Welsh Arts Organisations Must Hold Their Nerve

Michelle Wright examines the lie of the land for arts organisations in the UK during the Covid-19 lockdown and explains why she thinks Welsh arts organisation must hold their nerve.

With Covid-19 lock down measures and the shutdown of cultural venues, it is organisations that fought hard to develop income models without relying on statutory or trust fundraising that are the hardest hit. Venues like The Gate Arts Centre, Cardiff, which is justly proud of its 88% income from box office, will struggle to sustain itself without people coming through the door.

Many of the 30,000 charities in England and Wales make money from a range of sources – from ticket sales, to participation in education programmes, to investments and endowments, or renting buildings – but right now, every one of these income streams has been shut off simultaneously.

Emergency grants from the likes of Arts Council England or the £7 million rescue package recently announced by The Arts Council of Wales will be competitively sought after. Those charities with earned income strategies need to hold their nerve and to innovate accordingly.

The sense of uncertainty is crippling. If we look at previous big shocks to the global economy, like the terrorist attacks in 2001 or the global recession in 2008, we see that the arts can bounce back relatively quickly. We can expect, as is starting to be the case in China, that the arts organisations that survive the lockdown will see some sort of quick upturn when the public can return. However, we also have to be mindful that philanthropy to the arts in general has been on a downward trajectory for a number of years.

So, what does this mean for how arts organisations approach their future fundraising strategies?

Private sector income is likely to take a substantial hit for the longer term. Many grant funders are deploying a range of measures to support the current emergency and to get organisations through the short term. This is essential, but it will come with a series of trade-offs in the future. Trusts Investments will be reduced as many will have over-spent on their strategies. The competition for funds will be even more intensive, especially as mainstream charitable organisations will arguably be all the more desperate for funds, as they don’t have a benign central funder like Arts Council England to support them during tough times.

Funding from individuals is likely to be similarly affected. Donors will start to feel the true impact of falling investments, rising taxes, unexpected illness and redundancy.

And, likewise, fundraising from corporates will be hard to secure. There will be few winners in the business community after Covid-19. The headspace for charitable donations or sponsorships is likely to be sparse for several years to come.

So this is where, if they can survive the brutal onslaught of the current situation, arts organisations must bring their marketing and fundraising strategies firmly together, and treat audiences and donors as one.

Of course, it’s likely that disposable income will be tight. However, after such restrictive lock down measures, many people will want to return to doing some of the things they previously enjoyed and, as such, our cultural venues are likely to benefit relatively quickly.

It’s time for a refreshed fundraising strategy:

  1. The world will be different – at a time of crisis, going back to basics, focusing on purpose and reviewing strategy is essential. Arts organisations will need to concentrate on the core and discard the non-essential – many strategies will need to be rebuilt from scratch. Over-stretching business plans, non-core activity and a suite of programmes that have no demonstrable value will have to go. Boards and CEOs will need to be ruthless – the money won’t be there, and the public will have no time for style over substance.


  1. Hold your nerve – diversified income streams will prevail (eventually) – audiences will return but with different expectations. Organisations need to look at business models with a razor-sharp sense of risk and make sure that balance is at the heart of funding streams. We expect (and hope) that this pandemic will be a once in a life-time occurrence and therefore the general premise of spreading risks will see organisations with sensible and diversified income streams prevail, even if they will need to be patient about their general recovery.


  1. Digital will be vital – virtual organisations will now come to the fore. Until now there have really only been tentative moves to online engagement, streaming performances and online museum tours. Some are moving quickly to provide access to Welsh art. National Theatre Wales is partnering with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre on an initiative re-imagine live performance during lockdown. It’s a welcome distraction for people who are self-isolating, but the arts organisations do need to find ways to monetise their digital efforts. The economic models will need time to evolve. Bigger organisations with good archives will have first mover advantage, but many will need to follow. Attendance at live events has been falling for years. With the Covid-19 inspired move towards online engagement, it could be that audience consumption habits will change for good.


  1. Buildings may prove a cross too much to bear – of course, many arts organisations and museums rely on buildings and the venue is at the heart of their delivery. Where strategies may need to change is in relation to the vanity capital acquisition that makes no real long-term sense. For reasons of appetite, finance and environmental concerns, we will all need to be far more mindful of our buildings’ footprint – poorly thought through acquisitions will make lean and flexible business models impossible to implement.


  1. Marketeers and Fundraising teams need to work together urgently – often marketing teams and fundraising teams have seemed at odds, siloed and fractious, fighting for scarce budgets and with cultures and activities unaligned. This is going to need to change immediately. With the fundraising curve likely to be very challenging in the coming months, the two teams must urgently respond to the bounce back of audiences and their differing needs. Organisations will need to carefully curate engagement programmes and to cherish audiences and donors, from the first-time online attender to long-term donors. Charitable status, community relevance and the value of a ticket and subsidy will need to be clear and front of mind. With the social and economic shock of Covid-19 likely to have an impact for the next decade, the arts is going to need to make its case for value harder than ever before, with compelling stories to match.


The aftermath of Covid-19 will be the greatest challenge for generations – it’s essential that arts organisations with sound business models hold their nerve, and any point scoring between marketing and fundraising teams becomes a thing of the past.


Michelle Wright is founder and CEO of Cause4