Ladder and Paper Birds – and that was quickly followed by support.

The Arts Council announces, in its three yearly tranche of funding, which organisations and companies it will be funding in its NPO (National Portfolio Organisation – the companies receiving annual funding for three years) programme.

What it doesn’t announce is which ones it won’t be funding, either because the Arts Council has decided to cut them, or because they didn’t apply.

It means it’s up to the companies themselves to decide if they want to share their news.

Red Ladder’s firebrand leader Rod Dixon, rehearsing the company’s latest show on the day the cut was announced, was uncharacteristically quiet.

At 11.24am the company tweeted: “We have been cut and lost 100 per cent of our funding. Change of business plan comrades.”

Paper Birds, another well- loved Leeds company, also received the worst possible news, with the loss of all its Arts Council funding.

“Wallowed in rejected NPO for ten mins and now need to get up and finish this show Broke (title of the show taking on a whole new meaning),” was the message Paper Birds shared with Twitter.

And now, the aftermath.

Within 48 hours a new Twitter account, Save Red Ladder had been set up, its profile telling us it is “an independent campaign to keep the UK’s leading radical theatre company going”. The Paper Birds also saw a boost to its crowdfunding for its latest project.

Another big surprise was that Dark Horse, a Huddersfield-based integrated theatre company that works with disabled and non-disabled performers, received a full cut. Artistic director Vanessa Brooks said: “To be dropped from the portfolio at this point in our evolution after such consistent investment, outstanding feedback and assessment, and positive encouragement from ACE seems quite bizarre”

So, how does the landscape look? It takes a year for the funding to really come into effect, so 2015 is when the cuts will really start to shape our cultural lives.

I am surprised about Red Ladder, Paper Birds and Dark Horse, mainly because to me they seem to be three companies doing deeply individual work.

Mind the Gap does something similar to Dark Horse, but can it fall to one company (Mind the Gap did well in the funding announcements) to represent a whole swathe of performers?

The Arts Council are in a lose-lose situation. Whatever they do, they are going to be criticised. That said, a lot of money has gone to bigger organisations.

Opera North and Northern Ballet are the two biggest cultural companies in the region. Northern Ballet received an extra 21percent and Opera North an extra £714,000 per year.

They are both cultural totem poles and important to fund properly for the benefit of the region, but the Arts Council preaches great art for everyone and there is a feeling in the cultural community that two such seemingly elite art forms receiving such a bulk of funding in Yorkshire is a little unequal.

It might not feel like it to the companies receiving big cuts, but the cultural landscape hasn’t shifted 
all that dramatically this week.

Things will continue, they always do and the spirit of support isn’t going to disappear.

There is one important message – Third Angel, the brilliant Sheffield company, was cut three years ago. On Tuesday the company became an NPO once again. So it’s not necessarily the end of the road for all.