‘It’s undoubtedly going to have a big impact’: inside three Arts Council funding cases

In our final set of case studies exploring the impact of Arts Council England’s new funding round, we speak to Ballet Black, Disability Arts Online and Camden Art Centre

Ballet Black: ‘A seal of approval’

Ballet Black, which nurtures the talents of Black and Asian dancers who have been historically underrepresented in classical ballet, saw its annual grant almost double to £424,000. Artistic director Cassa Pancho, who founded the company in 2001, said continued Arts Council England (ACE) support gives Ballet Black a formal “seal of approval”.

The company became part of the national portfolio of funded organisations in 2018. “For the first 17 years, we had to explain why we weren’t getting regular government funding to other funders and private donors,” said Pancho. “So, after years of proving what a good company we were, it felt like the right decision to receive that money.”

The increased funding will enable the company to commission work and reach new destinations across the country. “Touring is a big part of our income and our purpose for being,” said Pancho, “but that all got wiped out by Covid so we’re in the rebuilding stage.” Pre-pandemic, the dancers performed up to 35 shows a year across the UK and Europe, platforming the work of choreographers from around the world. “Every now and then we would miss out on great choreographers because the financial restraints were too great,” she said. The extra funding “will give us more breadth of programming. I’ll be able to commission from the wishlist as well as up-and-coming choreographers.”

Supporting and mentoring young dancers is at the forefront of Pancho’s work. The company can now afford to hire two more dancers and new staff. “The goal for Ballet Black is to see more Black and Asian people in positions of power – decision makers, gatekeepers, funders and directors. When that changes, the ballet world will start to look very different … but you can’t put young dancers in those positions until they’ve had experience and been mentored and had time to go out and learn.”

Ballet Black plans to open a new branch in east London with the money, as well as continuing to reach new audiences outside theatres – such as online and on TV. During the national lockdown, the company created films, shown on Channel 4 and the BBC. “If someone misses you in their town, they’ve got to wait a whole year until you come back again,” she explained. “So if they could see you on the TV it would be amazing.” MB

Disability Arts Online: ‘A step in the right direction’

‘Making the case for disabled artists’ … Trish Wheatley, CEO, Disability Arts Online.
‘Making the case for disabled artists’ … Trish Wheatley, CEO, Disability Arts Online. Photograph: -

“Having that really important backing of multi-year funding is so crucial for us to do more work,” says Trish Wheatley, CEO of Disability Arts Online, whose funding has increased from £101,840 to £146,492 per year.

Disability Arts Online is a digital content producer who have nurtured and platformed disabled creatives through critique, debate, partnership projects and career development opportunities for 18 years. The extra funding means they can increase a communications manager job to a full-time role and hire a disabled lead curator for a new online gallery space. They will also be commissioning more individual disabled artists to share their work in this gallery.

“To have that commissioning money there to support artists to showcase their work online to audiences and the rest of the visual arts sector is a really important step in being able to make the case for work by disabled artists,” says Wheatley.

Disabled people often face barriers in the arts world, and this funding will help the organisation in supporting creatives at all levels, including those starting out. The online gallery will also increase their impact, Wheatley says, so people can understand the nuanced stories that come from disabled people’s lived experience, and for a more universal understanding of what it is to be in the world.

While Wheatley is happy the latest round of funding has supported several disability arts organisations, there are still challenges. “I’m really excited for disability arts organisations, but that’s a measured excitement,” says Wheatley. “If you look at the data in the equality impact assessment the Arts Council did, we’re still lagging behind any other injection of money into other protected characteristics. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s more work to do.”

Disability Arts Online became a National Portfolio Organisation in 2018, and Wheatley says their profile rose massively because of that. “I’m really excited to see some of the newer organisations in the portfolio,” she says. For both these new additions and Disability Arts Online, the funding “is undoubtedly going to have a big impact.” CB

‘We’ve nurtured some key artists’ … Camden Art Centre.
‘We’ve nurtured some key artists’ … Camden Art Centre. Photograph: Max Colson

Camden Art Centre: ‘We don’t expect to be able to replace that money’

The staff of Camden Art Centre discovered that their funding had been cut from £936,595 to £600,000 – a reduction of over a third. “We were shocked by the size of the cut,” said director Martin Clark. He says that the gallery’s programme of regular art classes alongside exhibitions had received glowing feedback from ACE, and their outreach programmes had included collaborations with local homeless and refugee shelters and food banks.

Clark points out that ACE was ordered by the government not only to redistribute funding from London to the regions, but to move money from inner London to the outer boroughs. The result, he believes, is that Camden Art Centre, which “is in Camden, a borough that is perceived as getting a lot of investment, and on the edge of Hampstead, a very wealthy area,” was targeted for cuts.

In fact, Camden Art Centre is towards the top of Finchley Road, where few tourists ever tread. “We work hard to get audiences because there’s no passing trade, and all the work we do is targeted half a mile up the road in Brent, which is one of ACE’s priority boroughs,” Clark said. “We work with partners in Brent on one of the longest-running disability visual arts programmes in the country, but because it happens just over the border at Camden Art Centre, none of that counts.”

Clark also feels that Camden Art Centre’s pedigree in developing artists was overlooked. “We show artists before they have these massive shows – Kara Walker five years before the Turbine Hall, [Turner prize nominee] Veronica Ryan had a residency, and five of the artists in the Hayward’s Strange Clay exhibition did residencies here. That’s the bit that’s not measured properly in these processes. It’s on feet through the door, not the value for money we give to the sector in terms of talent nurture.”

Now, he said, the gallery will have to grapple with the reality of its drastic drop in income. Clark said that he is committed to its community outreach programmes, and that he is ready for a fundraising drive. “But we don’t expect to be able to replace that £340,000 a year plus all the extra money we were having to find just to stand still” – with the increased costs of running the building amid the cost-of-living crisis. “We’re going to have to make changes and sadly it will involve doing less.” AN


Mabel Banfield-Nwachi, Caroline Butterwick and Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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