Why should Arts Council England (ACE) give the English National Opera £18.5 million when I can’t get five grand?

Convener(s): Fionn 

Participants: Jenn Lunn, Ellan Parry, Robert Cook, David Betz Heinemann, Ed Jaspers, Phelim McD, Mark P, Alison M, Gill, Katherine Maxwell-Cook, Rebecca Maltby, Tom Atkins, Chris Wooton

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

What we arrived at:

  • We should produce a statement of these points to pass on to ACE.
  • We should offer a friendly, neutral and collaborative space for ACE to talk over these points. Maybe by inviting them to a future D&D. We mustn’t just lay in to them with criticism. We need to make it our
  • Do we, individually, have relationships with good ACE officers, or bad ACE officers whom we could invite next time?

How we got there:

  • Many of us have experienced problems when making applications. The process is off-putting, difficult, labyrinthine.

-     Are there deliberate disincentives built into the system? Do funding organizations set out to be either invisible or off-putting?

  • Could we get together to combine efforts when making applications? Could we establish a network of people to read each other’s apps and give advice? There are lots of people out there – e.g. producers and directors – who will give their advice.
  • Is it essential to find a producer to apply for you – particularly if we resent giving so much time to admin/production issues which draw our focus from the work? How do you find such a producer/funder, who presumably pays themselves ?

-           It is not allowed to budget and pay yourself for the time spent on preparing the application, though this may amount to several days/weeks of work. In fact, you can’t remunerate for any money spent or work in kind already done when applying. You have to put all that time and effort in for free, according to the ACE rules. And yet they ‘insist’ on you paying performers Equity minimum rates. So we have to make huge sacrifices in order to build this relationship.

-           Companies, in the experience of the group, routinely fudge the issue of Equity rates, often by spending longer in rehearsal than stated in the proposal, but paying the same. This isn’t necessarily a problem for performers if everyone agrees to it and no one is exploited.

  • Anecdotally, contact with ACE officers relating to applications has been of mixed usefulness. Some people had had reasonably positive and helpful encounters, others have found ACE to be less than helpful. Or, in one particular region, as though the officer ‘didn’t want to give too much away’.
  • BOX TICKING: Can’t I just tell ACE what I want to do? Can’t I just assemble the team who are best for the job?
  • IN DEFENCE OF ACE: Can it work any other way?

Isn’t ACE’s position impossible?

            How would you decide who to fund?

Isn’t it simply ‘oversubscribed’, like so many other aspects of the business?

  • How do you balance being honest and passionate with BOX TICKING?
  • Being passionate will get people interested. Structure will get you taken seriously.
  • You can talk to ACE on a general level, but you need to speak their language in the application. And translating into ACE language doesn’t necessarily change the meaning of what you are saying.
  • But, it was argued, changing the wording to make it ACE-friendly is a form of imposed self-censorship. We’re being asked to ‘conceive’ of your in a particular way. It’s a politicized form of control.
  • What seems of great importance is to build a lasting and evolving relationship with officers or with the ACE in general. Even/particularly if you don’t get the grant the first time around. You have to just dive in and start the relationship. Being turned down isn’t failure. Giving up might be.
  • US AND THEM: It is, in part, our fault that there is an ‘us and them’ antagonism here. We need to push ourselves to make the relationship work. As in many other places, it’s wrong that the people with the least power have to push hardest to create space for themselves. But it’s nonetheless the case.

-           It’s our responsibility en masse, to set the tone for the quality of our engagement with ACE. We can influence the process as has happened over the controversial funding cuts and after an open-space with National Theatre of Scotland which was attended by ACE officers.

  • We need to get good at presenting ourselves to the ACE. Be professional, confident, serious. If we hold ourselves in high regard, others will too. Just saying “pleeeeeeeease, I can’t do my play without you!!!!!” isn’t enough. We have to look long-term, show how we’ll develop creatively and take ACE on that journey with us.
  • Improbable have, over time, created space to work more freely. They no longer need to tick all the boxes. It would be harder to negotiate that freedom now. Nonetheless, we should negotiate to make the system more user-friendly.
  • Events like D&D give us the mandate to approach ACE with our views. ACE heard about the 1st D&D, took interest and now are funders of it. We can turn the ACE ship around. It’s not a sinking ship yet, it’s just big and takes time to turn.
  • It’s becoming increasingly rare for practitioners to have jobs with ACE. Now there are more ‘administrators’. The artists are leaving because they don’t want to work for the dark side.
  • The peer review process that is being introduced in funding assessments is very a positive step but ACE could do more to employ officers with experience of making work.

-     Should/could the system of <£5,000 grants be organized in a less fragmented way?

      Could there be regional ACE buildings with rehearsal/performance space?

      Could there be a pooled ACE lighting or props store?

      Could they give funding in kind? Norwegian Equity have a flat in Berlin which members can use…

-     Companies have in the past got together to fund joint projects or shared office space, money to develop connected work. Collaborative applications.

  • The ACE system indoctrinates companies in the conventional way of doing things: “This is how a theatre company raises money. This is how a theatre company spends money. This is what you must do.” Does this make the system self-perpetuating? Can we break out of it? 

Does anyone know why they get that much?

Yes: Phelim has worked there (and that alone is worth £18.5m, right?!). He says that it is extraordinary in its nature. Opera is a super-expensive art form for very many reasons.

There is general consensus that ENO are excellent in the standard of their work, including e.g. education and outreach and are the only opera company in the world producing that kind of work to an international standard.

Also, public funding protects them. The Royal Opera House, by contrast is left very much at financial risk during recession because so much of its funding is through endowment-based schemes.

  • Are they excellent because they get so much funding or vice-versa?

And could they achieve excellence without public funding? 

  • Phelim originally felt very us/them about the opera world. Would 15 years ago have been skeptical of its worth. Is it wrong that we in our careers should individually progress from little theatre companies on £5,000 grants to big, world-class organizations? Surely it’s not.