Arts Council funding: organisations head into the unknown amid cuts

In the first of a series of case studies exploring the impact of Arts Council England’s new funding decisions, we consider the view from the Watermill theatre, Welsh National Opera and Paines Plough

Watermill theatre: ‘A difficult decision to stomach’

In Newbury, Berkshire, the Watermill theatre is in “deep shock” after the news of a 100% cut to its Arts Council England (ACE) funding. The venue will no longer receive £450,000 (14% of its annual turnover). Paul Hart, its artistic director, said he was especially shocked because the theatre’s National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) application feedback showed it met all the eligibility criteria. ACE has, he said, “failed to give us clear reasoning” for the decision. “It’s another huge blow for us when we’re still recovering from the pandemic.”

The cut is likely to hit community engagement work the hardest. “It threatens the work on stage and our hugely popular community engagement programme, which works with more than 20,000 people a year including refugees, young people with autism, adults with additional needs and our inclusive youth theatre.”

The Watermill produces 12 shows a year, with 50% of all productions resulting in regional and rural touring or transfers, and it is a specialist in BSL-interpreted performances. “Cutting funds for theatres that produce touring work fails to understand the economic model of regional theatre. We currently have The Sleeping Sword touring to hundreds of school children in the local area and Spike touring to venues across the UK including Darlington, Blackpool, Glasgow and Cardiff. [The ACE decision] cuts off this work before it’s been made [in the future]. There is a dearth of mid-scale touring work – it’s where the real issue is. Surely this is what levelling up has to be about?”

There was, he added, “a sense that the Arts Council does not understand how joined-up the theatre’s work is with other organisations. It can’t just cut one funding organisation and expect that work to continue.”

The theatre has also lost all local authority funding over the past five years. This now throws its future into the worst peril since its formation in 1967, Hart said, although his team was determined to find ways to survive. “It’s a difficult decision to stomach when you see the impact of what the grant was achieving.” AA

Alan Oke and Ángeles Blancas Gulin in The Makropulos Affair, staged by Welsh National Opera this winter.
Alan Oke and Ángeles Blancas Gulin in The Makropulos Affair, staged by Welsh National Opera this winter. Photograph: Richard Hubert-Smith

Welsh National Opera: ‘We don’t know how the gap is going to be filled’

“We were steeling ourselves for a cut, but not for one at this level,” says general director Aidan Lang.

The opera company is based in Cardiff and also receives funding from the Arts Council of Wales but works and tours widely in England, visiting Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Its annual ACE allowance has fallen by a third, to £4m.

“We are struggling to understand what the opera policy is at ACE with both ourselves and Glyndebourne Touring Opera being so heavily cut.” (Glyndebourne’s autumn tour, that travels to Milton Keynes, Canterbury, Norwich and Liverpool, has lost 50% of its funding. Glyndebourne’s main summer festival receives no public money.) “Obviously provision of opera to England is going to have to come down,” says Lang. “But we don’t know how that gap is going to be filled – if we don’t go to these cities who does?”

“The advantage of cross-border funding fundamentally is that both countries get the benefits of a full-time opera company at a proportion of the actual cost. It’s all very well just taking the money out of England but it’s not quite as straightforward as reducing the proportionate number of performances we give in England,” he says. Welsh National Opera is the biggest arts employer in Wales and the cut will have far-reaching effects, he points out. Last year, the company provided 417 freelance jobs in addition to a company of 235 permanent members.

The company’s activities extend far beyond staging opera. Family concerts, visits to care homes and schools in Wales and England, a long-standing dementia choir and a long-Covid project, plus work with refugee centres in Cardiff and in Birmingham are among the projects Lang highlights. “We were well on our way to migrating our Birmingham hub to the Black Country,” he adds, “creating a localised presence that enables us to deliver engagement projects and become involved with local practitioners, really embedding the company in the community.”

The Black Country was identified by ACE as an “underserved priority place” – somewhere with less cultural provision, and yet Lang is no longer able to say if the company will be able to tour there, and “if we’re not going to take opera to the West Midlands, there’s little point having a hub there without the singers and chorus and technicians to support the work”.

Lang has been working in opera for more than 40 years. “I’ve never met anybody who, when asked why did you come into the profession, hasn’t said: ‘I was inspired by a performance I saw.’ You take those performances away, you’re losing that source of inspiration.” IT

Sara Hazemi, Samuel Tracy and Princess Khumalo in Paines Plough’s 2022 production Half-Empty Glasses.
Sara Hazemi, Samuel Tracy and Princess Khumalo in Paines Plough’s 2022 production Half-Empty Glasses. Photograph: David Monteith-Hodge

Paines Plough: ‘Navigating scary times’

In line with the government’s levelling up agenda, ACE introduced a transfer programme to provide funding for organisations to relocate outside London. There are 24 recipients including National Youth Jazz Collective, circus outfit Upswing and the theatre company Paines Plough.

Founded in 1974, Paines Plough has been run by Charlotte Bennett and Katie Posner since 2019. On Friday, the pair tweeted: “Can’t wait to discover where our new home will be.” A small organisation with a mighty output and reputation, Paines Plough tours productions around the UK with its portable auditorium Roundabout. “We’re a national company, we exist to serve communities across the UK,” said Bennett. “Our registered address is in London. But we’ve never really thought of ourselves as a London company.”

Opting into the transfer programme “felt like a no-brainer” and the pair now have two years to decide where Paines Plough will be based. Its annual ACE funding will remain the same (£321,427, about a third of its annual turnover) in the new investment period. They have additional support from trust, foundation and charity grants, and they say they feel galvanised, privileged and lucky, but standstill funding does represent a real-terms cut. While the company doesn’t have the unremitting day-to-day cost of operating a permanent venue, the Roundabout is expensive to tour; petrol and hire costs have dramatically increased. They are “navigating scary times” says Posner, adding: “It’s great that we have this opportunity but horrible to see all the other companies that haven’t been successful.”

Developing new playwrights is the company’s mission and some of the other theatres devoted to new writing fared badly in Friday’s announcement: Hampstead theatre and the Gate in London both received 100% cuts. The company Papatango had an unsuccessful bid as a new NPO applicant. Stockroom, who share an office space with Paines Plough, have been cut from the NPO. Both Bennett and Posner point out that there are now questions about the value placed by ACE on new writing in the theatre ecology.

While shifting to their new business model, Paines Plough will continue to focus on writer development on a national basis, building a community of writers, running the Women’s Prize for Playwriting and producing plays – although there will be slightly fewer of them.

Their understanding is that there will be some funding to support consultancy regarding their relocation. Informally, they have discussed their situation with other companies set to move, such as Headlong, and they expect ACE to join up conversations between all those in the transfer programme to explore which regions they will call home. After all: “What if everyone wants to move to the same place?” CW


Arifa Akbar, Imogen Tilden and Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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