On Wednesday January 11th, Portsmouth Writer Hub at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth was visited by John Prebble, from the Arts Council South East, to talk about that “strange, confusing beast” (as one writer put it) – Arts Council Funding .
From the outset, the context John set to his talk was businesslike and down to earth. He pointed out that his job title was “Relationship Manager, Literature”, that the only other “Relationship Manager” he knew of was involved in banking, and, just like in banking, there would be a lot of form-filling before money was released.
Even his remit, “Great Art For Everyone”, was a slogan that would fit nicely on a mug, he said, cupping an imaginary one in his hands and holding it for all to “see”. With this idea of merchandise pervading his thinking, it was no surprise to hear the word “product” to describe the outcome of the work – even if he did use it a little tentatively lest he might offend the artists in the room.
John explained it was his job to get money to people with good ideas – but those good ideas had to be well-formed with a clear time-frame, ending point and outcome.
Although finance and business was implicit in the language he was using, John was explicit about what the funding was not for: “If you can afford to support your own writing project, you need not apply,” he said. A grant is not Working Tax Credit to top up your writing income. The money paid out by the Arts Council is to support projects that otherwise wouldn’t fly because the artist is short on time and/or money. So, in some ways it’s a bit like the old patronage system that 17th Century writers like Milton enjoyed.
John then went on to explain that there were four main criteria by which applications would be judged: Artistic Quality, Public Engagement, Management and Finance.
Looking at each of these in turn, the first is either vague and subjective or completely self-explanatory, depending on your perspective.
“I’m not saying that public art should be easy. But if it isn’t easy, it should at least be engaging.”
The second, “Public Engagement”, John explained, did not necessarily mean a numbers game. It might mean getting at a few people who would not normally be engaged by arts – and who would benefit from it. For example, a book of poetry is not going to get out to as many people as a popular play. This criterion is really there to require the writer to acknowledge that he or she has an audience and isn’t writing in a vacuum.
The third in the list, “Management”, really means showing a plan of how the project will be managed, and the fourth, Finance, requires the applicant to show where the money will be spent.
There are other things that the Art Council looks for in applications. Is the work innovative? Is it collaborative? (This was something that John recognised might not apply to writers) Does it have objective endorsement? What other funding streams does the project have – including the writer’s own input? Does the writer have a track record?
With all these considerations, we were taken back to the business paradigm. It is exactly these evaluations that an entrepreneur will make when backing a business idea. It was interesting to me to see this business-like attitude applied to the Arts, and, to be frank, quite refreshing.
“None of this otherworldliness emanated from John.”
Now I’m going to get on my hobby horse for two paragraphs, so bear with me. As someone who is at times suspicious of worthy arts projects, I have a nose for bullshit. For example, the Ultrasaurus, part of the Luna Park installation which graced Southsea Common in 2010 was a wonderful statue. However, it came with a great big pile of… well, I guess it was dinosaur shit… which comprised a badly executed plaque talking obliquely about a Serbian village. Struck by how this plaque had failed either to entertain or inform, I went looking for further information and ended up enduring the grindingly boring Luna Park video installation at Aspex Gallery. It was unwatchable, as the tumbleweed blowing across the room testified. I give that part of the project nul points for Public Engagement – unlike the statue, which was brill.
I’m not saying that public art should be easy. But if it isn’t easy, it should at least be engaging. The surrounding materials for Luna Park were, I would say, deliberately obscure in their presentation. It’s never eddifying to see a great idea disappearing up its own, albeit large, reptilian and muscular, back end. That project was Arts Council funded.
There, hobby horse now dismounted. None of this otherworldliness emanated from John. He was clear about the purpose of the grants the Arts Council gives out. His work is designed to support writers who would otherwise not be able to get their work produced. It is not his job to support commercial projects, but if one of the projects he supports is a commercial success, then that is good for everyone. For me, this was a really interesting evening.
The public art concept is not something I have considered before, and I won’t be rushing to fill in my form.
But it will be in the back of my mind should the context arise. Thank you Portsmouth Writer Hub.
For further information about Arts Council funding, go to: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/apply-for-funding/grants-for-the-arts/