‘An acutely difficult time’: companies respond to Arts Council funding decisions

In our third set of case studies exploring the impact of Arts Council England’s new funding round, we hear from Eclipse in Leeds, Oldham Coliseum and Hexham’s Bloodaxe Books

Eclipse: ‘This is a really precarious moment’

Eclipse, a black-led touring company based in Leeds, is still digesting the news that its annual grant from Arts Council England will more than double to £563,474. “We’re relieved, and grateful for the support in the current climate,” said Lekan Lawal, Eclipse’s artistic director. “But we’re also very aware of the impact of the news [of the 2023-26 settlement] on a lot of friends and collaborators and the communities they serve. So it’s a bittersweet situation, and we’re still trying to work out what the ramifications are.”

Eclipse has been receiving funding from ACE since 2011, and applied for a big increase in its grant in this round. “It was a very competitive process, and took a huge amount of work to get it across the line,” said Lawal. ACE received 1,700 applications for funding this time, compared with 1,100 in the previous round five years ago.

The theatre company’s mission is “to create new work using the insights and experiences of Black British people of African and Caribbean backgrounds and those of us who are also marginalised for our race”.

It is one of the UK’s most innovative touring and producing companies, Lawal said. “We work on both a hyper-local and national level, working with new talent and developing new artists.” Eclipse also invests in building audiences and communities. “As a touring company, we’re keen not to parachute into a community without any context. We want our audiences to represent the breadth of the local community.”

Lawal joined Eclipse at the beginning of this year. “It has an ethos and a vision that is really dynamic, and has had a huge impact over the years.” The increased funding will “allow us to be a bit more strategic in our thinking, in partnering with other organisations around the country and supporting communities and audiences”, he said.

But, he added, “this is a really precarious moment in the sector generally. The ACE settlement represents another moment in an acutely difficult time”. HS

Oldham Coliseum.
Oldham Coliseum has lost all its ACE funding. Photograph: -

Oldham Coliseum: ‘Shock felt throughout the building’

Panto season has already started at Oldham Coliseum but this year it’s been disrupted by what artistic director Chris Lawson calls a “massive shock felt throughout the building”. The theatre has received a 100% cut to its ACE funding after decades of support. It applied for £615,182 a year over three years, totalling £1,845,546, but was unsuccessful and is no longer a National Portfolio Organisation.

They never took the funding for granted and understand the pressures ACE faces, said Lawson, but the Coliseum’s current business model relied on this funding and ACE had recently been positive about their artistic work and their outreach programme. The theatre is currently left with more questions than answers about its situation.

Oldham is a priority place for the government’s Levelling Up fund; local participatory arts organisation Peshkar had a £30,000 ACE increase and Oldham’s visual arts charity Portraits of Recovery became a new NPO in this round. “We’re in a town where we feel we’re particularly needed,” said Lawson. The Coliseum is one of the north-west’s major employers of the theatrical workforce and also runs artist development schemes and learning opportunities – both areas that are often cut in a crisis but “we need to hold on to those” he said. “They keep us connected with people.” There isn’t another theatre of comparable scale and vision in the town.

The Coliseum dates back to 1885 and is the last surviving professional theatre in the borough and one of only 32 regularly producing theatres in England. “We’re in a building that is coming towards the end of its life” said Lawson, who has been artistic director for three years. A new theatre is planned and the council has been vocal in its support for the project. One key financial strategy in the future may be co-producing shows with other regional theatres but Lawson is quick to add that those co-productions would fit with the Coliseum’s particular purpose and vision rather than be for the sake of saving money. For now, it’s on with the panto – and try not to let the shock news “take the shine off what we do”. CW

Neil Astley said he was both delighted and surprised by the increase in Arts Council funding.
Neil Astley said he was both delighted and surprised by the increase in Arts Council funding. Photograph: Pamela Robertson-Pearce

Bloodaxe Books: ‘Everyone thought they would be lucky to get any uplift’

Northumberland-based Bloodaxe Books will receive an increased amount of funding, along with publishers Comma Press and Dedalus Press. It has been on standstill funding for 10 years, but this year saw an increase from £93,725 to £110,000, partly because of “the number of diversity-related projects” it has planned, according to Bloodaxe’s founder and editor Neil Astley. These projects – the James Berry poetry prize, which awards three unpublished poets of colour £1,000, mentoring and a debut collection published by Bloodaxe; and a series of “inclusive or international” anthologies – would “definitely not” have been possible without the increased funding, Astley said.

One of the planned anthologies, Mapping the Future, is by the Complete Works Poets, a collective of 30 writers that began as a mentoring scheme for Black and Asian poets set up by Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo and ACE – “a scheme that brought poets like Warsan Shire to light”, Astley said. Mapping the Future will feature new work by all 30 writers, which include Shire, Raymond Antrobus, Mona Arshi, Roger Robinson, Inua Ellams, Kayo Chingonyi and Jay Bernard.

“We have been at the forefront of publishing poets of colour for many years,” the editor said. “This is a further move into that whole area, in terms of helping the poets at an earlier stage and creating connections between here and other countries.”

Astley is “delighted” to have been granted more money, and slightly surprised. “Given the economic situation, I think everyone thought they would be lucky to get any uplift”, he said. He thinks the publisher has “clearly benefited” from the ACE’s move to shift investment away from London, being based in Hexham.

Literature appears to have done reasonably well out of the most recent round of funding; £7,583,866 was awarded in 2018-19 compared with this year’s £16,027,669. Astley thinks this is because “literature gets very little compared with lots of the other areas, so in a sense, they didn’t have to do much just to keep things going”. LK


Harriet Sherwood, Chris Wiegand and Lucy Knight

The GuardianTramp

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