Friday, 4 April 2008

Why can't we be infallible?

Arts Council England, North East was the main sponsor of The Journal Culture Awards 2007, which were given out at Northern Stage in Newcastle on Monday. (I missed it, for complicated reasons, but you can see our glamorous staff in some of the photos here.) This is a night to celebrate the achievements of the cultural sector in the region, and there were lots of fantastic projects on the shortlists. I’m pleased to say our staff and our support had roles in many of these projects, such as overall winner Belsay Picture House, a result of a long-standing partnership with English Heritage.

We were, though, an awkward mixture of pleased and abashed at the winner of the Arts Council Award. The Novocastrian Philosophers’ Club was universally acclaimed as a brilliantly intimate, innovative and imaginative theatrical performance. However, the organisers had been unsuccessful in applying to Grants for the arts, not once but twice, due to the high demand on the scheme. Each time we reluctantly put it the wrong side of the line that reads ‘No more money available no matter how great the next project is’. (This despite it being led by a former colleague at Northern Arts, Cinzia Hardy. Bang goes that cynics’ theory that we only fund our mates. In fact, now I think of it, I’ve turned down and withdrawn funding from some of my best friends. And we didn’t judge the awards alone, before you ask.)

Now, did we get it wrong? Was it a mistake not to have funded what clearly turned out to be a great project? Certainly it’s felt that way since. Would the work have been bigger and better if we’d backed it? Would Cinzia and the Lit & Phil Library been able to use energy put into filling the funding gap for other purposes? Might more people have got to see it? Would we have demonstrated our judgement more effectively? Perhaps.

But, we would then have had to turn down some of the applicants that did get funded at that decision-making meeting. (All very successful since.) Could we have dealt with it differently – for instance by giving more people half what they’d asked for? I really think that usually leads to no one fulfilling their potential. Would having either an artist or a member of the public there have helped us make a different decision? I doubt it, given the competition. Perhaps they would have argued for another unsuccessful applicant whose festival reached far greater numbers than the Philosopher’s Club.

No one can get decisions right 100% of the time, especially when dealing with things that are yet to happen. If we could somehow grant fund everything retrospectively on whether it was ‘excellent’ or not, or actually reached its target audience, being a funder would be a lot easier. (Not simple, though, because even hindsight doesn’t give us 20:20 Excellence-vision) Oddly, until I get a company Tardis, the practicalities of the world refuse to co-operate with that. We will reflect on what we can learn about backing great ideas, and about weighing up risk. We will use this learning to get better. (There’s a really good essay on learning from your mistakes here, which contains a handy checklist all arts professionals could have on their wall.)

The other old point this reinforces is that the best projects and artists don’t see an Arts Council grant as ‘permission to exist’. If they are unsuccessful they dust themselves down and find another way of making their work regardless. So I’ll end by congratulating the Lit & Phil and the Novocastrian Philosophers’ Club on their well-deserved success. (And thanks also for Cinzia’s permission to discuss this example here!)


Pete Hindle said...

I'm the first person to find talking about the arts tedious, so I'll be quick: yes, it's hard to fund stuff. But the ACE perks of masses of holiday, a regular income, and a nice office make the McJob taste like ashes in the mouth.

Mark Robinson said...

Well, you won't hear me complaining. But a reasonable amount of paid leave and a wage are not in any way 'perks', are they? They're what working people get in exchange for their labour, agreed through negotiation with their employers. As the baristas of Starbucks in the US recently showed ( there's no substitute for getting organised, even if you don't get unionised.