Treading Water: What Can the Welsh Arts Scene Do To Survive Brexit?

Treading Water: What Can the Welsh Arts Scene Do To Survive Brexit?

Caragh Medlicott asks what the future holds for arts funding in Wales, and what options are on the table for SME arts companies as Brexit looms.

It seems appropriate to focus on the underfunding of the arts with Lent upon us. The Christian observance marks the giving up of the wasteful and the indulgent – two words which are not unfamiliar with the rationalisation of on-going cuts to cultural activity. At times of boom the sector gets a raw deal, and at times of bust, smaller non-profits will find their heads under water more often than above it.

With Brexit on the horizon, the outlook is grim for the future of public funding to the arts. When the axe of austerity swings it falls most brutally on the areas of the economy perceived as unnecessary. Exiting the EU means hundreds of millions of pounds designated to community uplift will be lost; the question remains how this will be made up. The Welsh Government looks nervously to Westminster for answers, but the responses are vague and non-committal. The tightening of the purse strings will only continue with the Conservatives in Downing Street, especially with the imminent hit to public finances that looming Brexit will bring.

So, how to make up the shortfall? The Assembly’s culture committee is preparing a report after gathering evidence on non-public funding for the arts. It’s a challenge across the UK, but looks bleakest in Wales dues to its economic make-up; SMEs dominate the landscape, with Admiral the only FTSE 100 company based in Wales. The lack of big corporations means there are not enough companies to put significant financial clout behind local arts organisations as part of their ‘social obligation’. Wales is the poorest nation in the UK in terms of GVA, with few wealthy individuals; drawing philanthropic support is daunting in such a climate.

There are several trusts and foundations that welcome applications for funding from arts organisations across the UK. However, they are London-centric, and more likely to offer funding to projects that draw media interest. Such trusts have bemoaned the lack of quality in applications coming from Wales. It is a vicious cycle.

The bite of public funding cuts is not confined to the UK. Stateside, the Trump administration have unveiled plans to cut back spending on the National Endowment for the Arts from 150 million dollars to 29 million, with the long-term plan to phase out the body all together. The NEA is the US equivalent of our own Arts Council and distributes funding to arts organisations all over the States. While this is an ostensible disaster for US arts firms, their culture relies more heavily on private funding meaning American companies are nowhere near as dependent on state money. Both individual and corporate giving is incentivised – mimicking this system could help secure and sustain income for the arts in Wales.

The Arts Council of Wales has stressed their commitment to achieving this culture change. The organisation has developed a resilience programme to offer support and guidance to 67 arts companies that it currently distributes funding to. This programme does what it says on the tin; increasing the resilience of companies by cultivating their capacity for self-generated income.

Arts & Business Cymru is another potential lifeline for organisations struggling to make ends meet. The charity provides advice and services across Wales with aims akin to the resilience programme. A&B Cymru formed in 2011 after becoming independent from its parent UK body, which was subsequently absorbed by Business in the Community in England. The effect has been felt across the border, with BiTC no longer providing funding for any arts projects. The Welsh arm has made a success of its independence, reducing its reliance on public funding from 83% to 27% since its inception. After initial uncertainties over support, A&B Cymru have secured two years of funding from the Arts Council on the condition it becomes self-sufficient by the end of that period.

There has been considerable discussion about the potential for university alumni departments to share models of best practice with arts fundraisers. The system used by alumni offices harbours potential to encourage donations when applied to the arts sector. Universities across the UK have heavily invested in alumni fundraising teams which seek to foster a sense of community amongst former students. Alumni are moved through tiered stages of giving back to their institution: volunteering, offering resources, gifting philanthropically and ultimately leaving a legacy in their will. By creating a similar cyclical pattern within arts communities, firms may be able to keep a small, but steady flow of income through the turnover of its audience and active members.

The UK Government has been keen to promote the advantages of innovative investment techniques such as Social Impact Bonds. Such schemes have been touted as potential money spinners for arts organisations, while also helping local communities. Though it is often overlooked, the arts sector offer multiple societal benefits; given the success of the Welsh Government’s Fusion programme and the Creative Learning Through the Arts initiative, there is plainly an appetite within the Welsh arts scene to make a difference to society. Harnessing this could have a two-fold impact of sustaining the arts and demonstrating the social advantages of an active arts scene.

Sad though it may be, saving the entirety of the Welsh arts sector may be an impossible feat. Still, if firms are able to diversify their income streams there should be extra room in the lifeboat. It is key that the recommendations made in the committee’s final report are actioned as fast as possible. Of course, in an ideal world, an alternative to public funding would not be needed, but whilst austerity reigns and Brexit negotiations continue we need to deal with the situation at hand. Tackling the problem means addressing the problem, which is something we are at last starting to do. It’s a bad time for the Welsh arts, but the committee’s report marks steps towards a solution.