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UK industry lambasts Arts Council over venue funding

The arts quango has been accused of ignoring live music after allocating less than 1% of its total budget through 2022 to popular music venues

By Jon Chapple on 11 Aug 2017

Sage Gateshead, Newcastle, Intangible Arts, Arts Council England

Sage Gateshead: The recipient of half of ACE's music funding from 2018–22

image © Intangible Arts

Arts Council England (ACE) has insisted there is no culture of elitism at the organisation, telling IQ it is ready to work with more of the country’s embattled small venues – despite allocating just 0.06% of its total funding to popular music venues in its latest round of grants.

The announcement of ACE’s latest funding priorities come at a critical time for the UK’s small venues. Despite some signs of improvement in the health of the sector over the past 18 months, especially in London, many independent venues are still struggling to survive, and UK Music’s most recent Wish You Were Here report showed a 13% drop in direct spending at music venues with a capacity of under 1,500 in 2016.

In spite of these challenges, ACE has chosen not to fund a single new music venue over the next four years – a decision ATC Live MD Alex Bruford says will only perpetuate the poor quality of UK venues relative to continental Europe.

“As an agent booking artists into venues across the UK and Europe, the difference in funding and support for contemporary music has always been stark,” he explains. “Musicians expect to go into venues in countries like the Netherlands or Denmark and find vibrant, well-supported establishments, with the latest production equipment and artist facilities – as well as a primary focus on creating an excellent experience for the audience and making the venue an important pillar of the local community.

“The lack of contemporary music funding in the UK has never been more apparent than it is now. So many of the venues just cannot afford to provide the experience, equipment or hospitality they would like to, or have just gone altogether…”

“These venues are an integral part of towns’ and cities’ identities, and it’s almost criminal to not help them survive”

Of the £1.6 billion in public money that makes up ACE’s ‘National Portfolio’ of funding for 2018–2022, announced earlier this summer, around 13% – £368 million over four years – is allocated to the music industry.

There remains, however, a vast discrepancy between the amount of money given to ‘high’ culture and contemporary music, with roughly 85% of that £368m allotted for the former sector – 62% for opera and 23% for classical music – and just 7% for the latter. (The remaining 8% is split between ‘mixed’ musical programming, world music, jazz, folk music, brass bands and several other music-industry nonprofits.)

Of the £28m set aside for contemporary music by ACE in 2018–22, £5m is being put towards music education, with a further £2.5m given to festivals and promoters and £1.5m to recording studios. The only two venues with contemporary music as their main programming being funded by ACE are Band on the Wall (340-cap.) in Manchester and Café Oto (200-cap.) in London, both of which also received National Portfolio funding in 2015–18. (London’s Roundhouse received £3.8m, but is defined as ‘combined arts’.)

Almost unbelievably, half the entire 2018–22 contemporary music budget – £14m, or £9,622 per day – has been awarded to one venue: Sage Gateshead, a mixed contemporary/classical music venue and centre for music education in the north-east of England, operated by the charity North Music Trust.

This, says an ACE spokesperson, is testament to Sage Gateshead’s status as “one of the leading music venues in the country”, renowned for “the range and quality of its programme, which includes jazz, classical and world music”.

The organisation adds that it receives “relatively few requests for direct support” for music venues, but always welcomes “applications from venues looking to develop their artistic output, develop new audiences or to build touring networks for diverse and/or emerging artists”.

“This is about the fabric of our society and the opportunities we want future generations to have”

While ACE may not receive much in the way of correspondence from individual venues, it did, however, receive three separate requests for funding from Music Venue Trust (MVT), whose Music Venues Alliance association represents grassroots music venues (GMVs) across the UK.

Beverley Whitrick, the charity’s strategic director, says ACE encouraged MVT to submit an application to its Strategic Touring fund, which was turned down. She says she “wasn’t that surprised” when the request was denied, as “arts funding is hugely competitive”. “Local authorities used to have money to invest in arts,” she explains. “Now they can barely cover statutory funding.”

MVT was then encouraged to apply for a Small Capital Grant, then for National Portfolio funding as a sector support organisation (SSO), both of which were also ultimately unsuccessful.

MVT’s unsuccessful applications were the culmination of three years of discussions with ACE – three years, Whitrick says, the charity could have put to better use “courting other [potential] funders”.

Whitrick admits that it’s “impossible to support everything”, but says she feels led on by ACE: “If you actively solicit applications, there’s a real tension there,” she continues. “We are an SSO – it’s defined as an organisation whose role is to support a particular sector of the arts – but by not getting the funding it means we’re not recognised as such. It means ACE says we’re less deserving of that funding that other organisations who do other roles…”

Arts Council England’s inaction on the plight of grassroots music venues contrasts with the message from its deputy chief executive of places and engagement, Laura Dyer, at MVT’s Venues Day 2016, when she called venues “an important part” of making the ACE’s vision of “great art and culture for everyone” a reality. “Let’s keep talking and working together; we won’t always agree, but I honestly believe we are making progress,” she told delegates.

“ACE is not funding anyone in the grassroots music venue sector to do any of the work they have already accepted is needed to safeguard it”

There were similar sentiments from ACE’s area director for London, Joyce Wilson, at Venues Day in 2015. She admitted only a “relatively small” number of music venues attracted funding, but suggested the fault lie with the venues: “Not many of you do apply to the Arts Council,” she said. “It’s really hard to support you if you don’t come and talk to us.”

Sam Tucker of independent promoter/agency CloseUp Promotions is critical of “Joyce Wilson’s lazy excuses” and says the decision to “not fairly divide the funding between various genres, venues and promoters” has the potential to be “catastrophic in the long term”.

“Small venues are becoming less and less common,” he explains. “Often these venues are an integral part of towns’ and cities’ identities, and it’s almost criminal to not help them survive in increasingly difficult and uncertain financial times.”

Commenting on MVT’s latest bids for funding, an ACE spokesperson denied the council had solicited the applications – and suggested their lack of success stemmed from an insufficiently strong case. “We’ve had a positive conversations with Music Venue Trust over the years, and they have received funding for the first Venues Day, Music Venues Alliance, the Music Venues Alliance regional meetings and as part of the Catalyst: Evolve fund in July 2016,” the spokesperson says.

“We don’t solicit applications. However, we do try to be supportive when applications are being made, but we are not able to fund applications that aren’t strong.”

For Whitrick, this explanation doesn’t hold water when “funding that should have gone to our sector continues to go to opera, classical music, ballet… I don’t want want to see anyone de-funded – but I’d like a share of it for us.”

“I don’t want want to see anyone de-funded – but I’d like a share of it for us”

ACE’s National Council, which has final sign-off on any funding decisions, has only one member who has ever worked in the (popular) music industry (Universal Music UK’s David Joseph). ACE declined to comment on the make-up of the National Council or any potential review of its membership.

Kilimanjaro Live CEO Stuart Galbraith says, “looking at the facts”, it’s evident that there is a disconnect between the music industry and ACE. He calls for “much more dialogue between the venues and the Arts Council”.

The next window for SSO funding is 2022. “I can’t even imagine how many venues will close in the next four years,” continues Whitrick. “The 100 Club [in London] almost closed [in June] until we interceded with Westminster Council. Last time it was saved by Paul McCartney and Converse, this time it was Fred Perry and us; who will it be next time?

“‘This is not a priority’: that’s the phrase that needs challenging. When is it it a priority?”

Whitrick says ACE has not set out to deliberately cripple small venues, “but they are not funding anyone in the grassroots music venue sector to do any of the work they have already accepted is needed to safeguard it.”

“We need young people to want to go to venues, work in venues, and perform music in venues,” adds Bruford. “Music is an important creative outlet for so many young people. It’s positive use of their time and energy and really aids development.

“Yes, without the venues we won’t create the superstars of the future – but it is about so much more than just that. It is about the fabric of our society and the opportunities we want future generations to have.”


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