‘We have £52 left’: the dire future for England’s small arts organisations

Nigel Price, owner of Shepperton Jazz Club in Spelthorne, Surrey

Of course it was disappointing not to be successful in this round of the cultural recovery fund (CRF). How could it not be? My venue is a small operation but has been utterly decimated by the impact of coronavirus.

Our club has £52 left in our business account for the future. I had sought help from other places before applying to Arts Council England, and found no help from the local council or the Music Venue Trust. It’s not that they didn’t want to help – because we are classified as a non-dedicated music venue we simply didn’t fit the criteria.

The minimum amount you could apply for in the CRF was £50,000. I didn’t need anywhere near that, but I didn’t know where else to turn; most of the venues I play in don’t need anything close to £50,000 either. We need, say, £5,000 or £6,000 – enough to see us through until this crazy situation is resolved and footfall returns.


Nigel Price.

Nigel Price

There used to be an organisation called Jazz Services, funded by the Arts Council, which dealt with these kind of sums of money and provided valuable advice and information to musicians and promoters. Their funding was cut in 2014 – since then, the only access to Arts Council funding is through submitting horrendously complicated forms in a highly competitive environment. A small jazz club promoter who decides to bite the bullet and fill in one of these things may unwittingly find themselves up against somebody who has been filling in Arts Council forms professionally for years … and they are very good at it.

The arts industry is about six times larger than the fishing industry, but without change I fear that the future of the arts in this country, especially for those less well off, will be in jeopardy. For even the chance of our rich cultural legacy to be passed on to future generations, irrespective of wealth, it is imperative that these venues stay open.

This is the first time there’s been a pot of Arts Council funding available for comedy to apply for. On the one hand, it’s great we have finally been able to apply for funding, but it’s just bittersweet we didn’t get it.

It’s devastating, actually. After a fantastic 26 years there is now very little light at the end of the tunnel. A legendary comedy club that is pivotal to the history of English humour [Peter Kay, Caroline Aherne, Steve Coogan and more all performed there] is now under threat for the sake of £60,000, when other venues without the legacy or cultural contribution can be awarded £1m.

If we had had the funding, we could have taken whatever the next six months threw at us – whether we had to close for a third time. It would have allowed us to go digital, move all our shows online and protect ourselves from future closures. So I’ve just got to take it month by month – if the curfew is lifted, I could put on late-night shows, which offsets our losses.


Johnny Vegas performing at the Frog and Bucket.

Johnny Vegas performing at the Frog and Bucket. Photograph: Carla Spreight

I did originally support a system for the arts similar to the eat out to help out scheme. I’m not so sure now, because when the initial talk of lockdown started everyone was blaming the restaurants. I don’t really want the arts to be in a position where everyone is encouraged to go, only for us to get blamed for a potential surge.

Towersey festival is 56 years old. It was started by my granddad, has always been family-run and has always been a commercially successful event. We’ve never had to borrow money, or ask the Arts Council or government for support. It sustains itself, and it contributes around £250,000 back into the local economy every year; it employs more than 300 freelancers annually.

We recognised we were going to struggle [with the pandemic]. We fought tooth and nail to get through this year, which we’ve had to cancel, obviously, and we’ve been incredibly creative with putting on online events by crowdfunding. Somehow we managed to scrape through this year financially and keep the spirit of the festival alive.

We’re delighted to see that the government announced some support for the cultural sector. We didn’t ask for a huge amount of money: £100,000, and every single similar event in our sector has been funded apart from us. We are absolutely mystified and gobsmacked. Unfortunately there is no right to appeal, and no information as to why we weren’t successful.

It makes me feel sick, because I’m the custodian of this historic event. I feel enormous responsibility and take pride in the fact that we’ve run it so successfully for so long, and to not be funded alongside all of our competitors is just a kick in the teeth. We’re trying to regroup and think how can we survive.

My axe to grind is not with those who did get funding, it’s with our government. The money is there to support the cultural sector: it’s a huge part of the economy of this country, and we should all be supported. Don’t let anyone tell you the money isn’t there. I feel like this process could have been done in a much fairer way that didn’t pit all of these cultural organisations against each other. We are now in this horrible situation where some have been successful and some haven’t, and actually the money could have been spread much more fairly.

This was our first bite of the cherry. So to be unsuccessful is going to create great uncertainty for our business. We were hopeful, and I believe we submitted a very good application. We are not bitter or resentful for the successful applicants, but we are disappointed.


Dani Hadley.

Dani Hadley. Photograph: Jas Sansi

Velvet Music Rooms is independent. We don’t have the financial support of a chain; I don’t have a dedicated team of fundraisers or bid writers. I know that we’re culturally significant, and we ticked all of the criteria. I do feel that we were disadvantaged from the outset, perhaps because we haven’t used this approach before, or our name isn’t familiar in the world of public funding.

We’re based on Broad Street, or as we call it, the Golden Mile – it certainly wasn’t golden in terms of funding. In the south of the UK, venues received over 60% of all funding allocated.

We put on in excess of 180 live performances a year, catering to an average of 5,000 audience members a week. Those performances cannot continue. Unless we get some more government support, the future doesn’t look very bright for us.

Arts funding

Joe Haycocks, owner of RSH Audio, a London-based sound company

We will have to rely on borrowing, leaving us with more debt when we have no clarity on when we can resume business. Decisions taken to make staff redundant are now definite, removing diversity and younger members from our team. Those staff that do remain are now on notice, and on significant cuts to their hours and incomes. All these things have caused immense stress and pressure.


Joe Haycocks of RSH Audio.

Joe Haycocks of RSH Audio. Photograph: Stephen Barter

I am of course really happy to see some amazing organisations receiving funding, those that genuinely take risks to bring unique events and projects to life. I am however deeply unhappy and angry about peers in the supply chain receiving large amounts of funding – I struggle to believe they couldn’t have borrowed like we are now forced to. Why not spread money between more businesses? And what measures were Arts Council England using to judge which similar businesses received funding?

The government have recently announced an extension of the furlough scheme for businesses that cannot open in local lockdown areas. I think these measures should be extended to businesses servicing events and nightlife, which also cannot operate at the moment due to the government restrictions, but which remain viable in the longer term.

Of course, the real priority is to push for more funding; the imbalance needs to be addressed. In the meantime I need to focus on my mental health, because this rejection has made things feel even more difficult.

Simon Lowe, director of The Panto Bus, Banbury

We have spent the last seven years offering touring pantomimes and production shows to various venues including theatres, schools, clubs, hotels, hospitals, care centres, military bases and communities all over the UK and abroad.

Many of our audience members are from underprivileged communities, many of whom, without our visits, would not have access to the arts and live theatre. Some simply cannot afford to take their families and communities to see a show, or engage in what many take for granted.

We secured a bounce-back loan in the hope it would help us through the pandemic, and keep going until we secured funding from the Arts Council. It was such a confusing process to apply [for Arts Council England funding]. There’s no way of ascertaining exactly what they want – you had to sort of stick a finger in the air and hope you were catching the wind in the right direction. We certainly couldn’t afford to pay someone professionally to come and do it for us – we don’t have that kind of money lying around.

Since we were unsuccessful in funding, we have had to work out how to pay the last of our bills and debts for the aborted 2020 festival. We owe advert revenue – among other production debts – to independent outlets whose work and support we value a great deal, and we are committed to finding a way to honour those invoices.

The fund was supposed to be for people at immediate risk. Five months after we had to postpone our festival, we remain very much still at risk and really without any support outside our network of friends.


A crowd at Sea Change festival.

A crowd at Sea Change festival. Photograph: Aubrey Simpson

The lack of understanding and value placed on arts is shocking and depressing. We had hoped that by working with bodies like Arts Council England they would be able to advise and inform us. It is undoubtedly an unenviable role in deciding that sort of financial allocation, but it feels like there is a lack of clarity in how these decisions have been made, and how some of the grants are going to benefit emerging arts, the most at-risk part of the arts industry.

On announcement [of the successful candidates], there was a whitewashing of agreed PR text and imagery to champion the Department for [Digital,] Culture, Media and Sport – there has been not a word about those who were “unsuccessful”. If they want to shine in the glory of giving out money, they need to own the responsibility of assisting everyone who applied. We have not received one word of advice or support in 2020 from any structure or body that should be supporting us. I can only imagine that such understanding will be shown when we stop paying the bills we can’t afford to pay.

We believe in the festival, whereas the government seems not to. We have always invested in our belief that arts remain vital, but for now, we feel totally abandoned.

The Guardian

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