Thrilled, relieved, perplexed: three Arts Council funding verdicts

In our second set of case studies exploring the impact of Arts Council England’s new funding decisions, we hear from Balbir Singh Dance Company, Britten Sinfonia and Little Bulb

Balbir Singh Dance Company: ‘It allows the potential to be realised’

A significant increase in annual funding from £153,228 to £251,728 gives Balbir Singh “more mountains to climb, which is fantastic” said the choreographer and artistic director. His company will “continue to push and challenge ourselves, working outside our comfort zone”.

The government’s instruction to Arts Council England (ACE) to shift investment away from London has boosted Yorkshire, where Singh’s company is based (he lives in Bradford and the office is in Leeds). South Asian Arts-uk (SAA-uk) and Kala Sangam have also had a sizable uplift. “In one sense it’s seen as ‘levelling up’,” said Singh. “In another sense it is recognition that so much is happening here and allowing the potential to be realised.” It all adds momentum to Leeds’ year of culture in 2023 and Bradford’s role as UK City of Culture in 2025.

“The Arts Council has put more money into a more diverse leadership,” said Susan Burns, the company manager. “That’s good for everyone.” Singh’s company has grown considerably over recent years while its funding had stayed the same. Its relationship with ACE predates the National Portfolio Organisation – it was chosen as part of the preceding portfolio of Regularly Funded Organisations. Most of the funding will go towards “artists and artform delivery rather than a large backroom staff,” says Singh. His company is small and nimble, growing or shrinking depending on the slate of projects they have at any time. In a typical year they work with between 25 and 50 freelance artists. There will be no dramatic change in direction, according to Singh, rather they will use the extra resource to continue “more intelligently and effectively”.

What’s more, said Burns, “we’ll be able to meet all the requests we have from people to come and work with them”. This includes collaborating directly with communities and performing in surprising locations, such as parks, libraries, ice rinks and swimming pools. They tour nationally and internationally, and are involved in initiatives around the UK including working with health professionals on a project approaching chronic pain from a holistic arts perspective. “Recognition from the Arts Council is important for the people we work with as well,” points out Burns. “It validates them, too.” CW

Anoushka Shankar performs with the Britten Sinfonia in the Barbican Hall, London, in 2022.
Anoushka Shankar performs with the Britten Sinfonia in the Barbican Hall, London, in 2022. Photograph: Mark Allan

Britten Sinfonia: ‘We’re strong, resourceful and determined’

Britten Sinfonia, who have lost all their public funding, had been in the National Portfolio for over a decade. Some 25-30% of the chamber orchestra’s budget came from an ACE grant that amounted to £400,000 a year.

“While we never took the funding for granted, there were no prior red flags. We remain quite perplexed about the decision,” says chief executive and artistic director Meurig Bowen, who, when we speak, is yet to meet with the Arts Council to discuss the cut and its implications. “We understand the rationale and the political directive to level up out of London, but Britten Sinfonia are a complete anomaly with all of this – our story does not align in any way with that narrative.”

The critically acclaimed group, whose musicians are all employed as freelancers, is Cambridge-based and operates uniquely across the eastern region with residencies in Saffron Hall in north Essex, in Norwich and at London’s Barbican. There are regular performances at Snape Maltings and the Norfolk and Norwich festival, eight musicians are currently involved in a programme in a high security prison south of Peterborough and, early next year, there’s a tour of regional primary schools with a KS2 music and drama project. “This kind of thing is our core activity and very valued by us,” says Bowen.

He details a recent successful pilot which they are hoping to expand, a strand called Music on Your Doorstep. “We’re taking music to audiences rather than asking them to come to us,” says Bowen. “Much of the eastern region doesn’t have easy access to classical music – the roads are slow, and the public transport limited. The Music on Your Doorstep model is a venue takeover throughout the day – there’s a Pushchair Playlist for parents, carers and toddlers in the morning, interactive slots for school children in the afternoon, and then a short chamber performance from our front rank players in the evening.” They’ve taken this to market towns including Diss and Stowmarket and their 2023-26 funding application detailed plans to expand it to towns including Boston in Lincolnshire and Fenland between Ely and Peterborough.

But this kind of outreach work is labour intensive and expensive, requiring huge levels of on-the-ground promotion and enhanced event infrastructure. “The funding loss means that delivering this work is going to be very much more difficult as we’ll have to source a whole raft of additional funding from other sources. It’s devastating that this decision seems to be stopping us in our tracks.”

“It’s a bitter irony that two weeks ago we marked our 30th birthday with sold out concerts with Anoushka Shankar playing to 4,000 people over three nights in Norwich, Saffron Walden and London, and now as we propel ourselves into our fourth decade, we’ve been dealt this blow,” says Bowen. “But we’re strong, resourceful and determined.” IT

Squally Showers by Little Bulb at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013.
Squally Showers by Little Bulb at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Little Bulb: ‘We’re very excited but it’s bittersweet’

For 15 years, the team behind Little Bulb, a small touring company based in the south-west, has lived hand-to-mouth. No regular salaries have been paid, the company has no premises, and its productions have relied on commissions from better-resourced arts organisations.

But this month Little Bulb heard that its application to join ACE’s National Portfolio had been successful, and it will receive £240,000 a year for three years from April 2023.

“It’s a very big change for us,” said Alexander Scott, the company’s artistic director. “We have so many dreams and ambitions, but without regular funding it hasn’t always been possible to realise them.”

Little Bulb was set up by four friends at the University of Kent, whose collaboration Crocosmia won three awards at the Edinburgh fringe in 2008. Last year they won an Olivier award for their production of Wolf Witch Giant Fairy, a “wild folk opera of music, mischief and magic”, at the Royal Opera House. Their next production, opening at The Spring arts centre in Havant in December, is The Magic Library, an immersive performative installation involving wizards and flying books.

“Our shows always have music and are ensemble-based,” said Clare Beresford, administrative director. “We aim to be joyous. We want to reach people who don’t necessarily think theatre is for them.” The ACE funding was “transformational”, she said. “We are incredibly grateful and very excited.”

For the first time, they will pay themselves regularly and they hope to hire someone to deal with finances and administration. But the biggest boost was ACE’s confidence in Little Bulb as an arts organisation, they said.

“But we’re also sad for our friends and colleagues in other companies that didn’t get the funds they want and need,” said Scott. “It’s bittersweet.” HS


Chris Wiegand, Imogen Tilden and Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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